Charlie Watts
Poiseon Bild & Text (press photo by a photographer of the consulting company Poiseon AG in St. Gallen, Switzerland), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A Man of Wealth and Taste: Charlie Watts Remembered

Drummer for arguably the world’s greatest rock and roll band, Charlie Watts wasn’t even a rock star, and that’s one of the many things that made him so great.

The music video for the Rolling Stones’ 1981 single “Start Me Up” says a lot about the personality of Charlie Watts. It’s one of those standard low-budget early-period videos where the artist lip-syncs and mimes the instruments on a soundstage. While vocalist Mick Jagger and guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood clown and mug for the cameras, Watts is behind the kit, dressed smartly in a light-colored sport coat and dress shirt. He smirks, cracks a smile or two, and even imperceptibly shakes his head in mild amusement. All the while, he’s laying down that beat. 

Watts, who passed away yesterday at the age of 80, never seemed all that interested in rock music or the spoils that came with being a member of one of the most famous rock bands of all time. A jazz fanatic since childhood, he fell into the blues as a member of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated while working as a graphic designer and playing in various London rhythm and blues clubs. He eventually joined the Rolling Stones as an official member in 1963. For nearly six decades, Watts kept the beat on Stones albums and every one of the band’s numerous, elaborate tours. But what he brought to the band wasn’t just longevity; his style was inimitable. Many, many drummers lavished deserved praise on the man, but he was nearly impossible to copy. Watts was the secret sauce that made that great rock band swing. It can’t be learned. 

Watts wasn’t a monster player like Keith Moon, John Bonham, or Neil Peart. If anything, one of his strengths was in his ability to underplay beautifully. In his terrific 2019 book Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters, Mike Edison writes: “He never overplayed his hand, never chased flashy fills, never competed with the rest of the band for air space, never played anything just because he could. He found nuance in a music that often had little room for it, and along with his greatest conspirator, Keith Richards, he gave the Stones their swaggering beat.” Listening to his drumming on any Stones song, you can hear that distinctive Watts sound – he doesn’t play a standard “rock” beat, keeping his own time that floats around the rest of the band. It’s a swagger that’s intensely individualistic but still very much the glue that holds it together. 

It’s easy to hear Watts’ love for jazz and blues shine through when the Stones incorporated those genres into their music. “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man” is a pure blues swing from the 1965 album Out of Their Heads, and Watts’ drumming holds everything together. During the seven-minute epic gothic horror blues of 1969’s “Midnight Rambler”, Watts plays a peerless blues shuffle and guides the band through the song’s numerous movements and tempi. It goes from shuffle to urgent rock to a gospel-flavored call-and-response between Jagger and his blues harp and right back to the shuffle for the blood-soaked denouement. It’s not just a song, it’s a blues/rock opera, and Watts is there for the whole thing, never faltering or missing a beat. 

Some Stones songs immersed in the band’s blues/rock stock-in-trade wouldn’t have sounded like the Stones if it weren’t for Watts. He helped set the template for the group’s sound. Exile on Main Street – considered by many to be the band’s masterpiece – kicks off with “Rocks Off”. While Watts’ beat is reliably steady, it’s peppered with twitchy fills that sound like the man can barely contain himself within the pure joy of the tune. On the 1969 single “Honky Tonk Women”, Watts – goosed by producer Jimmy Miller’s iconic cowbell – lays down a rhythm that seems deceptively simple, but any drummer trying to imitate that beat will almost definitely fail miserably. The swagger of those drums is hard to define and impossible to replicate.

At the same time, Watts – who never wrote any Stones songs, leaving that task primarily to Jagger and Richards – adapted beautifully to whatever style of music the band assayed at any given time. He tackled the 1966 psychedelic haze of “Paint It, Black” with his relentless floor toms. With their covers of the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and Eric Donaldson’s “Cherry Oh Baby”, Watts brought his chops to the Motown swagger of the former and the reggae mirth of the latter.

In 1978, Jagger, under the narcotic spell of Studio 54, embraced the disco era with “Miss You”, and Watts laid down a four-on-the-floor groove that not only seemed to fly in the face of his jazz roots but it also fits the song like a glove. As Jagger grew tired of disco in the ensuing years, songs like the should’ve-been-a-hit “Let Me Go” and “Neighbours” latched onto a breakneck punk sound, and Watts was game, mainly as he employed a trashcan snare drum sound to the latter. Watts not only adapted, but he also put his unique spin on anything the band put in front of him.  

Watts is the only Stone, past or present, to die since guitarist Brian Jones in July 1969 – the month of the first Apollo moon landing. While Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor quit in 1974 and bassist Bill Wyman jumped ship in 1993, Watts has been there since the beginning, the only member to appear on every single Stones album besides Jagger and Richards. For someone so loyal to the band, he was the antithesis of the rock star.

Jagger was a nightclubbing, jet-setting playboy, and Richards battled various demons (mainly in the form of drugs and alcohol), but Watts was perfectly happy with domestic bliss. He married his wife Shirley in 1964, and they stayed together until his death, raising their only daughter, Seraphina. He even shunned the rock star lifestyle on the road. While the Stones were touring the US in 1972 and were invited to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion, Watts declined to frolic with the models and instead spent the evening playing billiards in Hefner’s sumptuous game room. 

Watts was not entirely immune to the temptations of the millionaire rock star life. In the mid-’80s, he struggled with drugs and alcohol but managed to push through it. It was during this time that one of the most famous – and admittedly hilarious – Watts stories emerged, the one where he punched out Mick Jagger. It’s been told a million times, but it’s still good for a chuckle. While on tour, an intoxicated Jagger phoned Watts’ room in the middle of the night, demanding, “where’s my drummer?” Watts got out of bed, shaved, put on a suit, tie, and freshly shined shoes – his impeccable style of dress was always one of his trademarks – walked down to Jagger’s room and punched him in the face, telling him, “never call me your drummer. You’re my singer.” While Watts later regretted the incident, attributing it to alcohol, it’s still one of the best rock star stories around. It’s also a fitting representation of the man (if you remove the alcohol factor). Watts was all class and professionalism, but don’t fuck with him or take him for granted. 

Richards put it best in the 2003 oral history According to the Rolling Stones. “To have a drummer from the beginning who could play with the sensibility of Charlie Watts is one of the best-hidden assets I’ve had because I never had to think about the drummer and what he’s going to do. I just say, ‘Charlie, it goes like this,’ and we’ll kick it around a bit, and it’s done. I can throw him ideas, and I never have to worry about the beat…it’s a blessing.” It’s that kind of mix of skill, taste, and reliability that made Charlie Watts unique and completely irreplaceable.