Charlie Watts: Gentleman Drummer of Rock & Roll
The first time that I saw The Rolling Stones was on their STP Tour, July 5, 1972. They were playing in a Norfolk, Virginia concrete bowl called “The Norfolk Scope.” The acoustics varied in that venue. It depended on the act and their ability to control their dynamics.
But the Stones had the “Voice of Woodstock,” Chip Monck, running their sound. He also ran the sound of their opening act, Stevie Wonder. Their sound was impeccable. In 1972, Stevie Wonder was a show unto himself. At this juncture, Stevie was starting to perform Funk based material like “Superstition” and he wowed a die-hard Stones crowd.
The Rolling Stones were touring behind their 1972 double record opus, “Exile On Main Street.” They played like tigers released after a long captivity. Opening with one of their hits, “Brown Sugar,” we had an exciting evening of incredibly rocking good fun. They only slowed down twice with their version of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” and their acoustic paean to my home state, “Sweet Virginia.” I always liked their slower songs just as much as the rockers.
A classic band on a steamy night in Norfolk, Virginia. After the death of original member Brian Jones, this was the second great version of The Rolling Stones. This version of the band included Mick Taylor on incandescent lead guitar and Jim Price on trumpet and Bobby Keys on Sax. They were the biggest sounding two-man horn section in the world, after the Memphis Horns. Add on to that the sparkling piano of Nicky Hopkins. Not to mention the occasional Boogie Woogie Piano of original band member, Ian Stewart. The Rolling Stones raged and rolled like a southern hurricane that night.
Additionally, I saw the third great version of the band in 1975. That was the first tour with Guitarist Ronnie Wood, who was originally with The Faces. Ronnie replaced Mick Taylor. The ’75 tour had a stage that folded out like a giant star. An indelible image from that night, for me, was seeing Jagger and Ian Stewart both playing piano, together. Keyboardist-Singer Billy Preston was also part of the band, for the ’75 tour, as was former Stevie Wonder Percussionist, Ollie E. Brown. The Stones graciously featured Preston for two songs that night.
A few years later I saw a revitalized streamlined version of the band in 1978. Keith and Charlie played like their lives were at stake. Great memories, great shows. The aforementioned 1975 and 1978 shows were in Hampton Virginia at the Hampton Coliseum.
What I realized, as early as that first show in 1972, was that the sound of the Rolling Stones was determined by Keith Richards’ riffs and Charlie Watts’ drumming. There was a subtle, millisecond delay between Richards’s guitar and the in-the-pocket approach of Charlie Watts drums. With bassist Bill Wyman chiming in with Charlie; it was a beat that couldn’t be defeated. That delay is one of the keys to their uniqueness and their classic sound.
It has always been hard for me to imagine The Rolling Stones without Charlie Watts. So hard to imagine that, even as an ardent fan and a devout writer, I could not bring myself to immediately write about the passing of Charlie Watts on August 24. Far too daunting. I needed to reflect on who Charlie Watts was, as a man and as a musician.
Charlie Watts was born Charles Robert Watts on June 2, 1941 in London, England. He was born to Charles Richard Watts, a Lorry Driver for London, Midland and Scottish Railway, and Lillian Charlotte (Eaves), a factory worker. Charlie had one sibling, a sister named Linda.
Charlie developed a passion for Jazz early in his life. He became friends with Dave Green, a friendship that developed when he and Watts were toddlers and one that lasted until Charlie’s death. Dave became a skilled stand-up Bass player.
Dave and Charlie collaborated on many Jazz projects in the course of their careers. As children they discovered Jazz on 78-RPM records. Years later, Dave Green reminisced that Charlie had more records than he did.
From 1952 to 1956, Charlie went to Tylers Croft Secondary Modern School where he demonstrated an aptitude for art, music, cricket and football. Around the age of 13, he developed an interest in drumming. At the age of 14, his dad brought him a set of drums that was mainly a bass drum, snare and a cymbal.
Before that he had played a makeshift drum that he had made out of a banjo head. Like many British kids, at the time, Charlie and Dave initially played a form of Folk-Blues called Skiffle. Skiffle, for many future British Rockers, was a way of playing music on makeshift instruments that led many to embrace the playing of real instruments.
Charlie got the fevered inspiration to play the drums from listening to a track by Jazz artist Gerry Mulligan called “Walking.” This track featured the legendary Chico Hamilton on drums. Chico became one of Charlie’s first influences along with British Master Drummer, Phil Seaman. Playing along with records of drummers, like American Jazz drummer Kenny Clarke, furthered Charlie’s passion for the drums.
Charlie also played with British Traditional Jazz innovator, Chris Barber. While playing with Chris, Watts was exposed to British Blues Musicians, Alexis Korner (Guitar) and Cyril Davies (Harmonica). Through the good graces of Chris Barber, Korner and Davis managed to obtain a Thursday night Blues residency at the famed London Jazz club, The Marquee.
Those Thursday night Blues sessions at The Marquee became a weekly event for the young, aspiring Blues players in and around London. Alexis Korner was generous with his stage. Soon he had people like Brian Jones, sitting in on slide guitar, & occasionally the Chuck Berry expert, Keith Richards, also on guitar. Eric Clapton, Paul Jones, Long John Baldry and Mick Jagger, among others, would sit in on vocals. In the backing group eventually appeared Charlie Watts on Drums and future Cream member, Jack Bruce, on Bass. Charlie found the transition from Jazz to R&B to be initially puzzling. He thought that R&B was “Charlie Parker played slow.”
The Marquee was an embryonic womb for the British R&B scene. It was for the people that loved the Blues and R&B, such as the aforementioned. From these Marquee sessions Ian Stewart, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and future Pretty Things member, Dick Taylor, on bass, decided to form a Blues and R&B band. The band was named after a Muddy Waters song, “Rolling Stone Blues.” Hence, The Rolling Stones.
Initially, they accomplished this with a retinue of drummers who possessed varying degrees of skill. But they needed a great drummer. They needed Charlie Watts.
At that time, Charlie was also working as a graphic designer. Previously, after completing Secondary School, he had enrolled in Harrow Art School until 1960. He got a job as a graphic designer at Charlie Daniels Studios (not to be confused with the musician, Charlie Daniels). Like many musicians, he maintained a day job while pursuing his passion for music at night.
Though he met the future members of The Rolling Stones in 1962, he did not join as their full time drummer until February 1963. Charlie’s Jazz background helped The Rolling Stones’ music to swing.
He had a backbeat that truly swung and never wavered in meter. Hanging out with Brian Jones and Keith Richards, Charlie received a full education in the music of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, among others.
I previously wrote about the Blues roots of the Stones in the June 2019 Politichicks article, The Blues and The Rolling Stones. Charlie was the missing piece that the Stones needed to be a successful band. He worked hand in glove with The Rolling Stones Bass player, Bill Wyman, to create one of the steadiest, tastiest and most rhythmically interesting of all of the British R&B Bands.
Encouraged by their first manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards started writing songs that progressed beyond the Blues and R&B they were covering. After an initial unsuccessful American tour, the Stones hit their stride with the anthemic song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” in 1965.
“Satisfaction” opened the door for the Stones to become an international sensation. Satisfaction and the hits that followed got The Rolling Stones past mediocre tours, shady record deals and questionable managers. Though it took decades for a true level of success to be accomplished by the entire band.
In the eye of fames hurricane, Charlie Watts kept focus. He was never a hard-hitting drummer like his contemporaries, such as Ginger Baker and John Bonham. Charlie Watts played drums with a light, focused touch. The backbeat was the focus. Being in the audience, up front center stage in 1972, I was amazed of the power that emanated from his drum kit, despite his light touch. Many of his drum parts were subtly inventive, like the drum intros to “Honky Tonk Woman and Sympathy For the Devil.”
As a guitarist, one standard cue for certain songs and certain drummers in my bands has been the simple edict: Go for that Charlie Watts feel.
Charlie had a sense of style early within the image of the Stones. He was usually impeccably dressed. As he got older, he developed a passion for tailored suits and handmade shoes. His early college girlfriend, Shirley Ann Shepherd, became his wife and remained so for the rest of his life. The couple had one daughter, Seraphina, born in 1968. She in turn gave birth to the Watts’s only grandchild, Charlotte.
In 1964, Charlie published a book, “Ode to a High Flying Bird,” which was an illustrated tribute to Jazz icon, Charlie Parker. Almost like a kid’s book for adults. Charlie Watts and Rolling Stones Bassist Bill Wyman were the primary rhythm section on the 1971 Blues album,”The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions,” which also featured contemporaries Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, among others. An important and seminal Blues album.
Starting in the mid-1980s, Charlie started to pursue more musical projects outside of The Rolling Stones. My favorite of those projects was the 1992 work, “A Tribute to Charlie Parker With Strings.” That album was created by his long-standing working group, The Charlie Watts Quintet, with additional orchestration. A truly stunning work.
Charlie was definitely a delightful British eccentric. He refrained from getting his driver’s license. Yet, he purchased many classic cars because he liked to sit in them, appreciating their design. He also owned a large collection of Cricket bats and other memorabilia. He lived near Dolton, a rural area near Devon. There he owned and operated an Arabian horse stud farm.
In the mid-1980s, The Rolling Stones were in disarray. Jagger was pursuing a solo career and not contributing effectively to the Stones. This motivated Keith Richards to pursue his own solo projects. During this period, despite decades of abstaining from hard drug use, Charlie Watts developed a problem with alcohol, amphetamines and heroin. Charlie realized he had a problem and quietly gave up all drinking and drugs.
During this period, he also punched Mick Jagger in the face. In Amsterdam, an inebriated Jagger, after an evening of drinking with Keith Richards, called Watts, at five in the morning, waking him up and saying, in essence, “Is that my drummer? Well get your ass up here!” Watts showered, shaved, put on a tailored Saville Row suit and slipped on some hand made shoes. He then went to Jagger’s door, and gently knocked. When Mick Jagger opened the door, Watts punched him full in the face, knocking him into a platter of smoked salmon.
Through clenched teeth, Charlie Watts said, “Don’t ever call me your drummer! You’re my f***ing singer!”
Fortunately, the Stones survived this period of upheaval from 1985 to 1989, where they did not tour. They also survived the death of founding member, Ian Stewart. Around 1993, they dealt with the resignation of original Bass player, Bill Wyman. To great effect, Wyman was replaced on Bass by Miles Davis alumni, Darryl Jones. Starting from 1989 on, Charlie Watts became actively involved, with Mick Jagger, in the planning and designing of the Stones elaborate stages.
I think the period of 1993 through 2021 has been a great period of positive transformation for The Rolling Stones. The members of the band stopped excessive alcohol and drug use. There was a new maturity in their approach and within the composition of their new songs. They benefited from that mid 80’s “vacation.”
After a lifetime of cigarette smoking, Watts gave up smoking in the late 1980s. In June 2004, he had a successful operation for throat cancer. On August 5, 2021, Charlie Watts elected to not participate in The Rolling Stones “No Filter” tour. Always a class act, Charlie asked sterling drummer and consistent Keith Richards collaborator, Steve Jordan, to fill the drummer’s chair for him. After what was thought to be a successful heart surgery, Watts died surrounded by family in London, on August 24, 2021. He was 80. The Rolling Stones 2021 No Filter tour is a continual tribute to Charlie.
The tributes that poured in from Charlie’s fans and contemporaries all had a common thread running through them. Those tributes spoke of Charlie being a class act and a gentleman. Which is how he carried himself: A Jazzman by heart, a Rock and Roll Gentleman by trade.