charlie watts

Charlie Watts Obituary – By Dave Gale

Beneath his somewhat enigmatic appearance, Charlie Watts provided the solid rhythmic backbone for The Rolling Stones, for nearly 60 years. His identifiable sound, like a pulsing engine room, will forever be associated with one of Worlds finest, and longest lasting rock and roll bands. He was one of only three members of the band to appear on every single Stones album, along with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Start me up

Watts was born and raised in London, living in a pre-fabricated house, designed for families who had the misfortune to find their houses destroyed during the second World war. While this scenario offered a degree of tribulation, it did allow an introduction to his then neighbour and eventually lifelong friend, the jazz bassist Dave Green. Charlie became consumed by jazz, interested by all aspects of the musical genre, but with a particular obsession for be-bop and cool jazz, admiring artists such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Art Blakey.

His jazz interest quickly developed, driven by the the popularity of the 78 gramophone record, allowing Charlie to endlessly listen to jazz recordings, within the confines of his school-boy bedroom. His parents bought him a drum kit, at the age of 13, which allowed him to practice his art of drumming. Apart from the rudiments, Charlie would play along to his jazz records, driven by the dream of playing with the jazz greats. At the age of 14, he bought himself a Banjo, but rather than obsess about the harmonic aspect of the instrument, he decided to turn it into a snare drum. 

Surely no surprise then, that Watts’ first band was a jazz combo. The Jo Jones All Stars featured Charlie alongside Dave Green, playing plenty of standards, in a predictable bop-inspired format. Given that other band alumni included Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge, it’s clear that his credentials and talent at such a young age, allowed him to mingle with the great and good from the hipster World of London jazz.

Art, jazz and rock

While at school, Charlie also developed an interest in art and design. While ultimately his love of jazz and drumming would win the battle for attention, he was a talented artist, who continued his studies at Harrow Art School. By way of subsidising his real passion, Charlie secured a position at the Charlie Daniels Studios, in 1960. One of London’s numerous advertising agencies, his daytime work ultimately gave way to his nighttime passion. London was undergoing a ‘Blues Boom’ in the early 60s, during which time Watts was lured away from jazz by Alexis Korner. His band, Blues Incorporated, became one of the most influential groups of the era, becoming a vital component in the development of British rock. It was during this period that fellow Blues Incorporated member Brian Jones, introduced Watts to the young and emerging Rolling Stones. Their original drummer, Tony Chapman, had quit the band, leaving a vacancy for Watts, that would change his career forever.

Musical Stones

While the ill-advised might be tempted to overlook the complexity of drums in rock, it’s important to consider how The Rolling Stones would have sounded without Charlie Watts. His ability to propel the groove and feel, with his driving foot on the bass drum and up-front hi-hat pattern, balanced effortlessly by the snare backbeat that would nestle right on the back of the time. His playing often adopted a sense of urgency that sounded laid back. A contradiction of sorts, but a musical feel that was effortless, doubtless harking back to his jazz leanings and analysis of the greats from the US. 

Couple this with the locked-in bass playing of Bill Wyman, and the duo formed the perfect backbone for the guitar flourishes of Keith Richards, and exuberant flamboyance of Mick Jagger. As Watts once said, it was the beginning of a forty-year career staring at Mick Jagger’s Bum!

While Watts might have been a member of the biggest rock and roll band on the planet, you would never have known this from the size of his drum kit. As drum technology forged ahead throughout the decades, Charlie Watts stayed loyal to his jazz roots. There were no racks of toms, huge bass drums or gongs, just a classic jazz kit, from the likes of Ludwig or Gretsch. It proves the point that a good musician has no need for extremes, when the basics will suffice, and nothing states this more than the minimalism of Watts’ playing and kit. As Miles Davis once said, “It ain’t what you play, it’s what you don’t play” which sums up the Watts credo perfectly. You only have to listen to the opening few bars of ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ to hear this in action. It’s strait-laced, but effective, in just the right amount, with an impetuous groove which feels laid back and effortless. 

Technically speaking, he played with a traditional open grip (holding the drum sticks) which is a technique favoured by almost all jazz players. This involves the creation of a fulcrum point, allowing the stick in the left hand (if played conventionally) to pivot and bounce on the drum head with a minimum of effort. Perfect for quiet playing, but once unleashed, those powerful back-beat thwacks sound musical, as well as loud.

As any jazz drummer will cite, playing with an open group allows far more tonal variation and subtle nuance. Listen to a chorus of ‘She’s a Rainbow’ and the 16th-note swagger and subtlety oozes from every drop stick, at the end of every bar. You could call this a delicate nuance that is easily missed, but it’s those finer details that make the music groove. ‘She’s a Rainbow’ is not really a shuffle or swung, yet the spirit is there by inflection.

Back to jazz

While the 80s would see Charlie have something of mid-life crisis, as he momentarily turned to drugs and alcohol, it also saw a low point in his time with the Stones. In a now legendary exchange, Mick Jagger once called Watts ‘my drummer’, before Watts pinned him against a wall and told him, ‘you’re my singer’. It was a thankfully brief but all too accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be in a passionate rock band. All those hours of sitting around before sound checking and going on stage, followed by the elation of the huge gig. Watts often kept on playing, while female groupies draped themselves around his neck. No mean feet for anyone playing a physical instrument such as the drums, but underlies the ups and downs of a rock band, from the very highs to the über lows. 

By way of distraction, Watts returned to his first love, during the latter years of the 80s and early years of the 90s, with two distinctly different jazz projects. 

The Charlie Watts Big Band, also known as Jazz Orchestra, was a self funded project which resulted in a super-sized big band. Any thoughts of Ellington or Miller-esque proportions were lost, as Watts hired a plethora of all-stars from the British Jazz roster which included Peter King, Stan Tracey, Evan Parker, Courtney Pine and Harry Beckett. Taking the traditional big band concept, but almost doubling its number of horns, Watts inflated the rhythm section to three drummers and two bassists, as well as two percussionists. They mainly performed standards and big band classics, from Count Basie to Benny Goodman, as part of a Worldwide tour. It was unsurprisingly loud and musically chaotic, but swung with enormous vigour, even if at times there were moments of rhythmic hiatus, from the vast number of players within the ensemble.

His next early 90s Jazz project was a beautiful homage to Charlie Parker, from the Charlie Watts Quintet. ‘From One Charlie’ called upon a biography and book of drawings by Watts, which he had developed while at art college. In the more controlled setting of a quintet, the group featured Peter King on alto sax, alongside the then rising star, Gerard Presencer, on Trumpet. Of course, it also featured long-time friend Dave Green on Bass, by way of closing the friendship circle.

The Legendary Stones

The last twenty years or so saw the Stones propelled to a status where few bands reside. They would come out of hibernation, announce a huge concert, sell it out in minutes, and never let the public down in performance. It also gave time for us to reflect on Charlie’s enormous contribution to music. While this is most notable in the rock arena, he contributed to the artistic direction of the band, designing covers and stage sets. He had a passion for vintage and classic cars; he would sit in them by way of enjoyment, because he was unable to drive. 

But it’s the legacy of a smart dressed man, influenced by the vintage era of jazz, that informed him musically and stylistically. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, along with his fellow Stones, before being inducted into the Modern Drummer Magazine Hall of Fame in 2006. Enigmatic and intensely private, he remained ever faithful to his wife Shirley, who he married in 1964.

Drum legends don’t come much bigger than Charlie Watts, even with the smallest of jazz drum kits.