Charlie Watts was a jazz drummer in an otherwise rock-centred band, which likely explains why their music swung so rapidly, and it definitely explains why the guitars sounded so bouncy. It’s too early to say if The Rolling Stones will survive without Watts behind the kit, but it’s fair to say that the band wouldn’t have endured as long as they did without his rock steady, giddily inventive, backbeat.
Every drummer has a list of influences, and even someone as accomplished as Watts had to start from somewhere. And although he wasn’t as garrulous as Mick Jagger or even the surly sounding Keith Richards, Watts did eventually offer a tidy nugget into the formation of his career. In an interview, he namechecked Buddy Rich as an influence on his work as a drummer.
“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,” Watts continued. “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.”
Watts loved the sparsity and feel of the drumming, sensing that the drummer was happily playing as part of a large ensemble of musicians. Watts was not interested in rock and claims he never enjoyed Elvis Presley until he met Keith Richards, but it was this hybrid of influences that made the songs sound so elastic and fluid, especially when it came to the early recordings, which were almost entirely based on the foundations of blues-rock.
Watts might not have played jazz with The Rolling Stones, but he played with some jazz feeling, something his fellow percussionist Stewart Copeland noted. “But one thing you can see of the jazz influence on him is that he went for groove,” Copeland said, “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.”
Like Rich, Watts went for tempo and feeling over frenzy and flair, and much like Rich, he tended to play to the song, rather than lace it with backpedals and power movements. The shadings, shapes and contradictions are what made the drums soar to pleasantly, but they were also the backbone of the greatest rock band the world has yet seen. From the subtle whack on ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ to the thunder that rolled and walloped all around Sticky Fingers, Watts knew how to play with feeling, happy to make his presence known, but never at the expense of the other musicians around him.
And although he claimed he couldn’t “copy” Rich, he invoked the wild energy with a frenzy that was entirely his own work. He was heavy on cymbals, reverent of groove, tight on backpedalling and thorough in his approach to playing live. The contrasts and contradictions of rock were heavily used in the songs, never lightening or laying off, even for a moment. Watts, like Rich, was a very fine musician, creating a new form of attack and angular beauty.