A light went out when the world lost the iconic drummer of The Rolling Stones, Charlie Watts. The musician has undoubtedly entered the conversation to be placed within the pantheon of the very greatest percussionists, and his work will live on for eternity. However, to understand his brilliance in more detail, we’re looking at the drummers that Watts adored and influenced his sound.
Although Watts wasn’t a founding member of The Stones, he was an integral part of every significant creation, and the drummer was the missing piece of the jigsaw necessary to take them to the required heights. From the day Watts joined the group, The Stones finally had the security they needed to expand their output, and his tight playing style kept the rest of the group in check.
Watts’ arrival into the fold came a year after The Rolling Stones formed, a period which saw a slew of drummers forcibly instructed to leave the building for not having the desired touch. Watts proved to be the perfect foil for The Glimmer Twins and allowed them to become front and centre icons while he deliberately avoided the limelight. Watts didn’t try to be anyone but himself, and even though he was the opposite of Keith Richards, they were all equals in The Rolling Stones.
“Charlie Watts gives me the freedom to fly on stage,” Keith Richards once remarked about his bandmate and perfectly epitomised Watts’ selfless greatness in a sentence. Here, we take a glimpse at the drummers who helped him become the master of his craft.
Charlie Watts’ favourite drummers
Max Roach, a drummer that isn’t necessarily a household name, is an artist that anyone with even a passing interest in jazz will be familiar with. He’s played with Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker, to name just a few of the extraordinary who recruited Roach to play on their records.
Watts once told Modern Drummer: “I saw him at Carnegie Hall with his band and McCoy Tyner’s band. Max plays nothing like I thought he played. He’s incredible. He started up with this waltz thing which is quite incredible to watch. It was all ‘time’. It was lovely. Sort of a variation on ‘The Drum Also Waltzes.'”
He added: “He just starts off playing ‘boom dit, boom dit.’ And he builds that up. Quite brilliant. To watch him play with a band is fantastic. The band with Clifford Brown was amazing.”
Another jazz legend who Watts styled himself on was Elvin Jones, a drummer Watts was even compared to throughout his career. After his death, Zildjian AR director John DeChristopher commented in Drum about Watts’ style, stating: “He swings like Elvin Jones. I like to think that at a point drummers’ get’ the ‘less is more’ approach of Charlie — and Ringo — and understand that good, solid time and a great feel are first and foremost to being a great drummer.”
Meanwhile, Watts even recorded a tribute to Jones alongside Jim Keltner, which speaks volumes about the adoration he has for him and confirms that he’s a drummer that Watts styled himself on.
If you’re expecting to see a list littered with the usual suspects like John Bonham and Keith Moon, then you’re out of luck. Watts preferred American drummers, with Jerry Allison, who played on old-school rock ‘n’ roll records in the ’50s, which inspired The Stones sticksman.
“Another drummer who’s quite brilliant is Jerry Allison,” he told Modern Drummer. “He used to play with Buddy Holly and The Crickets. He’s probably the best’ song’ player that I know. He doesn’t really play the drums—he plays the songs, and that is really more important within the context of that music. If you’re playing to a songwriter, that’s much more important than having all the technique in the world. But Jerry’s got an awful lot of technique.”
Buddy Rich is a legendary drummer that every player of the instrument worth their salt remains in total awe of. There’s no doubt about it, Rich is held in the very highest regard.
“He’s an incredible man, isn’t he? The history of that guy is amazing,” Watts once said. “Some of the records he played on are just remarkable; some of the Verve records with Charlie Parker. I mean, some of the introductions he plays are sort of ridiculous, really, and he’s only using two drums! That’s not all he’s got, but he just uses two.
“The placement of his notes! The timing of it then and there was just staggering. I just listen to Buddy’s music. I can’t copy that. I think you get to a point where you watch something just to enjoy it. I don’t think it’s really done so that you’re supposed to feel, ‘Oh, he’s the most wonderful drummer.’ I think the whole lot is what’s more enjoyable.”
Joe Morello is a unique drummer, famed for his individual style. Although he wasn’t a similar performer to Watts, The Stones man had nothing but appreciation for him. Morello was exhilarating to watch, and that’s what endeared him to his peers, including Watts.
“Joe Morello is the first guy I saw that was the prettiest player I’d ever seen in my life,” Watts told Modern Drummer. He continued: “Joe Morello as a drummer—apart from being quite brilliant—his style was something else to look at. I used to sit and watch him just to see his hands.”