Bill Wyman on The Birth of the Rolling Stonesby Dennis Elsas
The former Stones bassist says it stemmed from Brian Jones’ love of the blues: ‘He created the band. It was his idea’
The group referred to as “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” is as busy as ever. In 2016, they toured Latin America, gave a historic performance in Cuba, were one of the six classic rock headliners at the Desert Trip concerts and on December 2 released their first all-blues album, Blue & Lonesome.
The Rolling Stones also mounted a career-spanning worldwide exhibit of memorabilia called Exhibitionism, which kicked off in March 2016 in London, moved to New York in November and will visit Chicago this spring and Sydney, Australia, in 2018, among other major cities.
Related: Exhibitionism coming to Chicago
On October 24, 2016, former Stones bassist Bill Wyman turned 80. Earlier in the year, he announced that he had prostate cancer though it doesn’t appear to have slowed him down. On October 28, he performed at an 80th birthday gala at Blues Fest in London with guests that included Robert Plant, Bob Geldof and Mark Knopfler.
Dennis Elsas is, as many Best Classic Bands readers know, one of the most respected album rock air personalities in the nation. From a quarter-century-plus stint as a DJ and music director at New York City’s legendary WNEW-FM to his endeavors today as afternoon drive host at the esteemed WFUV and weekend shifts on SiriusXM’s Classic Vinyl channel (26), and much more (see his bio below), he has earned the regard of listeners and artists alike. Dennis occasionally presents his Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets live multimedia show – a real treat that greater New York metro area rock fans should not miss.
Best Classic Bands is pleased to be publishing excerpts of many of his interviews with classic rock legends as a regular feature: The Dennis Elsas Conversation.
In 2002, Elsas spoke to Bill Wyman. In Dennis’ own words: “After leaving the Stones in 1992 to focus on getting his personal life straightened out, Wyman has written numerous books, continued to play and record music and even opened a successful London restaurant called Sticky Fingers. An avid collector of many things, Wyman has often been called the Rolling Stones’ archivist. His impressive coffee table style Rolling With The Stones book is a wonderful insight into the band’s history, filled with a remarkable collection of photos, posters, ticket stubs and stories that only he could tell.
“I spoke to Wyman in 2002 when the book was released and among the many subjects we covered, I wanted to learn the definitive story of how the band got its name.”
You can also listen to their conversation here.
Dennis Elsas: You start the [Rolling With the Stones] book off in the Birth of a Band chapter. You say that “I can start with myself or I can start with Keith. But I think it should be Brian. Because we were his brainchild and it was Brian who named us. He was the driving force behind the band. Brian was the original Rolling Stone.” Can you tell us a little more about that?
Bill Wyman: He created the band. It was his idea. It was his idea to play blues when blues was unheard of in England, really, apart from probably a maximum of 50 people, I would think, and some people in the jazz fraternity. You couldn’t buy blues records in shops; they didn’t exist. They [weren’t] played on the radio hardly ever. You might get one odd track by Big Bill Broonzy on a jazz program… It was so rare you didn’t know about the existence of it. Brian found out about it and he wanted to form a band to play this, which was totally un-commercial at the time. And then he spent about six months trying to put bands together… various members that knew something about blues.
Ian Stewart was the first to join, the piano player who became our roadie, and we all loved him. He died in the ’80s. And then at a later time, Mick came along and he brought Keith. And then a few other members left. Brian’s idea of blues was Muddy Waters, and Elmore James, and Jimmy Reed and people like that. Whereas Mick and Keith brought him Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and people like that. And they kind of had a pseudo-Stones band from their first gig in July of ’62 up until the end of the year where they played sometimes three or four gigs on a month or something, just odd things with various conglomerations of other musicians and drummers and things. Then I joined in December with my drummer, who’d played with them on and off.
Then in January of ’63, they fired my drummer… he wasn’t that good and Charlie [Watts] joined and the band was formed then. But it was Brian’s thing, he gave the name of the band. He decided the style of music we would play and how and where and he talked to people and got us gigs. He wrote to music papers and jazz papers about the Stones and about blues and things like that. So it was his band, really, and then he just deteriorated over the years and Mick and Keith took over when they started writing.
DE: You say in your book it was Brian who gave it his name and there have been all these different stories about a song. You have a whole page of different things with the word “Rolling Stone” on it, so where exactly, finally, all these years later, what is the official tale?
BW: He was asked about a gig and he was in a telephone box. Although people tend to refute that. That’s the way I know about it. He was in a telephone box and they asked the name of the band and he just had some albums under his arm. And he just looked on the back of the Muddy Waters one he had. And very few people had a Muddy Waters album in those days, I assure you. And he saw “Rolling Stone Blues” so he called it “Rolling Stones.”
Watch the Stones perform at the New Musical Express awards show in 1964…
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Dennis was hired at WNEW-FM by the station’s program director, Scott Muni, one of the legendary DJs he had grown up listening to. He quickly ascended to the position of Music Director, and received the rock ‘n’ roll music industry education of a lifetime. The station was emerging as one of the premiere rock radio stations and Dennis was integral to creating its sound. He was also meeting and interviewing a stream of rock ‘n’ roll heroes, including Elton John, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
Lennon was his in-studio guest on Saturday afternoon, September 28, 1974. They had met previously at the Record Plant Recording Studio as Lennon was finishing his latest album Walls and Bridges. During the conversation, Elsas casually invited him to visit WNEW-FM. When Lennon actually showed up, Dennis was more than a little surprised. What began as a discussion of the new album quickly turned into two hours of rare Beatles memories, speculation on a reunion, and candor about his immigration fight. Lennon even took over as DJ, playing some favorite, obscure 45s he’d brought with him, reading live commercials, and giving the weather reports.
Years later, excerpts of that historic afternoon were used in the Beatles Anthology, numerous books, and various documentaries. The entire show has become part of the permanent collection of the Paley Center For Media (formally the Museum of Television and Radio). It is also a pivotal part of the recent award winning PBS American Masters film “LENNONNYC”.
The interview also inspired Elsas to produce, co-write and host the radio documentary, It Was Forty Years Ago Today: The Beatles Invade America which won a number of prestigious awards (e.g. New York State Broadcasters Association Best Documentary, New York Festivals World Medal.) It aired on WFUV in February, 2004. Revised for the fiftieth anniversary in 2014, it is now featured in the Grammy Museum’s traveling exhibit Ladies and Gentleman…The Beatles!
In May 1976, Dennis took over the prime 6-10 PM slot on WNEW-FM, bringing his creative programming of the station’s vast rock ‘n’ roll record library to the nighttime audience. Rock ‘n’ roll history was being made at 102.7, and whether he was in the studio with Meatloaf, backstage with Bob Seger or onstage with John Mellencamp, Dennis was sharing the experience with his listeners. In the 1980’s he created the popular Beach Party program. The station became known as the place “Where Rock Lives” and Elsas remained there through 1998.
While still at WNEW-FM, Dennis expanded his broadcasting activities to include two years as the music correspondent for television’s PM Magazine, and to host such syndicated radio shows as Rock Today, Rock ‘n Roll Never Forgets and Billboard Entertainment News.
Dennis’ voiceover career also grew with numerous projects for HBO, Cinemax, Showtime and The Movie Channel. Corporate and commercial clients included American Express, Time, Lancôme, Procter and Gamble, and Kraft Foods. He is now featured as the “Voice of Rock History” at the Museum at Bethel Woods – the story of the Sixties and Woodstock – and has been the announcer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame broadcasts and VH1’s Concert of the Century at the White House. Dennis was the narrator of Discovery Magazine on the Discover Network and the “voice” of the Smithsonian Channel.
But his abiding passion is to be on the air, programming music that blends old favorites with new discoveries, interviewing artists and interacting with his listeners. Today he’s happily doing that seven days a week.
Since the summer of 2000 he’s been hosting weekday afternoons (2-6 PM) on New York’s WFUV (90.7 FM, and streaming at WFUV.org). With an eclectic mix of rock, folk, jazz and blues and, guests in the studio that have included Elvis Costello, Ben Folds, Patti Smith, Edie Brickell and Ringo Starr, Dennis continues the tradition of progressive radio he helped to create.
In May 2004 he joined Sirius/XM’s Classic Vinyl (26) and can be heard every Saturday and Sunday sharing his Classic Rock knowledge and memories with a worldwide audience.
In 2010 Dennis created Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets – a live multimedia show featuring highlights from his history making interviews with John Lennon, Elton John, Jerry Garcia and more. As one of the pioneers of the progressive FM radio revolution at WNEW-FM and continuing today with new opportunities at WFUV and Sirius/XM, Dennis shares his favorite stories and unique perspective on rock and radio in person with enthusiastic audiences.