“There’s an undefinable thing about drummers,” Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards told me in 1989 during the band’s Steel Wheels tour. “A lot of cats have good hands, and might be making all the right moves, and playing incredible paradiddles and shit, but it’s like the playing keeps going down the runway and never, ever takes off. Whereas with Charlie, you suddenly realize that you’re floating a few inches off the ground. Yeah, Charlie. I just look at him and I relax.”
Charlie Watts kept the beat for the Rolling Stones for over five decades, since joining the band in 1963. He was not part of the band’s “bad boy” image, however. He never participated in the band’s more outrageous behavior, was married to the same woman since 1964, preferred jazz to rock ’n’ roll, and had such a flair for traditional fashion that he was elected to Vanity Fair magazine’s International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.
But on stage and in the recording studio, his sense of groove and swing melded with Richards’ distinctive guitar style to create the deep rhythmic pocket that characterized the Stones’ music, from the driving toms of “Paint it Black” to the swing of “19th Nervous Breakdown” to the unrelenting pulse of “Satisfaction” to the disco groove of “Miss You” and to songs with a reggae feel, a laid-back blues shuffle, a Motown groove, a funk beat, or a slow ballad. Watts held it all together with a simple style that didn’t call attention to itself but provided a solid foundation for the rest of the band. And he was one of the few rock drummers who used brushes for certain songs.
In fact, he had no stories to tell about banging on pots and pans when he was a kid. “I was never one of those guys,” he told me. “My love was rhythm brushes — wire brushes. The first thing I heard that I wanted to emulate was Chico Hamilton playing brushes on ‘Walkin’ Shoes’ by Gerry Mulligan. For years I just played with brushes on a banjo head. It’s amazing how many people don’t like wire brushes. I love them.”
One thing Charlie became noted for when playing an eighth-note groove was his habit of coming off the hi-hat on the backbeats as he struck the snare drum. “I was never conscious of doing it until Jim Keltner mentioned it,” Watts said. “But I do it a lot. It really comes, I think, from coming down heavy on the backbeat. I don’t use that [matched grip] that Ringo uses. I did it for a few years, because I thought it was popular. But then I was told to go back to the other way by [longtime Stones road manager/pianist] Ian Stewart, who virtually ordered me to go back to what he called the ‘proper’ way of playing. So I went back to the military grip, and I really do prefer it. But because of the amount you ride on the hi-hat, I suppose I got in the habit of pulling the stick out of the way to get a louder sound.”
Throughout his time with the Stones, Watts stayed with a simple four-piece setup — usually a Gretsch set, which was what the jazz drummers of the 1950s and ’60s that he admired typically used. Watts never played a drum solo with the Stones. “I don’t like drum solos,” he once said. “I admire some people who do them, but generally I prefer drummers playing with the band. The challenge with rock ’n’ roll is the regularity of it. My thing is to make it a dance sound; it should swing and bounce.”
Watts kept solid time, but he was not a human metronome. Richards told me about a recording studio engineer suggesting that the Stones cut to a click track. “We did a couple of run-throughs with this little machine,” Richards recalled. “Charlie and I are looking at each other, because we know, but Charlie had to beat the machine. So he said, ‘You want it like that? Here goes,’ and he duplicated the click track tempo from the beginning of the song to the end of it. Then he said, ‘Now, what it should do is come up a little bit in tempo here, and then it should pull back there,’ which is what drumming is all about. It’s a bit of expression, instead of people looking at numbers and readouts. That doesn’t constitute rhythm; that’s just timing. That’s what Charlie knows innately, and that’s why I love him.”
Charles Robert Watts was born in London on June 2, 1941. He became a jazz fan in his early teens, and after graduating from the Harrow School of Art, he took a job as a graphic artist for a London advertising firm. At night, he played drums with various London jazz bands. He also wrote and illustrated a children’s book, Ode to a High Flying Bird, which was a tribute to jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker.
Watts moved to Scandinavia briefly to work as a graphic designer. When he came back, he joined Alexis Korner’s R&B band, Blues Incorporated. Fans of that band included future Rolling Stones Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones, who often sat in with the group. Once the Rolling Stones were formed, they pleaded with Watts to be their drummer, but he held off until they started working enough to guarantee him a steady salary.
The Stones quickly achieved phenomenal success, rivaling the Beatles. But as Charlie said in the 2003 book According to the Rolling Stones, “I wasn’t interested in being a pop idol sitting there with girls screaming. It’s not what I wanted to be, and I think it’s silly.”
But he stayed with the Stones through countless tours, 30 studio albums, and several live albums. His graphic arts background came into play when he helped design the group’s album covers, merchandise, and stage sets.
Watts said he enjoyed playing with the Stones all those years, but he couldn’t have imagined the kind of success they would have. He said that when he was working in the London clubs early in his career, “Success meant being good enough that you would get to play every night.” He added that, ironically, the Stones ultimately became so successful that they often went for long stretches of time without being able to play at all.
So Watts indulged in his first love: jazz. He led a variety of groups during his off-times with the Stones, from a large group called Rocket 88 to a 33-piece big band (The Charlie Watts Orchestra) to a quintet and a tentet. In 1992, a box set titled From One Charlie was released that contained his book, Ode to a High Flying Bird and a CD of Charlie Parker tunes performed by Charlie’s quintet, augmented with a string section. In 2000, the Charlie Watts Jim Keltner Project was released, featuring tributes to such jazz drumming icons as Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Tony Williams, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and others. In 2009, the live album The A, B, C, and D of Boogie Woogie was released, featuring Charlie on drums with a bassist and two pianists. (The title came from the first names of the four musicians.)
In 2004, Watts was diagnosed with throat cancer, but he fully recovered and continued touring and recording with the Stones.
The Stones’ 2020 U.S. tour was cancelled due to COVID. It was rescheduled for the fall of 2021, but a couple of weeks before rehearsals were to begin, it was announced that Watts would not be participating due to a recent medical procedure. Although the procedure was successful, it was said that Charlie needed some time to rest and recuperate. Steve Jordan, who had worked extensively with Keith Richards, was chosen to replace Watts on the tour.
But just a couple of weeks later, on August 24, it was announced that Charlie Watts had died.