“When we got Charlie, that really made it for us.” — Keith Richards, Rolling Stones
Today, the world lost not only a rock and roll original, not only a loving family man and a beloved friend, but one of the last remaining gems of a bygone era. The death of the unique Rolling Stones member, Charlie Watts, will likely breed countless tributes and outpourings of emotion that will range in authenticity and delivery. But one thing will remain a constant thread throughout them all — they don’t make them like Charlie Watts anymore.
The iconic drummer sadly passed away at the age of 80, surrounded by his family, his publicist Bernard Doherty confirmed. The percussionist had recently pulled out of a US tour with his bandmates, citing ill health, but the announcement will still have shocked the gorup’s fanbase. We look back at Watts life and remember the man behind the kit.
Charlie Watts joined The Rolling Stones when they were still a mere twinkle in the eyes of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. Becoming the group’s full-time sticksmith in 1963, Watts developed a watershed style that would not only shape a generation of percussionists but frame him as the archetypal performer. Not concerned with gaining column inches or hogging the spotlight – he had a couple of friends upfront that could do that – Watts set about painting a rhythm section that would soundtrack generations of dancefloor escapades.
Featuring on all of the group’s albums, an accolade he only shares with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, Watts’ muted delivery and stylish performance has often landed him in the argument for taking the “world’s greatest drummer” accolade. But, like the rest of the group, Watts’ penchant for performing didn’t come from his need for the spotlight but his love of the instrument. But the drums weren’t his first calling — he was a noted artist, cricketer and footballer during his school years.
Born in Bloomsbury, London, to working-class parents, Watts became fascinated with jazz. He and his childhood friend would often spend hours a day listening and then re-listening to those same discs before he finally decided to start making his own music. However, it was the banjo that first caught his eye, if only to be then made into a set of drums: “I bought a banjo, and I didn’t like the dots on the neck. So I took the neck off, and at the same time, I heard a drummer called Chico Hamilton, who played with Gerry Mulligan, and I wanted to play like that, with brushes,” he once said. “I didn’t have a snare drum, so I put the banjo head on a stand.”
With a new hobby to pursue, Watts became more and more interested in drumming and soon made his way around the club circuit, offering to jump in whenever he could. It would allow him to transition into performing in rhythm and blues clubs, once commenting, “I went into rhythm and blues. When they asked me to play, I didn’t know what it was. I thought it meant Charlie Parker, played slow.” It would be at these clubs that he would first meet Brian Jones, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.
First meeting the group in 1962, it wouldn’t be until 1963 that he would eventually agree to be the drummer for The Rolling Stones. Watts was already a part of the well-established Blues Incorporated but had offered Richards some searing advice: “You’re great, man, but you need a fucking good drummer.” Eventually, Watts relented and agreed to join the group. From there, alongside the band, he would enjoy a career entirely unparalleled. No band can say they’ve played to more people and had as large an impact on the world of music as The Rolling Stone and, as the steady performer he was, Watts had always maintained the metronomic backbeat of the group.
It wasn’t just drumming that Watts was proficient. The performer was also a noted artist and graphic designer. He famously provided the imagery for the liner notes of their album Between the Buttons and was even the man behind their now-famous 1975 tour announcement. That piece of performance art saw the group travel down Fifth Avenue in New York on the back of a lorry playing their new song ‘Brown Sugar’ — it would be front-page news and confirm Watts’ vision often outshone his voice.
Notably one of the quietest members of the band, Watts enjoyed a life remembered as the understated and sartorially advanced (once named world’s best-dressed rocker) member of the group. Both in his demeanour and his delivery, Watts embodied what it meant to be the consummate professional. A tight set of four-on-the-floor rhythms would be one thing, but it was the bubbling feel that he imbued them with which would set him apart — that, plus the fact nobody seems to know exactly how he could play as he did and never look like he had a single hair out of place.
Stylish, suave, sensible and, ultimately, loving, caring, and truly gifted, Charlie Watts will be one of the few people in this world that will be missed by millions of people across various generations for a wide variety of different reasons. It speaks highly of a man who usually preferred to save his voice for the people who needed to hear it.
Some things don’t need to be said, and Charlie Watts being forever regarded as a legend is one of them.