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- British drummer of The Rolling Stones (1941-2021)
- British songwriter, guitarist of The Rolling Stones
Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones drummer, who has died aged 80, was the least likely member of the group; yet he was its linchpin – the most respected by musicians and popular with the fans.
Small, delicate-looking and unassuming, Watts was the Stone who never rolled. Fastidious about his appearance, well-manicured and with a penchant for understated Savile Row suits, he never looked happy in a kaftan or designer grunge.
While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were getting themselves arrested for drugs, pilloried by politicians or chased by screaming girls, Watts carried on undemonstratively playing drums and going home to his wife, Shirley, every night. On tour he would retire early to his hotel room and sketch the bed he slept in to pass the time. When the group were invited to the Playboy Mansion by Hugh Hefner, Watts took advantage of the games room instead of cavorting with Hefner’s harem.
“He got thrown into a thing which really wasn’t part of his self image,” as Keith Richards observed.
Watts’s first love was jazz and, as he frankly admitted, he only went into rock because he was not quite good enough to make it in on the jazz scene of the early 1960s. It was something of an irony that he threw in his lot with a group whose brand of Rhythm and Blues helped to kill off jazz as a popular music form.
But he was the Stone who kept the band together. A spectator at a rehearsal noticed that the other members would play facing Watts “waiting for his approval”. Keith Richards noted that “If Charlie don’t get into it, then I haven’t written something that the Stones can get a groove going on.”
“Don’t ever call me your drummer again,” Watts told Mick Jagger on one occasion: “you’re my f------ singer.”
Watts’s trademark on stage was semi-detached impassiveness. As his colleagues cavorted and wriggled, pouted and leered, Watts took refuge in unshockable Zen-like cool, eyes focused somewhere in the middle distance, as dependable and steady as a rock. Only at the end of the performance would he be coaxed from behind the drum kit to receive what was usually the biggest cheer of the night.
Watts regarded himself not as a star, but as a musician, and disliked the celebrity scene: “Playing the drums was all I was ever interested in, the rest of it made me cringe”. Anecdotes about the Stones were not always affectionate, but no one had a bad word to say about Watts, except himself.
“I don’t really like much of what I’ve done”, he confessed on one occasion. As for the Stones: “We’re a terrible band really, but we are the oldest. That’s some sort of distinction isn’t it?” At home he kept his radio firmly tuned to Radio 3. If he did not quite achieve the legendary status among jazz aficionados that he craved, there were some compensations – a £17 million manor house and stud farm in Devon and a fortune estimated at somewhere between £70 and £80 million.
As biographer Alan Clayson observed, had he stuck with the jazz and blues bands he played with in his early years, “it’s likely that he’d have recouped little more than memories – not all of them golden.”
One of two children, Charles Robert Watts was born in Islington on June 2 1941, the son of a parcel delivery driver for British Rail. Brought up in a prefab in Wembley, he attended Tyler’s Croft Secondary Modern School where he was a talented soccer player and cricketer, then studied graphic design at Harrow School of Art, after which he took a job in the West End advertising agency Charles Hobson and Gray.
His love of jazz went back to his childhood in Wembley where he first heard Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Earl Bostic. He shared his enthusiasm with his next-door neighbour, Dave Green, who went on to be a jazz bassist. He bought his first jazz record when he was 13 – Walkin’ Shoes by Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker’s quintet, which inspired him to want to learn the drums. Kenny Clarke, the bebop drummer, became his role model.
He made his first drum kit out of Meccano and a cannibalised banjo and, by the time he was working in advertising, was playing drums for local acts. In 1958-9 he and Dave Green played in a jazz band called the Jo Jones All Stars.
He was working in a club called the Troubadour with a group called Blues By Five when he met Alexis Korner, in whose band he played for nine months in 1960.
When he joined the Rolling Stones at the beginning of 1963, it seemed no big deal: “I used to play with loads of bands and the Stones were just another one. I thought they’d last three months.”
Watts went on to play and tour with the Stones for nearly six decades.
In 1964, aged 23, he married Shirley Shephard, an art student with whom he would have one daughter, Seraphina. They lived in Sussex for many years then moved as tax exiles to France. Returning to England in 1980, they bought a stud farm near Barnstaple, where they kept horses and greyhounds.
While other members of the group were indulging their appetites in the carnal and pharmaceutical funfairs of the 1960s and 1970s, Watts avoided the booze-and-drugs lifestyle, though he took his colleagues’ antics in good part. “I wouldn’t want my wife associating with us,” he remarked after some excess or other.
But other aspects of the celebrity lifestyle he found irksome in the extreme: “I loved the adulation when we were on stage,” Watts confessed. “After that I hated it – when you couldn’t walk down the road without people running after you, literally. That was the most awful period of my life.” He was typecast as “the Silent Stone”, explaining, when a journalist asked him why, that it was “because I don’t talk much”. Then, in the early 1980s, just as the other Stones were calming down, he embarked on a two-year midlife crisis, drinking heavily and taking drugs.
On one occasion he passed out and had the ignominy of the famously hell-raising Keith Richards picking him off the floor. But he managed to pull himself away from the abyss to save his marriage.
Watts remained true to his first love, jazz. In 1964, with the Stones in full swing, he published Ode to a High Flying Bird, a booklet of cartoon drawings dedicated to Charlie Parker, and throughout quieter spells of his career with the Stones he performed in jazz clubs.
In 1985 he realised a long-held ambition when he brought his own 35-piece big band to Ronnie Scott’s and took it to America the following year. In the 1990s he performed regularly with his own Charlie Watts Tentet and Charlie Watts Quintet, doing acclaimed tours and recording several albums.
In 2009 he started to perform with the ABC & D of Boogie Woogie together with the pianists Axel Zwingenberger and Ben Waters and with his childhood friend Dave Green on bass. “The tight jeans and the big stages, they’re not my world at all. My world is the Blue Note Club in Paris or Birdland in New York,” he said.
In 2006, Watts was elected into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame; in the same year, Vanity Fair elected him into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.
Watts put a high value on style and often had a hand in the design of the Stones’ gigs. In 1975, inspired by the way Orleans jazz bands promoted their gigs, he arranged for the Stones to hold a press conference in New York playing Brown Sugar on the back of a truck in the middle of Manhattan traffic. He also contributed graphic art and comic strips to early Rolling Stones records.
Watts collected everything from pocket watches and antique guns to cigarette cards and suits. He shared Mick Jagger’s fondness for cricket and, in 1995, paid £3,600 for a Don Bradman blazer from the 1934 England-Australian test series.
In 2004, though he had given up smoking in the 1980s, Watts was treated for throat cancer. The cancer was reported to have gone into remission. Earlier this month he was forced to pull out of an upcoming Stones tour of the US following an unspecified emergency operation – the first time he had missed a tour since 1963. “For once, my timing has been a little off,” he observed.
Charlie Watts is survived by his wife and daughter.
Charlie Watts, born June 2 1941, died August 24 2021