Earlier this month, Charlie Watts shocked Rolling Stones fans when he announced he was dropping out of the band’s upcoming tour following a successful medical procedure. The drummer had not missed a tour since joining the Stones in January 1963 and was the only band member other than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to appear on every album. “For once, my timing has been a little off,” Watts joked at the prospect of missing the tour. Now, it’s just been announced that Watts died peacefully in a London hospital earlier this morning at the age of 80, ending an era for the world’s greatest rock and roll band and popular music at large.
London-born Charles Robert “Charlie” Watts was a jazz aficionado from an early age. While he pursued graphic arts in school and as a profession, his love of music led him to the drum kit and to The Jo Jones All-Stars, a jazz group. Playing in local pubs and nightspots, he caught the notice of Alexis Korner and joined his groundbreaking electric rhythm and blues band, Blues Incorporated. It was while playing with Korner’s outfit that Watts met Brian Jones. In 1962, the guitarist/multi-instrumentalist introduced Watts to his mates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, whose drummer Tony Chapman had left the band originally called The Rollin’ Stones. Watts joined the band the next January and never looked back.
Charlie anchored the Rolling Stones with flair and subtlety, perennially appearing to be an oasis of tranquility as musical chaos swirled around him. His style both in fashion and music wasn’t flashy, and his kit was relatively small. “Drummers today have about 50 or 60 items,” longtime Stones bassist Bill Wyman once noted. “He’s got about seven. He’s an economist.” His grooves were more often than not economical, too: tight, concise, and in service of the song. But the dapper gentleman could match Richards’ licks with fire and power whether on straight-ahead rock, psychedelia, reggae, or even disco-flavored tracks. Keith wrote in his memoir, “Charlie Watts has always been the bed that I lie on musically.”
A sharp dresser with a jazzman’s impeccable timing, he rarely gave interviews and seemed altogether modest. When Kenney Jones was tapped to play on “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Watts didn’t object. Ditto when producer Jimmy Miller stepped in on drums for a handful of songs including “Tumbling Dice” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Watts’ design background informed Stones albums covers and touring stages, as well. (Check out his comic strip on the Between the Buttons sleeve!) A survivor of both substance abuse and cancer, Watts remained a devoted husband to his wife Shirley, whom he married in 1964, and father to daughter Seraphina.
In addition to his work with the Stones, Watts also toured and recorded a number of big band and orchestral albums indulging his love of jazz, swing, and boogie woogie. Occasionally, he even revisited the Stones’ classic songs in entirely new settings and arrangements. Among the hidden gems still awaiting a full rediscovery: 1986’s CBS album Live at Fulham Town Hall; a series of quintet albums including 1992’s A Tribute to Charlie Parker with Strings; 1993’s Warm & Tender and 1996’s Long Ago & Far Away featuring vocalist Bernard Fowler; and a 2000 collaboration with veteran drummer Jim Keltner. In 2004, Sanctuary released Watts at Scott’s capturing his tentet at the famous Ronnie Scott’s, and in 2017, the Impulse! label issued Charlie Watts Meets the Danish Radio Big Band.
Doubtless The Rolling Stones will go on without Charlie Watts; he likely wouldn’t have had it any other way. His parts have inspired, and will continue to inspire, generations of young drummers. But he provided much of the heart and soul of the band he played with for nearly 60 years. Farewell, Charlie…we’ll miss you.