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(Credit: Michael Conen)


Hear Charlie Watts' isolated drums for Rolling Stones song 'Gimme Shelter'


The sad passing of the legendary Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts has brought his signature style back into the spotlight. There are a number of adjectives you could use to describe Watts’ drumming: economical, uncomplicated, and unembellished all come to mind. But more importantly, Watts was groove-centric, uncluttered, and effortless in his swing.

From years of building up his jazz chops to the eventual acquiescence to R&B and blues, Watts was an in demand drummer in the London scene when a few young Chuck Berry nuts approached him about joining their new group. He knew and respected pianist Ian Stewart, but he had steady gigs with acts like Blues Incorporated, and the young kid spearheading the new act couldn’t afford him. After a few shows with fill ins, the nascent blues band shelled out enough cash to bring in Watts full time. With this crucial addition, The Rolling Stones were born.

Throughout his career, Watts often got pegged as a simplistic drummer. While working around flamboyant peers like Keith Moon and Ginger Baker, Watts’ restrained style seemed quaint, almost sheepish, by comparison. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. If you want speed and power from Watts, all you have to do is listen to ‘Lies’, ‘Hang Fire’, or ‘Paint It Black’ to get a sense of the stamina it took to be in Watts’ position.

But Watts was always bringing a lilt and a swing to the Stones catalogue: ‘Honky Tonk Women’, ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’, ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’, ‘Beast of Burden’ and ‘She’s a Rainbow’ all require completely different feels, but Watts handles them all with easy expertise that sounds simple but is almost impossible to replicate. The band had to bring in someone with a background in R&B, rock, jazz, and soul, Steve Jordan, just to cover all of the ground that Watts did without breaking a sweat.

To really get a sense of what Watts was all about, take a listen to his isolated drum track for The Stones’ signature tune, ‘Gimme Shelter’. The fills are simple and the beat never deviates, but you can hear how hard Watts is hitting the drums. He accomplishes what all good musicians need to do – he listens to the changes in dynamics along the ebbs and flows of the song’s structure to bring the maximum emotional punch. He’s the least flashy part of the song, but he’s absolutely essential to the final product being as transcendent as it is.

Check out the isolated drums for ‘Gimme Shelter’ down below.