“To me, Charlie Watts was the secret essence of the whole thing.” — Keith Richards
In the wake of Watts’ death last week at the age of 80, many musicians have stepped forward with heartfelt and laudatory remarks about the man and his contributions to rock music in general and The Rolling Stones’ music in particular. It seems to me there’s no better way to kick off my tribute to the late great drummer than with Richards’ comment. In his 2010 autobiography “Life,” Richards gave Watts a great deal of credit for the band’s success and his own development as a guitarist.
“If it hadn’t been for Charlie, I would never have been able to expand and develop,” he wrote. “Number One with Charlie is he’s got great feel. He had it from the very start. There’s tremendous personality and subtlety in his playing. If you look at the size of his drum kit, it’s ludicrous compared with what most drummers use these days. They’ve got a fort with them. Charlie, with just that one classico setup, could pull it all off.”
Richards gets a bit technical as he explains an important truth about The Stones. “The other thing is Charlie’s trick. On the hi-hat, most guys would play on all four beats, but on the two and the four, which is the backbeat, which is a very important thing in rock and roll, Charlie doesn’t play, he lifts up. He goes to play and pulls back. It gives the snare drum all of the sound. He does some extra motion that’s totally unnecessary. It pulls the time back because he has to make a little extra effort. Part of the languid feel of Charlie’s drumming comes from that. It’s very hard to do — to stop the beat going for just one beat and then come back in. The way he stretches out the beat like that, and what we do on top of that, is the secret of The Stones sound.”
Most casual music lovers don’t realize how integral drums are to any great band’s sound, and The Stones are no exception. Jack White of The White Stripes once said, “Drummers are like the foundation of a building. They are the girders. The other musicians are going to add the doors, the windows, the floors, the roof and all the shiny details everybody notices. But without the drums, there’s no building.”
Or, put another way: “If you have an OK singer or an average guitarist, you might still have a great band, but if you have a mediocre drummer, your band will never be anything more than mediocre.”
Charlie Watts was the epitome of the rock and roll drummer who put the emphasis on the roll — with swing but without flash, with the steady backbeat but without the drum solo. He had a love for jazz music, and his drumming style reflected that sort of intelligent approach. He played to the song, giving it just what was necessary — no more, no less.
Stewart Copeland of The Police, who also had a background in jazz, said, “One thing you can see of the jazz influence on Charlie is that he went for groove, and derived power from relaxation. Most rock drummers are trying to kill something. They’re chopping wood. Jazz drummers instead tend to be very loose to get that jazz feel, and he had that quality. The jazz factor in Charlie wasn’t in the use of the ride cymbal going ting-ting-ti-ting, it was his overall body relaxation. It’s also why he hardly broke a sweat while driving the band to light up a stadium.”
To get a feel for what Watts brought to the party in the Stones’ best moments, I invite you to refer for a moment to the first five tracks on my Spotify playlist, found at the end of the essay. Just listen to these classics that illustrate what I’m talking about: “Honky Tonk Women,” “Beast of Burden,” “Get Off Of My Cloud,” “Rock and a Hard Place,” “Paint It Black.”
The way he opens “Honky Tonk Women” and then gradually, imperceptibly, picks up the pace by song’s end… The easy, deliberate, loping beat behind “Beast of Burden”… The quintessential example of a drummer setting up the song on the intro to “Get Off Of My Cloud”… The furious yet controlled attack that highlights “Rock and a Hard Place”… The insistent double-time underneath “Paint It Black.”
I confess to not really noticing the finesse Watts brought to the Stones repertoire, at least not until much later. In the ’60s and ’70s, I admired the flashy guys — Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, John Bonham — but I eventually came to understand the excellence of drummers like Watts, and how the “playing to the song” approach is more valuable. I have three different friends who are drummers, and their experiences and informed observations have helped form my appreciation and respect for drummers and what they do. They have each mentioned Watts as one of the best ever.
Rod Argent, who has known Watts since 1964 when The Zombies and The Stones were on the same tour, said, “Like all the great jazz drummers, Charlie existed to serve the music, serve the groove, and enhance everything that was going on in front of him. His drumming sounded deceptively simple, but it swung. Every fill really counted, and nothing ever detracted from what was being played. The architecture of what he constructed was always absolutely right, and was one major reason why The Rolling Stones always, right from the beginning, sounded so exciting, and made some magnificent records.”
Randy Bachman, guitarist/singer with the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, said he felt Watts was “one of rock and roll’s greatest drummers and time keepers of all time. Many times, when playing with drummers who were getting a bit too flashy for their own good, I’ve said to them, ‘Please just play like Charlie Watts!’ What a legacy of music he leaves behind.”
Max Weinberg, drummer for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, echoed Bachman’s declaration that Watts was one of a kind. He recently recalled, “When I was a kid in New Jersey, if you were looking for work, there’d be ads for musicians. In the mid-60s and 70s, they would often say: ‘Wanted: Charlie Watts type drummer.’ Charlie was not just a drummer – he was a genre.”
As Watts himself recalled in a 2012 interview, he had a natural predilection, an innate desire, for playing drums at an early age. “I was always pounding on countertops, pots and pans, tables, whatever was around. My dad bought me a cheap banjo, but I couldn’t get the hang of it, so one day, I took the bloody thing apart and started beating on the parts instead. I never really learned to play drums in the traditional sense. I didn’t take a single lesson. I actually got in bands by watching drummers play and copying them.”
He remembers, at age 13, first hearing jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, “and I fell in love with that, whatever it was called.” He drifted toward jazz combos, entranced by the “elasticity” of jazz. “Rock and roll is restrictive. It has no movement. But jazz breathes, you know. Improvised music breathes. It’s very difficult to do well. It still comes as a challenge to me.”
Watts was 19 when he met Brian Jones, the founder and original spark plug of The Rolling Stones, who asked him to join his new group. Said Watts, “When they asked me to join, I figured, well, OK, it’ll last a year and then it’ll fold. That’s how it was in London in those days. Nothing lasted too long. So for me, the Stones was just another gig. But then we started touring England… I was hoping to start another job, but I never went back to it. I was a little out of sync with them at first, but Keith advised me to listen to Buddy Holly and Jimmy Reed and things like that. Mick (Jagger) taught me a lot about playing TO songs, and about melodies, and guitar parts. When you’re playing rock and roll, the challenge is the regularity of it.”
In addition to the universal praise for his skills on the skins, Watts is also noted for being a genuinely nice guy, and a very well-dressed man off stage (and sometimes on stage). He was absolutely not a typical rock star, not remotely flamboyant like Jagger or Richards, even in the band’s peak years, as he would be the first to admit. “When people talk about the ’60s, I never think that was me there. It was me and I was in it, but I was never enamored with all that. It’s supposed to be sex and drugs and rock and roll, and I’m just not like that. Touring was tough. I like what I do, but I wish I could go home every night.”
Watts had his period of drug abuse in the late ’80s, but it didn’t last long. What did last long was his marriage to his wife Shirley, with whom he celebrated his 57th anniversary this year. What rock star does that?
“He singlehandedly brought the rock world some real class,” said rock historian and E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt. “He was a gentleman’s gentleman. Rock and roll will miss him profoundly. We are significantly less without him.”
Elton John referred to Watts as “the most stylish of men, and brilliant company.”
Joan Jett added, “Charlie Watts was the most elegant and dignified drummer in rock and roll.”
Denny Laine, who served with both The Moody Blues and Paul McCartney and Wings, said, “He always made me feel at ease in his company. That’s the thing that stands out. What a gentle soul.”
I find it particularly telling that a newer generation of rock musicians have also lavished praise on Watts very publicly following his death. There’s guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, who had this to say about Watts: “He was one of the greatest and most important architects of the music we love. Rock and roll would not be rock and roll without the rhythm, the style, the vibe of this incredible musician.”
Pearl Jam’s lead guitarist Mike McCready paid tribute by saying, “The Rolling Stones have always been my favorite band, and Charlie was the engine. I’ll put on ‘Sway,’ which is my favorite song of all time, and listen to how he anchors that track. None of us in a rock band would be here if it hadn’t been for Charlie.”
Duran Duran drummer Roger Taylor called Watts “an absolute inspiration to a legion of drummers since the 1960s. A man of grace, style, dignity and composure.”
Hmmm. Well, even the coolest cucumber has his breaking point, and the story that illustrates this point emphatically has been repeated often in numerous articles in the past ten days. It’s chronicled in great detail in Richards’ autobiography, “Life.” It goes like this:
The band was on tour in Amsterdam in 1984. Richards and Jagger went clubbing after the performance, not returning to the hotel until 5 a.m. Jagger decided to call Watts’ room to wake him up, yelling into the phone, “Where’s my drummer?” No answer, so he hung up. Twenty minutes later, there was a knock at the door. Richards opened it, and in walked Watts, not disheveled in pajamas but fully dressed in suit and tie. He approached Jagger, grabbed him by the lapels, and screamed, “Never call me your drummer again! I am not your drummer, you’re my damn singer!!” Then he punched Mick in the face, knocking him over a tray of smoked salmon, then turned on his heels and marched out.
Does the death of Charlie Watts spell the end of The Rolling Stones? Maybe it should, but it won’t. After a year of inactivity due to COVID, the band has been eager to get back out on the road in 2021, but Watts had some sort of medical procedure that required rest and recuperation, so he announced he’d be opting out of the tour. The group had lined up a replacement named Steve Jordan, who had performed with Richards in the past. In the wake of Watts’ passing, the band is laying low for a couple weeks in respect for their longtime drummer, but the revived tour begins September 26.
For years, The Stones have been lampooned for not knowing when to quit. When they reached 60, critics started calling them The Strolling Bones. Now they’re past 75…but they’re living legends, they keep coming back for more, and they still sell out everywhere they play.
In the 2013 interview, Watts reflected on how much longer the band would last. “Now you have to seriously look at your age, because if this continues for another two years, I’ll be 74. But I say it at the end of every tour. And then you have two weeks off and your wife says: ‘You are not going to work?'”
Rest in peace, Charlie Watts. God knows you deserve it.
The Spotify playlist was selected to highlight the tracks in The Rolling Stones catalog that show how Watts’ drumming proficiency was pivotal to the band’s sound, groove and overall presentation.