Died: August 24, 2021.
THERE’S little doubt that Charlie Watts’s reluctance to play the rock star was a major factor in the international success story that is the Rolling Stones.
Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were natural attention-seekers who needed to command the spotlight with flashes of bravado; Watts, however, provided the beat. He was the constant, rhythmic genius who understood implicitly just what every song – from the bluesy Honky Tonk Woman to the rockier Brown Sugar and the disco-flavoured Miss You – needed in the form of accompaniment.
The immaculately-dressed Watts, who has died at the age of 80, was an incongruous figure in the travelling circus that was the Rolling Stones.
He was a low-key, softly spoken talent who had never set out to become a rock star. His first – and greatest – music love was jazz; he loved the near-darkness of the jazz club, the flighty, floaty sounds that often defy description but are intensely dependent upon a beat as precise as a heart pacemaker.
Growing up in a Wembley prefab (the family home had been bombed in the Blitz) young Charles Robert Watts had already fallen in love with jazz after listening to records collected by his father, a lorry driver.
The drums were not his first instrument. “I bought a banjo, and I didn’t like the dots on the neck,” he once recalled. “So I took the neck off, put the banjo head on a stand and used it as a snare drum.”
His parents gave him his first drum kit in 1955 and he practised incessantly without ever imagining himself as a full-time musician. He hadn’t passed his 11-plus exam but he had revealed talent as an artist, and he attended Harrow Art School until 1960, before going to work as a graphic designer.
In the meantime, he played drums with local bands in coffee shops and clubs alongside his close pal and neighbour, Dave Green, a jazz bass player. Watts attracted the interest of blues legend Alexis Korner, who invited him to join his band, Blues Incorporated. An occasional guest singer was Mick Jagger.
By 1962, Jagger had teamed up with Richards and Brian Jones and asked Watts to join his R&B outfit. Watts didn’t fancy it at all, preferring to stick with the graphic design work.
But in 1963 he gave in to the call of the wild and joined the Rolling Stones, appearing at the Flamingo Club in Soho. He lived with Jagger, Richards and Jones for a while in a Chelsea flat, saying: “We’d rehearse a lot. They – Brian and Keith – never went to work, so we played records all day, in that rather bohemian life. Mick was at university. But he paid the rent.”
Charlie married his art-student girlfriend Shirley Shepherd, not telling his bandmates or their manager of the move. This duality continued for most of Watts’s career: the quiet, loyal family man who loved to be at home but would, when the call came, join up with the circus.
He consistently turned his back on the groupies. Nights on tour would be spent sketching the different hotel rooms he slept in. “I’ve never filled the stereotype of the rock star,” he said in interview. “Back in the seventies, Bill Wyman and I decided to grow beards, and the effort left us exhausted.”
In what he later termed a “mid-life crisis” he did, however, develop a drug habit. “All I know is that I totally became another person around 1983 and came out of it about 1986,” he told one newspaper. “I nearly lost my wife and everything over my behaviour. I wasn’t that badly affected, I wasn’t a junkie, but giving up [drugs] was very, very hard.”
He managed it. And along the way he managed the ego that was Mick Jagger. Although he was happy to sit behind his minimalist drum kit and keep the Stones on track, he was not under anyone’s thumb.
One night in Amsterdam in 1984, according to Richards, a tipsy Jagger upset Watts when the singer acted like a 19th-century factory owner, calling his hotel room demanding: “Where’s my drummer?”
Watts saw red. Putting on his trademark Saville Row suit he went looking for Jagger, grabbed him up by the lapels and then socked him on the face. “Don’t ever call me your drummer,” he said. “You’re my f****** singer.”
Jagger never repeated the mistake. And, as he later acknowledged, “there could never be a Rolling Stones without Charlie”.
It was Watts who healed the rift between Jagger and Richards in the mid-Eighties that threatened the band’s very existence. But he had a life outside of the world’s biggest rock’n’roll band. He continued to play jazz in bands with his pal, Dave Green. He bought an estate in Devon where he kept horses and bred sheep dogs.
In 2000, he and fellow drummer Jim Keltner brought out an album – Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner Project – that was described in the Sunday Herald as “the most challenging Rolling Stones pet-project for years … the added elements of ambience, techno and jazz make for an intriguing and involving listen”.
He also loved classic cars. It didn’t matter that he never passed his driving test: the quiet, eccentric drummer just loved to look at the likes of his 1936 Alfa Romeo.
He had survived throat cancer in 2004, but in recent times his health worsened.
Will the Rolling Stones survive without Charlie Watts? Variety Magazine once wrote: “Sitting at a minimalist kit and moving even more minimally with his casual jazz grip, he looks like the mild-mannered banker who no one in the heist movie realises is the guy actually blowing up the vault.”
It’s true. Watts may have focused on unfussy backbeats and old-style swing, but the quintessential jazzman, the unlikely rock star, filled the lead role in the Rolling Stones.
As Richards noted in his memoirs: “Charlie Watts has always been the bed that I lie on musically”. He continued: “If it hadn’t been for Charlie, I would never have been able to expand and develop … there’s tremendous personality and subtlety in his playing.” Richards added: “The way he stretches out the beat and what we do on top of that is a secret of the Stones sound”.
Charlie Watts is survived by his wife, daughter Seraphina, and granddaughter Charlotte.