A portrait of Charlie Watts, likely taken in the 2010s. He is wearing a gray suit. A classical painting is in the background

Remembering the Rolling Stones’ Drummer Charlie Watts: 1941-2021

A portrait of Charlie Watts. He is wearing a suit and tie, and there is a black backdrop.
Charlie Watts: June 2, 1941-August 24, 2021. Source: Variety

The Rolling Stones are known as “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World”. So far, they have certainly lived up to that title. Since forming in 1962, the Stones have become one of the biggest, longest running, and most successful bands of all time. They have sold over 200 million records, which makes them one of the highest selling acts in history. The Stones also have a string of record-selling concert tours under their belt. As recently as 2019, the Stones embarked on a global tour, named the No Filter Tour. The Covid-19 pandemic put a halt to that tour, but the band announced they will resume live shows in 2021.

Like any band, The Rolling Stones have had several line-up changes. The only constant members have been lead singer Mick Jagger, guitarist Keith Richards, and drummer Charlie Watts. Tragically, Watts passed away on August 24, 2021. For 58 years, Watts provided the solid rhythmic backbone to the Stones’ music. His quiet and unassuming demeanor contrasted with the outgoing nature of Jagger and Richards. He was also known as the best dressed member of the Stones. The Daily Telegraph and Vanity Fair both named Charlie Watts as one of world’s best dressed men. His passing led to an outpouring of tributes by his bandmates, colleagues, and fans. Instead of canceling the planned tour, the Stones announced the upcoming shows will be a tribute in Watts’ honour.

This article will look at the career of Charlie Watts, both with the Rolling Stones and his own solo projects. A list of Watts’ best drumming songs will also be given. But first, let’s look at the life of Charlie Watts.

Early Career

Charlie Watts was born on June 2, 1941 in London, England. Growing up in post-war England, Watts discovered jazz music. Jazz soon became his favorite genre, and remained so for the rest of his life. The young Watts began collecting jazz records. His interest in music eventually led him to pick up an instrument. At age 13, he picked up the banjo, but quickly changed his mind. According to Watts, “I bought a banjo, but I didn’t like the dotes 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 stand. ” With this improvised kit, a drumming legend was born. 

As he grew older, Watts’ parents bought him a larger kit. To hone his skills, Watts practiced along to jazz records he had collected. After he finished university, Watts worked as a graphic designer while occasionally playing drums with jazz groups around London. 

 Meeting the Stones

Charlie Watts sitting behind the drums during a T.V. appearance by the Rolling Stones
Charlie Watts with the Rolling Stones in the 1960s. Source: The New York Times

In 1961, he met Alexis Korner, a legendary English blues musician. Korner invited Watts to join his band Blues Incorporated. Watts joined, and he played with the band while still working as a graphic designer.

This all changed in 1963. Watts was not the first choice as the Rolling Stones’ drummer. He had met the Stones members during 1962, as he and the others would frequent the same clubs. But it was in 1963 when Watts became a permanent member of the band. His first show with the band occurred on February 2, 1963. And from then on, Watts was behind the kit, never to relinquish his position.

With The Stones

As a member of the Rolling Stones, Watts played on some of their most memorable hits. His solid drum playing can be heard on mega hits Brown Sugar, Start Me Up, and Satisfaction.

A photo shot for the Rolling Stones in 1969. From left or to right: Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Bill Wyman.
Charlie Watts with the Rolling Stones during a publicity photo shoot. Source: WBUR

During the Rolling Stones’ meteoric rise to fame, Watts preferred to stand in the background while his bandmates made the headlines. While Jagger, Richards, and Stones founder Brian Jones went out on the town, Watts stayed at home. Charlie enjoyed the quiet family life at home with his wife Shirley, who he remained with from 1964 until his death. As the Stones’ ventured into rock and roll excess (namely sex, booze, and drugs), Charlie did his best to stay away from that area. He was seen as the most reserved and most disciplined member of the Rolling Stones. While Keith Richards was busted time and again for drug possession, Watts remained scot-free, thanks in part to his dislike of druggy indulgences.

Charlie’s quiet demeanor was most evident in the numerous interviews he conducted throughout his career. Watt’s was at his quietest in the 60’s and 70’s; he would give simple, short answers to questions. This subdued persona created a mystique around Watts. Journalists and fans wondered what Charlie really had to say; they wanted Watts to let his guard down and open up.

Personal Troubles

Despite his reserved nature towards drugs and alcohol, Charlie Watts eventually developed a habit to both. This occurred during a brief period in the mid-1980s. At the time, the Rolling Stones were going through a career slump. While album sales were still somewhat high, critics began to pan the band’s work. The Stones’ 1986 album Dirty Work was a critical flop. To make matters worse, friction emerged in the Jagger and Richards relationship. Things got so bad between the two that the Stones went on hiatus. Both Jagger and Richards went on to pursue solo careers.

During the hiatus, Charlie took to drugs and alcohol as a way to escape the situation. In addition, Watts’ daughter Seraphina had been expelled from school for smoking marijuana. His troubled personal life combined with his uncertain career with the Stones only worsened Charlie’s substance abuse. He soon began to use heroin regularly. Watts was at risk of losing his family and career. All of this occurred without the public’s knowledge. It’s a testament to Charlie Watt’s unassuming nature.

But Watts triumphed over his demons. He quickly weaned himself off drink and drugs and rebuilt his family life. It was also during this time when the Rolling Stones were preparing for their comeback. In 1989, the band released Steel Wheels; it was a commercial and critical success. The band then embarked on a massive global tour that would set the standard for their concert tours for years to come.

Other Career Pursuits

The album cover for Charlie Watts meets The Danish Radio Big Band. The cover is a colorful drawing of various jazz musicans.
Outside of the Rolling Stones, Charlie Watts enjoyed playing in jazz bands. Source: JazzTimes

Outside of the Rolling Stones, Charlie Watts has pursued other musical projects. During the 1980s, he formed the Charlie Watts Big Band. This group featured some of the greatest British jazz musicians. The group toured the US and recorded a live album in 1986. In 1991, the Charlie Watts Quintet was formed; this group also released several jazz albums. In 2000, Watts paired with fellow drummer Jim Keltner to form the Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner project. The duo recorded a tribute to their favorite jazz drummers.

All of these jazz-influenced projects helped Watts through the bouts of dysfunction within the Rolling Stones. The groups served as a distraction from the fame and pressure of being a Rolling Stone. And best of all for Charlie, he got to play the music he was passionate about.

Career in the 2000s

Charlie Watts sitting behind his drum kit on stage.
Charlei Watts onstage with the Stones in the 2000s. Source: BBC

Charlie Watts was still going strong with the Rolling Stones at the beginning of the new millennium. Unfortunately, he experienced a health scare when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004. Watts underwent radiotherapy, and the cancer went into remission.

On August 5, 2021, Watts decided he would sit out the remaining dates of the Stones’ U.S. No Filter tour. This was the first time Charlie would not be behind the kit during a Rolling Stones concert tour. On August 24, the shocking news emerged that Charlie Watts had passed away at a London Hospital at the age of 80. Fans and musicians around the world paid tribute to Watts. Many praised his quiet, professional, and humble nature. Many drummers commended his playing style, citing Watts as an influence on their playing.

A few days later, the Stones made the difficult decision to continue their tour. According to the band’s spokesperson, the remaining shows will be a tribute to the life of Charlie Watts.

Drum Style

A photo of Keith Moon drumming onstage during the 1970s.
Fellow drummer Keith Moon embodied the flashy playing style that Charlie Watts avoided. Soruce: Rolling Stone

As a drummer, Charlie Watts contrasted many of his peers. Rock drummers of the 60s and 70s were thought of as wild men who pounded the kit heavily. Many drummers were noted for their flashy, explosive playing style. Two examples that come to mind are Keith Moon of The Who and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin. Charlie did not have a flashy playing style. You wouldn’t see him play a loud, thunderous drum solo like Bonham would. His drum fills were never chaotic like those of Moon. Instead, Watts had a more basic style of playing that had a swinging quality to it, which resulted from his jazz background. Charlie stuck to the basic rhythm, holding down the various components of the song.

His simple, no-nonsense drum playing became the backbone of the Stones’ music. His bandmates referred him to the engine or the heartbeat of the Rolling Stones. In essence, Charlie Watts was the driver of the Stones’ music.

Charlie Watts’ Best Songs

The following are Rolling Stones songs that best showcase Charlie Watts’ drumming. Again, Charlie is not the most flamboyant drummer, so his drumming may not stick out the first time you hear the song. But if you listen closely, you’ll discover the great drumming technique of Charlie Watts.

Honkey Tonk Women

The cover for the Honky Tonk Women single. Members of the Rolling Stones are dressed in costumes (police officers, sailors, bartender etc). Two women appear on the cover as well.
Honky Tonk Women was an immediate hit when it was released in 1969. Source:Album Cover Stickers

This hard rocking number, released in 1969, was originally intended as a country song. However, the band decided to increase the tempo and add electric guitars, transforming the song into a rock and roll classic.

Honky Tonk Women opens with a simple cowbell riff which is quickly followed by a steady drum beat. The rhythm feels somewhat unconventional when the guitar riff joins in. However, this rhythm blends in seamlessly when the song reaches the verses and chorus. While Charlie’s drums remain straightforward throughout the song, he gradually and subtly uses his drums to increase the song’s tempo. This is most evident in the song’s conclusion, as Charlie’s drums build up the intensity until the grand finale.

With a steady but unconventional backbeat, Charlie’s drums on Honky Tonk Women helped the song reach the top of the charts in several countries during the summer of 1969.

Street Fighting Man

The cover for the Street Fighting Man single. The photo shows police officers arresting a young man while a young woman protests. The eyes of each person are blacked out.
Charlie Watts played a simple 1930s jazz drum kit on Street Fighting Man. Source: Entertainment Memorabilia – Heritage Auctions

Street Fighting Man may be the most political song in the Stones’ catalogue. The song was released in 1968, a year in which protests sprung up in countries across the world. Street Fighting Man has a driving and aggressive tone, but the way in which this was achieved is certainly unique.

For starters, not a single electric guitar appears on the track. Richards achieved the guitar tone by playing an acoustic guitar into a Philips cassette recorder. The recorder was then turned up to full volume and recorded; this created the overloaded guitar sound. The loud pounding drum sound did not come from a huge kit. In fact, Watts recorded the song using a 1930s toy drum kit called a London Jazz Kit Set. According to Charlie, he found the kit in an antiques shop and decided to bring it to the recording session. Once again, Charlie doesn’t play any flashy drum fills or solos, but the immense drum sound of the song makes it seem like he’s playing all kinds of complicated patterns. During post production, echo was added to the drums to get the loud reverberating feel .

Watts’ use of a simple drum kit to achieve a full, driving sound is the reason why Street Fighting Man ranks as one of his greatest drumming moments.

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking

Charlie Watts drumming during a practice session, circa 1970s.
On Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Charlie Watts used a funk and Latin influenced drum rhythm. Source: Morrison Hotel Gallery.

This stand-out song from the album Sticky Fingers features several iconic moments. The track begins as a hard-rock tune punctuated by the guitar work of Keith Richards. It then transitions to a Latin influenced jam section featuring a saxophone solo by Bobby Keys and a guitar solo by Mick Taylor. While these elements get all the attention, the drum work on Can’t You Hear Me Knocking is just as notable.

As soon as the song starts, Charlie establishes the funk-influenced feel with his drum. His simple drum pattern immediately creates a head-bobbing, danceable rhythm. During the jam section, Watts is able to seamlessly transition into a Latin-based beat. His subtle drumming ties the jam down; he ensures the musicians do not stray from the song’s basic structure.

Charlie Watts’ funk and Latin influenced drumming adds another dimension to the already stellar Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.

Midnight Rambler

The album cover for Let It Bleed. The cover is unique. A decorative cake is suspended above a vinyl copy of the album. On the cake, miniature figures of the Rolling Stones hold their respective instruments. Underneath the cake appears to be a tire, clock, and film cannisters. A phonograph player needle also appears.
Midnight Rambler, off of the album Let It Bleed, showcases Charlie Watts’ expert drumming. Source: Cover Me Songs

Keith Richards once described Midnight Rambler as a blues opera. And he isn’t that far off from the truth. First appearing on the 1969 album Let It Bleed, Midnight Rambler starts off as a blues-based shuffle. There are several tempo changes within the song. The tempo speeds up, slows down, and then increases again. With all of these dynamic changes, one can see why Richards calls this song a blues opera.

Watts’ drums dictate these dynamic shifts in tempo. He effortlessly adapts to the tempo change, all the while making sure the other musicians do not stray from the song’s rhythmic structure. Charlie uses his kit to steadily increase the intensity of the song’s rhythm. As the song reaches its conclusion, Watts gradually increases the tempo until the band reaches the explosive finale.

Midnight Rambler is one of the longest Rolling Stones songs. It became a staple of their live shows, with some renditions running close to 11 minutes. A great live recording appears on the 1969 live album Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out. On this recording and the original studio version, Charlie showcases his awareness and feel for rhythm.

Conclusion

A photo of a younger and older Charlie Watts. In the younger version, he is smoking a cigarette, while in the older version he is drumming. The photo is in black and white.
Charlie Watts then and now. Source: The Ringer.

Charlie Watts was a member of the Rolling Stones for 58 years. During his tenure with the band, Watts appeared on every album and played the drums at every concert, helping the Rolling Stones become one of the biggest bands in the world. Charlie reached fame and fortune with the Stones, but unlike some of his bandmates, he preferred to live away from the spotlight. His reserved, unassuming, humble nature is reflected in his drum style. Instead of utilizing a flashy style like some of his peers, Charlie opted for a simple approach, which was heavily influenced by his love of jazz music. Charlie’s bandmates named him the engine or heartbeat of the Rolling Stones because of his steady and solid drum playing. Many musicians have cited Watts as an influence on their playing. Others have noted how underrated he has been for much of his career. In the list of the greatest drummers of all time, Charlie is usually not the first name that comes to mind. But if you listen to his playing, you’ll realize that Charlie Watts is one of the premier drummers in music.

Tragically, Charlie Watts passed away on August 24, 2021 at the age of 80. Fans, fellow musicians, and his bandmates all paid tribute to Watts in their own way. This article is my way of paying tribute to Charlie Watts: a true legend in music history. 

 

 

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