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Charlie Watts 1941-2021

Christian Wissmuller • ArchivesAugust/September 2021BackbeatCurrent Issue • September 16, 2021

Charlie Watts, most famous as the drummer for The Rolling Stones, passed away on August 24 at the age of 80. Earlier in the month, The Stones had announced that Watts would be sitting out the band’s upcoming fall U.S. tour dates to recover after a “routine medical procedure.”

While he gained greatest notoriety as rock musician, Watts’ love of jazz was nearly as legendary as his finely tailored suits and shy – even awkward – demeanor.

Born during WWII, he and childhood friend Dave Green – later a mainstay in all of Watts’ jazz groups – became enamored of the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker (who Charlie was particularly keen on), and Chico Hamilton. “I’d heard Chico Hamilton play brushes on, ‘Walking Shoes,’ and – bingo! – I wanted to play the drums,” he said. Of Parker, Watts commented, “He’s the yardstick that I judge all records by.”

In noted drummer and writer Mike Edison’s 2019 book, Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters, he notes, “The main thing was, the cat loved jazz, and he loved to play the drums.”

After a stint in art school and while beginning a career as a graphic designer, in 1960 Watts joined a London jazz band, the Jo Jones All Stars. From there, he became something of a fixture in the Soho music scene, playing with any number of combos until Alexis Korner saw him playing a gig at Earl’s Court Troubadour club and invited him to join Blues Incorporated. It was while with Blues Incorporated that Watts first played behind Mick Jagger – just one of the many younger R&B players frequently invited by Korner to guest with the band.

Filling in occasionally for guitarist Brian Jones’ new group, The Rolling Stones, he was repeatedly asked to join as an official member, but The Stones’ simply couldn’t afford the in-demand Watts. “We starved ourselves to pay for him!” recalls Keith Richards in his autobiography, Life. “We went shoplifting to get Charlie Watts. We cut down our rations, we wanted him so bad, man.”

What Richards, the other Stones, and many on the R&B scene “wanted so bad” was defined by a big, fat groove – a groove that many others in pop music would discard in later years for more flashy, over the top playing, but which Charlie Watts never abandoned. While his contemporaries would come to adopt increasingly massive, 40-plus-piece kits, he stuck to his small, four-piece set and traditional grip (usually) – sometimes looking decidedly incongruous on massive, elaborate stages in mega-stadiums.

As many have observed, it’s not necessarily difficult “to rock.” Rock without the roll is brutal, primitive, savage. Watts had finesse – Charlie Watts rolled. The Stones were well-served by choosing a jazz drummer.

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