An ME Tribute to Charlie Watts

“Charlie Watts has always been the bed that I lie on musically.” – Keith Richards.

Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts died at the age of 80 on August 24, 2021, five days ago as I write this. Lest ye think that somehow the Music Enthusiast missed this momentous occasion, you would be wrong. ME has been otherwise engaged and then off for a few days of sun ‘n fun minus laptop, hence unable to post. 

Now I don’t comment on the passing of every single rocker in every single band. But the Rolling Stones aren’t just any other band. And so, I would feel remiss on not saying something, hopefully, something of value…

Wikipedia: Charles Robert Watts was born in Bloomsbury, London, to Charles Richard Watts, a lorry driver for the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway, and wife Lillian Charlotte who had been a factory worker.

Watts’s neighbor Dave Green was a childhood friend, and they remained friends until Watts’s death. Green became a jazz bassist and recalls that as boys, “we discovered 78rpm records. Charlie had more records than I did … We used to go to Charlie’s bedroom and just get these records out.

Watts’s earliest records were jazz recordings. He remembered owning 78 RPM records of Jelly Roll Morton and Charlie Parker. Green recalls that Watts also “had the one with Monk and the Johnny Dodge Trio. Charlie was ahead of me in listening and acquisitions.”

Charlie later said that he “bought a banjo, and didn’t like the dots on the neck. So I took the neck off, and at the same time I heard a drummer called Chico Hamilton, who played with Gerry Mulligan, and I wanted to play like that, with brushes. I didn’t have a snare drum, so I put the banjo head on a stand.”

In the late 50’s he played drums in local jazz bands, eventually meeting Alexis Korner who asked him to join Blues Incorporated. This was incredibly fortuitous because as I wrote about a while back, for a whole Korners’ band was THE center of R&B in London. (Charlie, like just about every other London rocker had gone to art school for graphic design and was later instrumental in designing some of their stage layouts.)

In mid-1962, Watts first met Brian Jones, Ian “Stu” Stewart, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards, who also frequented the London clubs. They couldn’t afford to pay him at first and so he didn’t join what would become the Rolling Stones until early 1963. His first public appearance as a permanent member was at the Ealing Jazz Club on 2 February 1963. By this time Bill Wyman had joined the band and the Rolling Stones were (and still, remarkably are) a thing.

I’ve read a lot – I mean a TON – about the Stones over the years. And if there is one constant in what Keith Richards has always said it’s his effusive, consistent praise for Charlie’s drumming. The interesting thing about their sound is that Charlie followed Keith’s playing rather than the reverse. So Charlie was always behind the beat which gave the band a certain swing, a certain feel that was hard to duplicate.

Here’s Keef from a couple of years ago talking about how Charlie influenced his playing.

And here’s one of my very favorite drummers, Stewart Copeland, talking about Charlie’s technique:

Married for fifty years to the same woman, Charlie was the low-key guy, the straight man to the Glimmer Twins’ bad boy antics. Remarkably, he stayed faithful to his wife all that time on the road, even at the Playboy mansion!

But like everybody who comes into the Stones orbit, he eventually had his problems with drugs and alcohol, coming out of it in the mid-’80s. My favorite Charlie Story from that period is this one:

In the mid-1980s, an intoxicated Mick Jagger phoned Watts’s hotel room in the middle of the night, asking, “Where’s my drummer?” Watts reportedly got up, shaved, dressed in a suit, put on a tie and freshly shined shoes, descended the stairs, and punched Jagger in the face, saying: “Never call me your drummer again. You’re my singer.” 

I’ll point out a couple of numbers where I think Charlie’s drumming is especially sharp. Here’s “Paint it Black”

And “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'”, another great tune where Charlie is in that pocket and drives it as the song shifts beat:

And lastly, here is the other side of Charlie Watts doing Duke Ellington’s “Night Train.”

Charlie Watts is number 12 on Rolling Stone’s list of greatest drummers. One listen to any of the seemingly endless number of Stones songs will tell you why. There was no way they would have ever become The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll band without him. “Charlie put the roll in rock and roll,” Keith said. And who am I to argue?

Finally, here is a tribute video the band put together:

 

17 thoughts on “An ME Tribute to Charlie Watts

  1. Well said, Jim. Charlie Watts must have been the most famous unassuming rock drummer I can think of.

    Usually, when you think of big rock drummers, you picture large kits and folks like Jason Bonham, Keith Moon or Ian Paice. The fact that Watts who I believe wasn’t very tall still optically towered over his drum kit gives you a good indication how small it was. And yet, this man powered one of the greatest rock bands ever for so many years, proofing you don’t need a giant drum kit to be a giant drummer.

    While I sort of knew Watts had originally come from jazz, I had not appreciated that side of him. That clip of him playing “Night Train” with these other jazz guys is beautiful. You really get a sense how much he loved that music.

    I might be wrong here, but somehow I feel Watts wouldn’t have been shattered if The Rolling Stones had broken up. He simply would have continued what he frequently did in-between Stones tours and recording sessions, i.e., playing jazz.

    That Stewart Copeland clip is fascinating. I could watch that kind of stuff all day long. I had already watched the clip with Keith. His pirate laughter always cracks me up. It’s classic Keith!

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    1. Yeah, he was the stately gentleman drummer of rock and roll. I wanted to show him playing jazz ‘coz that’s the side of Charlie we rarely saw. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that the songs work as well as they do in part because of Charlie’s groove. Keith genuinely loved the guy and must be shattered. (No pun intended.)

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        1. DB was 2000; Whitlock was about a year later, and Bonnie was June 2004.
          I went down to Oxford, MS, to visit BW, and met up with Bonnie at the Shoals studio.

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        2. Well, I’d be interested to read them but not sure if I’d want to post or publish them. Ship sailed on that one.

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  2. How could you not like the guy. I was listening to a radio show (rare for me) and a drummer picked 3 songs that he thought showed some of his favorite work by Watts. He talked musician talk like you “In the pocket” etc. (I do like that inside knowledge as you know). The songs were ‘Paint It Black’, ‘Get What you Want’ and ‘Rambler’.
    That jazz cut is so good. Hamilton is killer on the sax. Him and ahis buddy talking at the end of the clip is the kind of stuff I gravitate to. I could sit in on that session all night plus listen to those old guys swap music stories. Fantastic.
    I did that take a while ago on ‘the Rollins solo on ‘Waiting On a Friend’. That would have been Charlies doing.

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    1. And so it pains me to say that ‘Get What You Want,’ famously does NOT have Mr. W. on drums. In fact, he could not get the groove so producer Jimmy Miller, himself a pretty decent drummer, laid it down. As to Charlie and jazz, yeah that was his real first love. But he clearly loved rock and roll too and loved that band. It’s just not the same without him. As to the Rollins thing, yeah I think you’re spot on.

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      1. You have to remember Im only as good as where I get my info. CB would have been more thorough. Charlie made the right move for the wallet plus if you’re going to play rock n roll The Stones do it pretty good.

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        1. Yes, well that one even fooled the drummer you mentioned. Back when the Beatles started, George Martin didn’t like Ringo’s drumming on ‘Love Me Do.’ So he had a studio guy play it. Ringo never entirely forgave him. You’d be surprised how many times studio guys sub for rockers who can’t cut it on a particular thing.

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