Remembering Charlie Watts: The Bedrock Behind The Stones

Remembering Charlie Watts

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Remembering Charlie Watts: The Bedrock Behind Rock’s Greatest Body of Work

The institution that is rock and roll was shaken to its core last week when it lost the architect of its very foundation. Charlie Watts, drummer of The Rolling Stones, passed away last Tuesday at a London Hospital. The news came shortly after a spokesperson for Watts reported that he would likely not participate in early dates of The Rolling Stones upcoming No Filter tour following a medical procedure. It had been announced that producer and drummer Steve Jordan, a musical collaborator of Keith Richards since the 1980s, would fill in on the tour which is set to continue despite the loss of the group’s original drummer. During a time when the elder statesmen of rock appear to be passing in quick succession it can become increasingly difficult to adequately appreciate how significant many of them truly were to the art form. In the case of Charlie Watts, he sat behind the two biggest names in rock night after night, those of course being Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. But the truth of the matter is that Charlie Watts was as essential to The Rolling Stones as was their beloved blues through which they formed their very identity.


Born June 2nd, 1941, Charlie Watts grew up in Wembley, London before relocating with his parents and sister to Kingsbury where he would nurture his artistic interests. At the age of 10 Watts would discover the jazz music of which he would become a lifelong proponent. Delving into the music of jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton and Charlie Parker, of whom the drummer spoke reverently throughout his career and who would become perhaps his greatest musical idol, it is during this time that Watts began to develop his own musical sensibilities.

The idea had not always been for the London native to sit behind the drums. However, He initially wished to pursue alto sax in hopes of emulating rhythm and blues saxophonist Earl Bostic, another of his early influences. While Watts did not end up procuring a saxophone, he did acquire a banjo in his early teens with which he was not satisfied. Perplexed and frustrated by the fingering necessary to operate the instrument, he chose to remove the neck entirely, effectively converting it into a snare drum. Shortly afterward on Christmas of 1955 Watts was gifted his very first drum kit and made quick work of developing his competency by playing along to records by jazz greats Max Roach, Buddy Rich, and of course Charlie Parker. Soon the young drummer would become adept enough to engage with other local musicians. 

Charlie’s artistic interests were not limited to music, however. Upon graduation from secondary school he attended Harrow School of Art where he would acquire an alternative set of skills which would serve him throughout his career as a musician. Watts’ chosen area of study was graphic design, and he would later utilize his expertise in various capacities during his time with The Rolling Stones, designing the back cover of the group’s album Between the Buttons, as well as working directly with architect Ray Winkler to design the stages for various tours over the years. During his time in art school he designed a cartoon which paid tribute to Charlie Parker. The piece in question, Ode to a High Flying Bird, would later see publication in 1964. Upon his departure from art school Watts secured employment as a graphic designer for multiple advertising firms while maintaining his performance duties with local bands.  

In 1961 Watts made the acquaintance of blues guitarist Alexis Korner, leader of the local band Blues Incorporated, and was soon offered a spot as the drummer in the group. This association led him to cross paths with Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, the latter of whom would soon form his own group, incorporating Mick Jagger on lead vocals and harmonica and vehemently pursuing Watts for drum duties. Initially skeptical and reluctant to potentially jeopardize the proven financial security of his established position, the drummer eventually relented, committing to The Rolling Stones full-time and completing the first lineup of the band which also included guitarist Keith Richards, bassist Bill Wyman, and pianist Ian Stewart who, despite bowing out of the official lineup, would continue to record and tour with the band until his passing in 1985. 

Despite Watts’ prediction that the band would remain together a mere three months, they quickly cultivated a significant following, evoking a disparate amalgam of praise and criticism for their defiant public image and appropriation of American blues music. It was during this time that Watts would meet and wed Shirley Shepherd to whom he would remain married for the rest of his life. As the decade progressed the band, much like their contemporaries and profession rivals The Beatles, began to carve out a sound of their own which, while continuing to draw heavily from the blues, incorporated the personal propensities of group’s members to a greater degree. Initially attracting acclaim through the strength of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards collaborative songwriting, The Rolling Stones soon became known for their distinct sound to which Watts’ playing style was essential.

While much has been said of Keith Richards‘ patented approach to guitar which incorporates a choppy, rhythmic delivery and serves as perhaps the most evident hallmark of the band’s signature sound, it is the musical interplay between Richards and Charlie Watts that not only grounds this approach within the realm of functionality, it provides a propulsion that endows the melody itself with the facility to articulate the abstract and the mundane concurrently.

Keith Richards himself would often regale the media with tales of creative struggles in the studio which would swiftly be reconciled once Watts took his place on the drum throne and established the groove instantaneously. To the uninitiated or to those unlearned in the intricacies of composition, such an idea understandably may only exist as an abstraction. As an exercise in perspective, consider the track “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” from the band’s acclaimed 1971 album Sticky FingersOn its own, Keith Richards‘ much-lauded open G tuned intro riff to the track can elicit uncertainty as to how the groove is actually meant to be perceived. Any such irresolution is dispelled forthwith upon the crack of Charlie Watts’ snare drum which promptly establishes the song’s time and galvanized the rest of the band into formation. As effective and unique an approach as any, this technique would be one to which the band would revisit countless times throughout their career, utilizing it to great effect on songs such as “Brown Sugar” and “Silver Train.” 

 

This was essentially Charlie’s function within the band, that of the backseat driver. He directed the band, but it was not a role which he insisted upon or in which he necessarily even relished. Rather, the band deferred to him. His musical instinct, particularly in regard to time, was simply too sharp to ignore. Made up of the finest musicians in rock, The Rolling Stones had all the musical pieces they needed and more, but without Watts’ assured, unwavering backbeat, it was unclear just how those pieces were meant to fit together. It was the simplicity, the drive, and the patient propulsion of the drumming that allotted the looseness of the rest of the band a certain consistency that endowed it with an undeniable quality, the same quality that will without fail possess your feet four seconds into the intro of “Start Me Up.”

The vast oasis of riffs that permeate the band’s catalogue and serve as the hooks of the music rely heavily on Keith Richards‘ personal, instinctual approach to his instrument, on which he applies an inordinate exploration of space, often interspersed with rapid, percussive flourishes.It is a deceptively tricky approach to guitar playing, and a lesser drummer would get lost with ease. This is due to the style’s reliance on frequent stops and an emphasis on the upbeat, but Watts’ ability to play the tunes completely straight provides a push-and-pull rhythmic quality that came to define the band’s iconic sound. The sophistication with which he was able to imply notes and rhythms is simply unmatched.

There is, however, a certain quality of Watts’ approach to drums that veers further from the abstract of theoretical complexities and may be more perceptible to the casual consumer, particularly in a visual medium. This being Watt’s proclivity to pull his right-hand drumstick from the hi-hat as he plays the snare with his left during each measure of a song. The technique not only emphasizes the impact of the snare itself along with the downbeat, but also the effect of the surrounding hi-hats on the upbeat. The overall effect produced is an enhanced sense of swing, a central component not only of The Rolling Stones music but also of Watts’ beloved jazz. This technique features on essentially every Rolling Stones recording from the mid-1970s onward, and can be heard prominently on tracks such as “Miss You” and “She’s So Cold.”

Analyses of The Rolling Stones’ music will frequently cite the subtlety of Watts’ approach as a key element of the band’s output, and rightfully so, as rhythmic nuance is assuredly a defining factor in what makes The Rolling Stones the band they are. However, let it not be said that Charlie Watts could not play as aggressively as any other drummer at times when the song called for it. This is perhaps most clearly evident on 1978’s Some Girls, an album which many interpreted as the veteran group’s response to the escalating influence of punk rock. Tracks such as “Lies” and “Respectable” from this era see the even-tempered accompanist thrashing away with such reckless abandon that, if not for the ubiquity of his signature feel, a listener might be hard-pressed to determine whether it was actually Charlie Watts behind the drums at all. 

The Rolling Stones have never been a band that struggled to find an audience, and they produced an impressive number of classic albums during the 1960s and 1970s. But as their most successful decade gave way to the 1980s, the group found themselves in a precarious position within a rapidly evolving musical climate. Antipathy rooted in musical identity began to emerge between chief songwriters Mick Jagger and Keith Richards with the former’s avidity to push the band in a more contemporary direction conflicting directly with the latter’s obstinate allegiance to the band’s blues roots.

Both Jagger and Keith Richards would pursue solo work as a result, leaving  The Rolling Stones in professional limbo for a time. It is also during this period that Watts, who previously had abstained from all but the most moderate of participation in the consumption of drugs and alcohol, began to lead an uncharacteristically excessive personal lifestyle. Charlie Watts himself would later attribute his behavior to problems at home.

It is unclear as to whether the state of the band at the time contributed in any way to the drummer’s personal issues, but by the time they regrouped for 1986’s Dirty Work each member seemed to be operating on a completely separate wavelength from his bandmates. Tensions were so high, in fact, that the five members of the group were seldom present for sessions as a collective, instead opting to overdub their respective tracks in the absence of other members. Mick Jagger in particular is said to have been exceedingly detached from the proceedings, choosing to allocate an increasing aggregate of time to his solo career.

Watt’s participation in the sessions was also extremely limited due to his personal struggles, which impelled the band to recruit Steve Jordan and Anton Fig to round out the record’s drum tracks. The resulting album is generally regarded as a nadir in The Rolling Stones’ discography, and the band would once again part ways upon the LP’s completion rather than embark upon their customary promotional tour. 

Watts was soon able to relinquish the detrimental lifestyle to which he had recently become accustomed, and whether it be due to the espousal of a renewed perspective or the ongoing hiatus of The Rolling Stones, he would finally engage in the professional pursuit of the jazz music he had always held dear. This would mark the inception of the drummer’s solo career of which the first release was 1986’s Live at Fulham Town Hall, a big band jazz performance with an ensemble dubbed The Charlie Watts Orchestra. Watts would continue to release jazz albums in various capacities throughout the ensuing decades, organizing a five-piece group known as The Charlie Watts Quintet with whom he would release four albums, as well as a ten-piece band under the moniker The Charlie Watts Tentet with whom he would record the 2004 live album Watts at Scott’s. Watts’ final release under his own name would be Charlie Watts meets the Danish Radio Big Band which was recorded live at the Danish Radio Concert Hall in 2010.

By the 1990s, The Rolling Stones had established themselves not only as a lucrative touring act, but also as a highly profitable brand. As such, though they did continue to tour and release new music, the band were able to operate at a less hectic pace professionally. This allowed for further exploration of personal interests, which for Watts included the luxury vehicles he collected and admired despite never having had a driver’s license. Fashion was also an area of great interest for the drummer, and was one of the more noteworthy aspects of his public image. Watts’ renowned sense of style was acknowledged officially when he landed a spot in Vanity Fair’s International Best Dressed Hall of Fame List, as well as The Daily Telegraph’s list of the World’s Best Dressed Men

Watts continued to play with The Rolling Stones until his passing, with an August, 2019 show marking his final live performance, although he did join them for a live-streamed April, 2020 rendition of their 1969 classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” which raised money for COVID-19 relief. His final recorded album with the band was 2016’s Blue and Lonesome, a covers album comprised exclusively of classic blues numbers that inspired the band in their early days, though the final Rolling Stones album of original material to feature Watts on drums would be 2005’s A Bigger Bang. Watts’ measured, unassuming demeanor often came across as a direct juxtaposition to that of his bandmates whose flamboyant presentation and personal excesses would constitute a great deal of the band’s public image. When asked of his contributions to The Rolling Stones his response was always characteristically humble, insisting that he simply played a supporting role in helping his bandmates do their jobs.

Charlie Watts had no desire for accolades or attention, choosing to maintain a relatively low profile throughout his life despite being one of the most famous people on the planet. He was, by all accounts, a gentleman and a straight shooter. His contributions to the way music is played and heard are invaluable and innumerable, and it truly is not possible to fathom what rock and roll would sound like today were it not for the unwavering swagger of Charlie Watts’ impenetrable groove. It is seldom that the world of music incurs a loss of this magnitude, and that loss imbues the hearts of countless listeners and musicians around the world for whom the foundation is now missing.

Remembering Charlie Watts: The Bedrock Behind The Stones article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021

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  1. Scott Hedegard August 30, 2021

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