What made late jazz musician Charlie Watts turn into a rock ‘n’ roller?
Although its been a little over a month that Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts passed away aged 80 and, now that most obituaries have been written about him, it just seemed an appropriate time to remember one of the world’s great drummers with the band returning to touring on September 26, 2021 with a performance at The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, U.S.
Appropriately, the late Charlie Watts was a major “presence” at the show even before the Stones took the stage with images and videos of the recently deceased drummer played on the arena’s massive screens, which backed the sounds of powerful percussion. This served as an introduction to the night’s concert, with the crowd cheering Watts loudly as the band came out to begin their set.
The legendary rockers began with “Street Fighting Man“, one of the many classic tracks from their 1968 album, ‘Beggars Banquet’, with “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)”, the lead single from the Stones’ 1974 album, ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll’, being performed next when, at that point, members Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood stepped to the front of the stage with Jagger acknowledging that it was “really quite emotional seeing those pictures of Charlie up on screen”. The frontman went on to thank the crowd and fans everywhere for their support. “This is our first-ever tour we’ve ever done without him,” the singer continued. “We’ll miss Charlie so much, on and off the stage.” The band then dedicated their next song, “Tumbling Dice”, to Watts.
Though this was the band’s first official tour date of 2021, it was not their first live performance of the year. As a warm-up gig on September 20, the Stones played a private show at Gillette Stadium located in Foxborough, Massachusetts, southwest of downtown Boston, for New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and an assembly of his friends and his family. At that performance, the band honoured Watts with a toast, saluting their departed drummer. “This is our first tour in 59 years that we’ve done without our lovely Charlie Watts,” Jagger declared.
After all, the roots of Watts’ drumming really goes back to a drum kit that was purchased by his parents while he was 13, when Watts indulged himself by playing along with his vinyl collection of jazz records in his bedroom, ranging from musicians from Jelly Roll Morton to Charlie Parker.
Once addicted to what eventually became his vocation, Watts began drumming at local clubs and pubs in England and, in 1961, was heard by Alexis Korner, a British blues musician and radio broadcaster who has, on occasion, been referred to as “the founding father of British blues”, and one who was quick to offer Watts an opportunity of joining his band then, Blues Incorporated, which also featured a guitarist by the name of Brian Jones.
Jones introduced Watts to fledgling band Rolling Stones at that time when the band’s original drummer, Tony Chapman, quit. The result of that fateful meeting was what Watts would eventually describe with his sardonic humour as, “four decades of seeing Mick’s bum running around in front of me…” Nevertheless, Watt’s skill and experience served its purpose as, along with bassist Bill Wyman [who eventually retired from the band in 1993], they provided the rhythmic counterpoint to the then guitars of Richards and Jones. Watts vied with Wyman for the title of the least charismatic member of the band as Watts eschewed limelight, rarely provided interviews, and carried on drumming even on such occasions when, during the early Stones concerts when fans strode onto stage, Watts found himself attempting to maintain a beat while girls hung onto his arms!
As a one-time graphic student, Watts did not let his design skills get compromised as the Rolling Stones’ 1967 album, ‘ Between The Buttons’, had Watts create a six-panel cartoon accompanied by a rhythmic poem in support, and also helped create the stage sets which became an increasingly important part of the band’s gig setup. Watts also proposed promoting the Stones’ 1975 tour by having the band perform “Brown Sugar” [from 1971’s ‘Sticky Fingers’] on the back of a lorry while it drove across Manhattan in New York. The jazz aficionado initiated this exercise by remembering how New Orleans jazz bands adopted the same technique for promotion, which was later mimicked by AC/DC [“It’s A Long Way To The Top If You Wanna Rock And Roll”] and by U2 [“All Because Of You”].
While Watts’ lifestyle was a direct contrast to the rock ‘n’ roll excesses of his band members, he was not entirely immune as, in the mid-1980s, Watts had a severe problem as an alcoholic and as a drug addict too, mainly consuming heroin. “It got so bad,” recollected Watts, “that even Keith Richards told me to get it together”. On one famous occasion in an Amsterdam Hotel in 1984, a drunken Jagger reportedly woke up Watts by bellowing on the phone, “Where’s my drummer?” Watts, in his own stupor, went round the corner to Jagger’s room, and Jagger received one of Watts’ greatest hits: a left hook; reminding Jagger not to call him, “’your drummer’ again [as] you’re my…singer!”
As Watts eventually returned to his normal self, in between tours with the band, Watts continued his indulgence with jazz as part of The Charlie Watts Orchestra. Jazz, as Watts described it, gave him “more freedom to move around”. In fact, in 1990, Watts utilised the basis of an illustrated biography on jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, titled ‘Ode To A High Flying Bird’, to record a musical tribute called ‘From One Charlie…’. Watts also performed in various incarnations of big bands and, at one gig at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club that has operated in Soho, London, since 1959, Watts performed with a 25-member band which included three drummers!
In helping define rock ‘n’ roll as we know it, Watts undoubtedly provided the foundation that underpinned the music of the Rolling Stones, and was present for the band’s performances from 1963 to their final pre-pandemic concert in 2019. The vital importance of Watts’ drumming technique was a shift from the traditional blues template to the funkier, disco-oriented sound of the late ‘80s.
At the time of Watts’ demise, he, Jagger, and Richards were the only members of the band to have performed on every one of the band’s studio albums. Ranked 12th on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2016 list of ‘100 Greatest Drummers Of All Time’, Watts demise was a shock of sorts not because he or any of the members of the Rolling Stones were immortal, but merely because, as bad boys who stayed out late or, as a band, led mothers to lock up their daughters, they simply outlasted everyone else in terms of a career without an expiry date.
Watts apparently led the beats with his right foot on the kick drum and, without utilising his left hand on the snare, the backbeat appeared a wee bit relaxed…and, without it, it was the combination of propulsion and easing that defined Watt’s technical definition of drumming. Adding to the synergy of Richards’ guitar riffs and Jagger’s distinctive vocals, it is this amalgamation which provided the Stones that unique sound of theirs. Hence, to reiterate, Watt’s indulged in providing just the right groove [by not necessarily focusing on the conventional two and four beat but, rather, one and three] which, paradoxically, was derived from relaxation, which is why I have never seen Watts break a sweat either on any video footage of the Stone’s live shows nor when I saw him perform with the band in February 2014 at Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. The biggest lesson is obvious that you do not need to pound your drums to be effective.
Watts’ signature drum fill was obvious across the Stones’ repertoire, none more obvious than the sounds of some of my favourite tracks: “Honky Tonk Women”, “Start Me Up”, “Brown Sugar”, “Moon Is Up”, “Undercover Of The Night”, “Beast Of Burden”, “Paint It, Black”, “Tumbling Dice”, “Get Off My Cloud”…
There are – and will be – both pretenders and contenders for his crown, but there remains only one Charlie Watts. He was not only a drummer, but a genre by himself…