On a superficial level, Charlie Watts had always been the strangest Rolling Stone, the one who never quite fitted the most Dionysian rockers.
While his bandmates maintained an attitude of extravagant carelessness, Watts, who had been the band’s drummer since 1963, kept a calm, even somber public figure. He avoided the limelight, wore bespoke suits from Savile Row tailors, and remained married to the same woman for over 50 years.
Watts even seemed barely interested in rock ‘n’ roll itself. He claimed it had little impact on him and favored – and defended – the jazz legacy of Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich, and Max Roach. “I never liked Elvis until I met Keith Richards,” Watts told British music magazine Mojo in 1994. “The only rock and roll player I liked when I was young was Fats Domino.”
Even the Stones’ celebrated longevity was less of a life’s work than a laborious job for Watts, punctuated by brief moments of excitement. In the documentary “25×5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones” from 1989, he summarized what was then a quarter of a century on the clock with one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands in the world: “Work five years and 20 years” . hang out.”
Yet Watts, who died Tuesday at the age of 80 as the longest-serving member of the Stones outside of Richards and Mick Jagger, was an integral part of the band’s sound, with a rhythmic approach that was as much part of the Stones’ musical fingerprint as Richards was ‘Sharp-edged guitar or Jagger’s sneering vocals.
“For me, Charlie Watts was the secret essence of it all,” wrote Richards in his 2010 memoir “Life”.
Watts’ backbeat gave early hits like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” a steady testosterone surge and later tracks like “Tumbling Dice” and “Beast of Burden” a sluggish pace.
His unmistakable drum style – playing with a minimum of movement, often slightly behind the beat – gave the group’s sound a barely perceptible but inimitable rhythmic swing. Bill Wyman, longtime bassist for the Stones, described this as a by-product of the group’s unusual chemistry. While in most rock bands the guitarist follows the drummer, the Stones turned that relationship around – Richards, the guitarist, led the attack, followed by Watts (and everyone else).
“It’s probably a question of personality,” Wyman was quoted as saying in Victor Bockris’ book Keith Richards: The Biography. “Keith is a very confident and stubborn player. Immediately there is something like a hundredth of a second delay between the guitar and Charlie’s lovely drumming, and that will completely change the sound. That’s why it is difficult for people to copy us. “
Watts’ technique involved the idiosyncratic use of the hi-hat, the sandwich cymbal that drummers usually rock with metronomic regularity. Watts tended to pull his right hand away on the prelude, giving his left a free path to the snare drum – which gave the beat a strong, but somewhat unbalanced, oomph.
Even Watts wasn’t sure where he got this quirk from. Perhaps he got it from his friend Jim Keltner, one of the most widely traveled studio drummers in rock music. But the move became a signature of Watts, and the musicians were amazed at his hi-hat choreography. “If you look at it, you get an arrhythmia,” wrote Richards.
For Watts, it was just an efficient way to get a hard hit on the snare.
“I never knew I did,” he said in a 2018 video interview. “I think the reason I did it is to get my hand out of the way for a bigger backbeat.”
Watts’ style of music can be traced back to London in the mid-1950s, just before rock found its way into the post-war generation that would dominate pop music a decade later. As a young man he was infatuated with jazz and often jammed with a bass-playing neighbor, Dave Green. In 1962, after stints in local jazz bands, he joined the group Blues Incorporated led by guitarist Alexis Korner, which was influenced by the electric Chicago blues and R&B.
“I was into rhythm and blues,” recalls Watts in a 2012 interview in the New Yorker. “When they asked me to play, I didn’t know what it was. I thought it meant Charlie Parker, playing slowly. “
While Watts was with Blues Incorporated, Jagger, Richards, and Brian Jones – the Rolling Stones’ other founding guitarist – all went through and played with the group. Watts joined the Stones in early 1963, and in June the band released their first single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On”.
The Stones quickly took their place as leaders in the British invasion of rock, the rowdy complement to the Beatles. But Watts never quite achieved that profile. On the band’s early tours of the United States, he acted like a middle-aged tourist and made pilgrimages to jazz clubs.
As the Rolling Stones lifestyle got more extravagant, Watts became more lonely and eccentric. He became an expert on Georgian silver; he collected vintage cars, but never learned to drive. Journalist Stanley Booth described Watts in his book “The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones” about the fame and depravity of the band’s 1969 tour of America as “the most polite man in the world”.
At the same time, Watts often acted as a kind of ironic mascot for the band. On the covers of “Between the Buttons” (1967) and “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” (1970), on which a smiling, jumping Watts posed with a donkey.
When members of the Stones moved to France in 1971 to avoid high UK tax rates, Richards’ rented mansion in Villefranche-sur-Mer became the center of the band’s creativity and decadence. Watts and Wyman largely abstained and were absent from some of the ad hoc recording sessions that led to the band’s next album, Exile on Main St.
“You haven’t been very dissolute to me,” Watts later said of the meetings. “I mean, I lived with Keith, but I used to sit and play and then go to bed.”
While with the Rolling Stones, he was invariably laconic and usually stayed in the background during public appearances. But later in life, when Watts indulged his love of jazz in the long sections between Stones projects – his groups included the Charlie Watts Orchestra and two with Green, the Charlie Watts Quintet and the ABC & D of Boogie Woogie – he opened up and gave occasional interviews.
His favorite subjects were his love of jazz and how strange it was to be a member of the Rolling Stones.
“I’ve played with a lot of bands and the Stones were just a different one,” he told The Observer, a British newspaper, in 2000. “I thought they would last three months, then a year, then three years.” I stopped counting. “