By Jay Luster
“We starved ourselves to pay for him! We went shoplifting to get Charlie Watts.”
Keith Richards, Life
If Keith Richards is the Rolling Stones’ leader, rhythm guitarist, song writer, and in-house wild man, and Mick Jagger’s strutting stage presence is, as observed by Steely Dan’s leader, Donald Fagen, like “a rooster on acid,” Charlie Watts has always been the greatest rock and roll band in the world’s beating heart. As reliable as an old Timex watch, Watts, up until now, had never missed a show. While there were no bombastic drum solos, spandex costumes or scarves for him, like his more flamboyant band mates, Watts, saw himself as just a guy doing a job he loved. After he was hired on as the Stones drummer, Watts, a studio musician and jazz drummer by preference, figured the gig would last a few months or maybe a year. Now, nearly 60 years later, and on the doorstep of yet another tour, the 80-year-old dapper country gentleman has passed away from unspecified causes.
Though he did have the requisite long hair of an early 1970’s rock star, Watts true style was in the clothes he wore, the Victorian castle he lived in, and the love of his wife of 57 years, Shirley Ann Shepherd. They met even before he joined the Stones, and she was there through it all. For 57 years, she helped him through drug addiction, bore him a child, and nurtured him through years of being on the road surrounded by the craziness that was The Rolling Stones. He never considered himself a rock star, shunned the lifestyle, and disliked giving interviews. When asked why he finally did step into the limelight, he quipped, “Mick got fed up with having to do all of them (interviews), and I was roped in.”
Starting as a blues band doing covers of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon tunes, The Stones soon expanded into more mainstream and experimental music, and with it, their influence grew, as did Charlie’s. For example, 1968’s Sympathy For the Devil, begins and carries on throughout with Watts samba infused rim shots and muffled snare. Listen a little closer, you can hear his influence in James Gadson’s drumming in Bill Withers R&B/Soul hit, “Use Me”, and Andrew Smith’s performance on The Spinners’ mega-hit, “Rubberband Man.” His pounding tom-toms on “Brown Sugar” may have echoed Ginger Baker’s spaghetti western toms from “Sunshine Of Your Love”, but it also set the pace for the next generation of power drummers.
As time went on, and their fame and wealth increased, Charlie Watts shied further from the limelight. Eventually, he settled his family and dogs, into Foscombe House in Ashleworth, Gloucestershire, England. The Victorian mansion boasts soaring castellated towers, and turrets, as well as a conservatory, grounds, and gardens. When he would emerge from his quiet retirement, he did so in Savile Row hand tailored wool suits. On any given day, you might find him styling anything from an upscale banker look, to Jiminy Cricket, including top hat and tails.
In the 1980’s, the band reached new heights and a brand-new audience of kids, through MTV videos. While the rest of the band is hamming it up, and mugging for the camera on songs like “Respectable”, and “She’s So Cold”, Watts has to work hard to dampen his smile. He has the knowing look of an older brother who is both proud of, and a little embarrassed, by his family. Perhaps it is that the band has been together for nearly six decades, which has made them like brothers. In Life, Richards talked about the time Watts nearly knocked Jagger out after the singer called Charlie, “my drummer.” When asked about the incident on 60 Minutes, by Ed Bradley, with his typical percipient smile, he said, “Sometimes brothers fight.”
It seems, with the passing of Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones are likely finished as a touring act, and maybe even as a studio band. He was integral to their recording process in a way many drummers aren’t. Frequently, when bands go into the studio, the first parts recorded are the drums and bass. The Stones were very different. Richards wrote the music, and Jagger filled in the lyrics, but recording the songs wouldn’t take place until Richards, and Watts were on the same page. They would work on the tune until the rhythm guitar, and drums were glued together, and then the rest of the band would fill in around it. This unusual arrangement worked for them, but it also speaks to the importance of this particular drummer to this particular band. Though he never was the flashiest, or best-known drummer of his generation; he is the guy who kept the Rolling Stones, the greatest rock and roll band in the world, grounded and musically connected to one another, and their audience.
June 2, 1941 to August 24, 2021