Could it be that I am slipping? Scanning the FTV titles for the past ten months, I realized the entire year was about to pass without me writing about a drummer! How could this be? It isn’t for lack of drummers out there to write about. It is more a case of working through a list of available topics, kind of like when the NFL draft occurs: their favorite tactic always revolves around a team taking ‘the best available player on the draft board’. So it goes when deciding on which FTV topic to cover next while considering subjects that have not been on the board recently. When Charlie Watts opted out of their upcoming tour for health reasons (which soon after took him off the planet permanently), it seemed only fitting to spend some time giving him his due.
Charlie Watts was a drummer who wasn’t overly flashy when he played, but any garage band drummer coming up in the 1960s and 1970s could not help but be influenced by his style. If your band played Stones tunes, then you were going to be playing ‘Charlie’s way’. If you didn’t copy Charlie’s beat, the song(s) wouldn’t sound Stonesy. The Stones first TV appearance was not on The Ed Sullivan Show, but on The Hollywood Palace hosted by one of Tinsel Town’s finest, Dean Martin. The date was June 13, 1964 and the ever jockular Martin introduced the band with some snarky remarks implying a link between their long hair and juvenile delinquency. Their first Sullivan appearance would not take place until October 25, 1964. There are noticeable similarities in both of these performances. The four musicians arrayed across the front of stage left to right included Bill Wyman on bass, Brian Jones on harmonica (HP) and guitar (ES), Mick Jagger on vocals, and Keith Richards on guitar. Tucked in the back on a low drum riser (for Hollywood Palace) and a higher cylindrical one (on Sullivan’s show) sat Charlie Watts.
It was difficult to see much of what Charlie was doing behind his kit because the cameras focused a good amount of time on the front four and, on the Sullivan show, the swooning girls whipped into a frenzy of adulation. Charlie, smartly dressed in coat and tie, displayed little emotion beyond a slight bobbing of his head as he kept time. Watts was the oldest member of the band, although he wasn’t that much older. The front four just looked impossibly young compared to their time keeper. Born in University College Hospital in Bloomsbury on June 2, 1941, Charlie was a ripe old 23 when they first appeared on American TV. By contrast, Jagger was born in 1943 and Richards in 1944, but barely out of their teens when they broke in America..
Charlie’s love of music was forged early when he and neighbor Dave Green discovered a common love of jazz. A lifelong friendship began as they bonded over Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong and the like. When his family moved to Kingsbury, Watts expanded his interests. He showed a flair for art, music, and cricket in school, made clandestine visits to the Flamingo Club in London’s Soho district, and bought a banjo (he removed the neck and used the body as a snare drum). At 14, his folks bought him a true drum kit and he honed his drumming skills playing along with his growing collection of jazz records. It took until 2009 for the duo to finally put their kind of music on vinyl. Watts and Green (on drums and bass, respectively) joined pianists Ben Waters and Axel Zwingenberger to record the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie.
While he performed in a series of local bands, Watts attended Harrow Art School. Art school led to his first job as a graphic designer with the Charlie Daniels Studio ad agency. Charlie was 17 when he joined the Jo Jones All-Stars with whom his playing moved from trad jazz to rhythm and blues. Charlie kept himself busy at work and gigging at clubs along Soho’s Archer Street where he gained another lifelong friend in drummer Ginger Baker. It was Baker who introduced Charlie to the founding father of British blues, Alexis Korner. Korner invited Watts to join his Blues Incorporated band, but Charlie had already taken a job in Denmark. Watts returned to London in February of 1962 where he joined Korner and company playing their regular Rhythm & Blues Nights at the Ealing Jazz Club. Now working at the ad agency of Charles, Hobson, and Grey, Charlie was kept busy hopping from his straight job to band gigs. The Ealing was the spot where Watts would make first contact with a young wanna be blues band looking for a drummer.
At the time of their first meeting with Watts, The Rolling Stones membership included Brian ‘Elmo Lewis’ Jones, Ian ‘Stu’ Stewart, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards. To become the band they wanted to be, they needed a drummer like Charlie Watts, but he wasn’t interested. The economics of the situation did not favor Watts joining the upstarts; he was making good money with Blues Incorporated. They couldn’t charm him away from the Blues Incorporated gig either, so they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: five quid a week. The first Stones gig with Watts on board took place at the same Ealing Jazz Club on February 2, 1963. Bill Wyman had joined the band a month before Watts came on board. At first, Charlie stayed at the band’s dive apartment, but only for a brief time. Richards, Jones, and Watts would spend their days steeped in blues records (Charlie says, “Brian and Keith taught me about Jimmy Reed.”) while Mick toddled off to his classes at the London School of Economics.
The band was wrapping up a eight-month residency at the Crawdaddy Club when they came to the attention of their future management team of Andrew Loog Oldham and Eric Easton. Oldham immediately demoted Stewart to ‘piano playing road manager’ and Easton secured them a record deal with Decca Records. The Stones made their chart debut with a cover of Chuck Berry’s Come On on June 7, 1963. Little did any of them realize how long a road they had just started down.
As the band’s popularity soared, they scored eight No. 1 singles and eight top-five UK albums in six years. By 1969, The Stones were being introduced in America as ‘the Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Band in The World.” Charlie confided later he wasn’t so sure of this moniker: “I didn’t believe it, really. What about Little Richard? Then you have Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino, Chuck Berry’s studio band – there isn’t a better rock’n’ roll band. That’s where we got it from. Roll Over Beethoven by everybody else is a joke, really. We came close sometimes with Little Queenie or Around And Around.” While his bandmates drugged for their own entertainment and mugged for the cameras for everyone else’s, Charlie kept a low profile. He married his sculptor wife Ann Shepherd on October 14, 1964 and the couple remained together up until Charlie’s death. They would have a daughter, Seraphina, who was born in 1968. The other Stones may have lived a wild and crazy touring life, but Charlie amused himself by sketching every bed he slept in on tour. He wrote and illustrated Ode To A High Flying Bird about one of his jazz idols, Charlie Parker. His art training also came in handy designing album sleeves for the Stones..
Charlie Watts was the epitome of ‘cool’. He made it a point to be well dressed, answering the question, “Do clothes maketh the man?” by stating, “No, they don’t, but they help make the man look great. Not everybody has it. Not many people are interested, for a start, and the general public doesn’t care any more, so it’s all out the window, really.” Even at a cricket match held on a hot and humid day, Watts could be seen sporting a Prince of Wales-checked suit: “I should have turned up today in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. The thought of that is horrendous.” In a 1986 interview, he described the previous twenty-five years of his career as, “I worked five years, and spent twenty years hanging around.“ He lived a quiet but charmed life: Watts got to record with Howlin’ Wolf in 1971, perform with Ian Stewart’s Rocket 88, and release jazz albums with his own band. Life was good, until the Jagger / Richards feud played out in the 80s, keeping the band off the road. The down time led Charlie down his one long, dark, seven year path: “I hit an all-time low in my personal life and in my relationship with Mick. I was mad on drink and drugs. I became a completely different person. Not a nice one. I nearly lost my wife, family, and everything.”
During the middle section of this dark period, the cool and collected Charlie laid one on Mick’s chin. Mick had called Watts’ hotel room and asked, “Where’s my drummer?” Charlie arrived a few minutes later impeccably dressed, shaved and cologned to punch Jagger in the face. As an exclamation point, he added, “Don’t ever call me your drummer again. You’re my (expletive deleted) singer.” The lesson in ‘respecting your bandmates’ was learned and such fisticuffs between the drummer and HIS singer never reappeared. There were times during the golden age of MTV when Charlie couldn’t hold back – his facial expression told the whole story. The look on his face seemed to emote how he felt about the whole MTV craze – The Stones had become a parody of a band. I am not kidding. Watch the video of them cavorting around in sailor suits for It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll But I Like It – the smirk on Watt’s face speaks volumes. These instances were no doubt small acts of insurrection on Charlie’s part, but he was not dumb enough to walk away from his meal ticket. As silly as the Stones may have gotten in the MTV years (and they were not the worst offenders by any means), Charlie sucked it up and enjoyed the ride in his own way.
That he was able to pull himself back from the brink of self destruction by kicking his heroin habit was a good thing. Doing so by self-medicating with alcohol was not. Oddly enough, it was his wardrobe that got him totally clean. Watts later confided, “I stopped the drugs, but I drank rather heavily, and I ballooned a bit, and god, I couldn’t get some of my trousers done up. That was it. I completely stopped everything. I lived on, as Keith always reminds me, nuts, peanuts, and sultanas. That is all I ate for months. I went from Dracula to a slightly bloated Dracula, to this emaciated, little thin thing.” He stuck with his sartorial splendor to the end: “Oh yeah, a well-made suit you try to keep fitting you for thirty years is the incentive. I still wear clothes I bought thirty years ago. They cost so much money I refuse to let them go.”
Charlie Watts life wasn’t just about The Rolling Stones and clothes, however. He loved to collect American Civil War memorabilia, follow cricket, purchase first edition books, and classic cars. He would have suits specially made to match the cars, like the 1937 Lagonda Rapide in which he would sit to enjoy the engine’s purr. Owning one of these cars wasn’t a big surprise (only 25 were ever made), but Charlie never drove any of his cars. He never learned to drive. He just liked to collect them like fine art. Watts’ other love when not on the road was spending time at his Arabian horse stud farm, Halsdon Arabians.
Every drummer develops little ticks in their style and Watts was no exception. These idiosyncrasies may come from the mind numbing habit of playing the same song hundreds of times or as a way to stave off boredom. Charlie went through several periods where he would pick up his right stick off the hi-hat beat when playing the snare drum off-beat with his left hand. Normally, the right hand pattern would be counted ‘one-and two-and, three-and, four-and’ but they way Watts would stick it, his left hand would play the snare on ‘two’ and ‘four’ but his right hand ‘two’ and ‘four’ on the hi-hat would be skipped. Perhaps non-drummers would not notice such a little thing, but it drove me crazy when I first noticed it. If one finds a clip of Some Girls from the 2009 film Shine A Light, this little tic in his drumming can be seen very clearly.
Charlie’s drumming tic bothered me less when my Knockdown guitarist Ray asked me during a break at a gig at the KI Sawyer NCO Club, “Why are you playing so many cymbal crashes on the off-beat?” Apparently I would sometimes slip into a pattern where I would not hit cymbal accents on the beat. Instead of playing ‘one-two-three-four / one-two-three-CRASH’, I would play the last measure ‘one-two-three-four and CRASH’. The point was well taken and there were times when I would have to actually bear down and concentrate so I would stop doing it. Once Ray pointed out this little tic in my drumming, I self cured the little hiccup in my playing and Charlie’s occasional habit didn’t bother me any more.
Beyond his self-inflicted health problems when he was drinking and drugging to excess, Watt’s most serious health crisis came in the form of lung cancer in 2004. Fortunately, his cancer went into remission after a course of radiotherapy. There has been no indication his last health crisis (the one that would have kept him from touring) or his death on August 24, 2021 were related to the 2004 diagnosis. CRM Reviews Editor Ian Fortnam summed up the essential information in a nutshell: “And that was Charlie Watts: an extraordinary talent; the ultimate rock’n’roll drummer; the quintessential English gentleman who provided the backbeat for all of our lives for the best part of six decades; but who never really understood what all the fuss was about.”
We will wrap things up here by borrowing a sampling of tributes from across the music world that accompanied the CRM tribute penned by Fortnam: Bob Seger: His unforgettable rock solid backbeat will be remembered forever. Sheryl Crow: A hero is gone. No Words. A huge gaping hole in the universe. Thurston Moore: Bands can only be great bands if their drummer is truly great – Charlie Watts, you were essential to the language we all learned as rock’n’ roll. Paul McCartney: I knew he was ill, but I didn’t know he was this ill, so lots of love to his family and condolences to the Stones. It’ll be a huge blow to them because Charlie was a rock, and a fantastic drummer. Tony Iommi: So sorry to hear this very sad news, Charlie was such a nice guy and a major influence in the music business – he’ll be sadly missed. Glenn Hughes: Charlie was one of a kind. The perfect drummer for the Rolling Stones. His pocket is folklore, and what a lovely fellow he was. Pete Townshend: Charlie was not a rock drummer, more of a jazz drummer, and that’s why the Stones swung like the Basie band! Such a lovely man. And finally, Alice Cooper: I’ve no doubt the Stones will go on. My message to Charlie? Rest in Beat!
From WOAS-FM, we can only add – R.I.P Charlie Watts: June 2, 1941 – August 24, 2021
Top Piece Video: Okay, they are lip-syncing in this TV clip from 1966, but this is still one of my favorite examples of Charlie Watts’ drumming, PAINT IT BLACK.