It is strange to me how some people can change their tune about a person and his abilities. Some musicians hardly get the credit they deserve and are often much-maligned. Usually by people that haven’t got a clue. Rolling Stones Drummer – Charlie Watts was one of those.
He was the second “Stone” to pass away. For those around the London music scene in the 60s, the unexplained loss of Brian Jones was a shock to all. After all, the Rolling Stones, despite what Jagger and Richards like to say, was “his” band.
- His Early Years
- Work and Music
- Blues Incorporated
- I Can’t Keep This One
- His First Stones Gig
- Were They Any Good?
- Back To Charlie
- Charlie With The Sticks
- Rolling Stones Drummer – Charlie Watts The Man
- A Host of Stories But Let’s Have Just One
- Away From The Stones
- A Replacement
- Rolling Stones Drummer – Charlie Watts Drum Kit
- Interested in Drummers and Drumming?
- Rolling Stones Drummer – Charlie Watts Final Thoughts
The loss of Brian was a surprise. But the recent loss of Charlie seemed a lot worse. Brian, with due respect to him, was in many ways replaceable. Charlie probably isn’t. There are a lot of drummers around. But a drummer is more than just a drummer in a band. They are vital elements and sometimes cannot be effectively replaced.
Look at Keith Moon with The Who. Kenney Jones was brought in, but it didn’t work. These days Pete Townshend has completely changed the aspect of the band to allow someone like Zak Starkey and others to fit. They had time to do that, and it worked brilliantly.
But what about Charlie? Can he be replaced? Probably not. I will go into why I think that a bit later. But first, let’s take a look at the life of the man who was the heartbeat of the Rolling Stones.
His Early Years
He was born in University College Hospital in Bloomsbury London in 1941, just as the “London Blitz” was coming to an end. A war baby. In his early years, his family lived in Wembley, not far from where a certain Keith Moon would spend his formative years.
The war was still on, and the house the family lived in was modest, to say the least. They eventually left bomb-damaged Wembley and went to what was considered a rather nice Kingsbury a few miles away. There he attended Tylers Croft Secondary School, which I am quite familiar with as I lived not very far away.
It was there that he first developed his love of Jazz along with some school friends. One of which was future bass player Dave Green.
Work and Music
After secondary school, he went to Harrow Art College, West London, where he studied to be a graphic designer. At a young age, he started to play the Middlesex Jazz clubs. Never flashy or ostentatious, he caught the eye of Alexis Korner, who had a band, Blues Incorporated. He joined them in 1961 whilst still working in the Art world.
Let’s talk a minute about Alexis Korner. He was a strange cookie in many ways, but his band was good. And as young, very young, kids we would sit outside the venues when we could and listen. Alexis was also friendly with Brian Jones, besides others. He acted as almost a musician’s first port of call if they wanted a band.
Always friendly, always helpful; if you love the Blues and the American R&B scene, you were his friend.
Alexis the Mentor
He was actually French and was a big reason why the American Blues took off in the early 60s in the UK. He saw Andy Fraser play one night and recommended him to Paul Rodgers, and Free was formed. There are a dozen other musicians he introduced to their first big break. Mainly due to his close relationship with another British Blues giant John Mayall.
The pair of them would set up musicians to play with each other at the 100 Club in Oxford Street in London, amongst other places. Auditions if you like between like-minded musicians. A lot of places were filled in a lot of bands in this way. This went on well into the late 60s. Charlie was one of the first.
Alexis loved Charlie Watts’s drumming style, which was laid-back and solid-as-a-rock. Even if Charlie himself admitted later, he hadn’t a clue what R&B was or meant or what he was supposed to be playing. He just followed the rest of the band.
I Can’t Keep This One
Alexis knew that Charlie was capable of better things. He introduced him to Brian Jones in 1962, and they started going to some of the R&B clubs springing up all over London. He met Mick Jagger and Ian Stewart, and later Keith Richards.
Brian wanted him to join; Charlie was not sure. He loved his Jazz, and especially Charlie Parker. He wanted to be in some form of combo along those jazz-inspired lines.
His First Stones Gig
Finally, in 1963, is when Charlie Watts joined the Rolling Stones. And his first gig was at the Ealing Jazz Club in West London in 1963. The rest, as they say, is history.
Were They Any Good?
I shall upset a few people here by saying they were ok, but others were better, in the opinion of many. I saw them first at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, probably around 1964. Being underage, we had to sneak in. Georgio didn’t mind.
Their first single, a Chuck Berry song, had come out in 1963. And that’s what they were; a Chuck Berry covers band for most of their set. And they did plenty of them and recorded some as well.
They did it quite well, it has to be said, and Richards especially had got the “Berry licks” almost spot on. They were the “house band” for a while but were replaced by The Yardbirds, who, in most people’s opinions at the time, were much better.
Back To Charlie
I am not going to go on about whether they were good or not in those days. If you didn’t see them or any of the other bands around at the time to compare them with, you wouldn’t know. And in any case, it is a personal thing. Some people liked them; others thought they were ordinary. But back to Charlie.
What was a little unfair was some of the criticism that Charlie and Bill Wyman got at the time. They weren’t flamboyant, they left that to Jagger. They just got on with the job. And that was providing a solid rhythmic base for the music. And that they were very good at.
Charlie With The Sticks
Charlie, though, was a musician. A Jazz player. You need to know your way around the kit for that. But the Stones being a two-guitar, bass, and drums band, didn’t allow the drums or the bass to shine. That wasn’t their job, and they never tried to steal the thunder. They were often labeled as boring for that.
It was easier to shine if you were a drummer or a bass player in The Who or Led Zeppelin. There were gaps to fill in a three instrument band. Work to be done. A chance to shine.
The Stones were different. A two-guitar unit with a frontman and main guitar who wouldn’t take kindly to someone trying to muscle in on their act.
A perfect foil in many ways for Charlie. They worked at a very basic level as a team. But he wasn’t a “good” bass player as bass players go. Although he fitted the Stones well. Again that might be unfair as he was never allowed to shine. And I am not sure that was his personality anyway.
His bass lines weren’t the best, and he often was shown what to play, if he even played them at all in the studio. There are many Stones tracks that Bill didn’t play on. As a bass player, there was no comparison with someone like Paul McCartney, whose bass lines were solid and steady but also harmonic and melodic.
In the rhythm section of the Stones, Charlie carried Bill a little bit. But Bill just got in Charlie’s groove and stayed there, and it provided a firm foundation. So let’s go back to the question of whether Bill was any good. For the Stones and with Charlie, yes, he was. So that makes him a good bass player for the band in my book.
Rolling Stones Drummer – Charlie Watts The Man
Charlie’s character was perfectly represented by how we saw him. He was quiet and retiring and very much a family man. Rather a contradiction to the rest of the band. He married Shirley in 1964, and they had one daughter and one granddaughter. He met Shirley before the band was famous. They stayed together until his death, at times, just.
He chose to live in picturesque Devon in the South West of England. There he could have a quiet family life and raise his horses. Although he collected cars, strangely, he never held a driver’s license. Instead, he preferred just looking at them.
He maintained his love of Jazz all his life as he did for his other great love, which was for cricket.
It is no secret that he had a love-hate relationship with touring. He loved to play but just didn’t like traveling too much. Most of him just wanted to be at home. If he could have played concerts in his gardens, he would have been happy.
He also wasn’t interested in being recognized as a ‘rock star.’ In 1989 The Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Charlie didn’t go. He didn’t want all that. Most likely, he probably stayed at home playing some Charlie Parker CDs.
A Host of Stories But Let’s Have Just One
The story goes that Jagger, drunk, phoned up Charlie in his hotel room in the middle of the night. He shouted down the phone to Charlie, “Where’s my drummer?”
Charlie got up, put on a shirt and tie and a suit with black polished shoes. He went downstairs, saw Jagger, punched him in the face, and screamed, “Don’t you ever call me your drummer again… You’re my f*****g singer, and remember that!”
Away From The Stones
He still tried to maintain his musical roots as often as possible. In the 70s, he played in a boogie-woogie band called Rocket 88 with Ian Stewart and Jack Bruce on bass. He toured and recorded a great live album with the big band Charlie Watts Orchestra in the 80s. That again included Jack Bruce on bass.
He had a jazz quintet that worked and recorded in the 90s. One outstanding track was called ‘Warm and Tender’ They also did more recordings, including a much-loved album of American Jazz Standards.
In 2009 he was asked to perform with the band ‘ABC&D of Boogie Woogie’. He agreed but only if his boyhood friend from his childhood in Wembley, Dave Green, played bass.
No need to dwell on this, but it did slow him up a bit at times. His use of alcohol and certain drugs became excessive in the 80s. The “quiet one” was about to fall off the bus. It took him three years to get over it. He and Shirley got through it.
He had quit smoking years before when he had a throat cancer diagnosis. A course of radiotherapy sorted that out. Then, of course, there was the heart procedure that caused him to pull out of the tour.
He died in London in hospital on 24 August 2021, surrounded by his family. His cause of death has never been formally acknowledged, and I don’t mean to sound callous, but it doesn’t matter. He’s not here anymore for whatever reason, and that is a loss to music.
I asked earlier if he could be replaced to allow the Stones to continue playing. If Charlie had to miss some concerts, his place was taken by American drummer and percussionist Steve Jordan.
Technically very good, great experience, but not the same. How could it be? With Bill having left and Charlie having departed, the original rhythm section has gone. It just wouldn’t be possible to recreate it. And Jagger and Richards certainly couldn’t either.
If you want to hear them as they were, then flashback in time to when they were at their best. Otherwise, it won’t be the same. Maybe it’s just time to get their pension books and bus passes and say enough is enough.
Rolling Stones Drummer – Charlie Watts Drum Kit
For those interested in these things, Charlie Watts’s favorite drum kit is a Gretsch from the late 50s. All the drums had a natural maple finish:
- 22 x 14-inch bass drum.
- 12 x 8-inch rack tom.
- 16 x 16-inch floor tom.
Plus, of course, his cymbals. And Charlie did love using his cymbals. You would expect to see him with:
- Flat Ride.
You can hear how Charlie Watts played the drum on these classic Rolling Stones tracks:
And for some examples of Charlie Watts playing jazz check out these tracks:
Interested in Drummers and Drumming?
We can help with that. Check out our article on the Hardest Songs to Play on the Drums, Songs With Incredible Drum Solos, The Nashville Number System for Drummers Explained, Derek Roddy’s Double Bass Technique, and Tips to Teach Yourself Drums for more awesome information about drums.
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Rolling Stones Drummer – Charlie Watts Final Thoughts
Where does he sit? You can’t start making comparisons with other drummers. He was no John Bonham, and he was no Keith Moon. Just as well. He was more like Mick Fleetwood in some ways with a bit of Aynsley Dunbar thrown in.
Comparisons are not really possible. He was the best for the Stones, and that was and is the important thing. He was part of the engine room that made the band work. But he was so much more than just a Rolling Stone.
Let’s raise a glass… Here’s to yer Charlie, thanks for the rhythm.