- 24 Aug 21
"Everybody thinks Mick and Keith are the Rolling Stones. If Charlie wasn’t doing what he’s doing on drums, that wouldn’t be true at all. You’d find out that Charlie Watts is the Stones." - Keith Richards
It is with a genuinely heavy heart that I sit down to write this. Charlie Watts, the drummer in the greatest rock n’ roll band of all time, has passed away, “peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family” which is as much as any of us can hope for and no more than the man deserved.
Watts had only recently announced that he was recuperating from an unnamed procedure and would be sitting out the Rolling Stones USA No Filter tour dates in the next few months. Steve Jordan, a longtime associated of Keith Richards, had been drafted in as a replacement although many fans maintained that if there was No Charlie, there was No Stones. Time will tell but I would be very surprised if this were not the case.
Watts never considered himself a rock n’ roller at all, that was Mick and Keith’s job as far as he was concerned. He was a jazzer to his perfectly polished, custom made shoes and at odds with the lifestyles of his mates. The wife he leaves behind is the same Shirley Shepherd he married in 1964, they had one daughter, Seraphina, and Watts, by all accounts, was a devoted father and grandfather.
Even from the very earliest of days, The Stones knew they were lucky to have him and they wouldn’t have been half the band they were at all without him. A lifetime spent worshipping at the altars of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker imbued Watts with a jump and swing beyond his contemporaries. While others invested in a second bass drum and more toms than you could fit in a reasonably sized van, Watts didn’t have to. He didn’t play twenty minute drum solos that sent everyone to the bar, because Watts didn’t have to. Watts played the song, and he played it like no one else ever could.
Once The Stones had secured his services back in 1963, when they could finally afford him and with Watts thinking he might get a year out of them at best, Keith Richards pointed him in the direction of Earl Philips, the man on the skins behind the likes of John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and, most importantly for the emerging group’s sound perhaps, Jimmy Reed. Charlie added this new knowledge to what he already had and made The Rolling Stones into The Rolling Stones.
I could put on any Stones record and glory in the magic Watts brought to it. How about the ominous shuffles of ‘Midnight Rambler’? The introduction to ‘Street Fighting Man’, famously played on an old rehearsal kit that folded up into a suitcase? The hammering behind ‘Paint It, Black’? The samba groove of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’? Every stop and start and style change buried in ‘Loving Cup’? The devil coming over the hill clatter of ‘Gimme Shelter’? The groove of 'Slave' which is as close to perfection as makes no odds? I could go on and find something in his every appearance, he was that good.
What should be noted too is that Charlie Watts was quite possible the only person on Earth who never put up with even an ounce of shit from either Mick or Keith. Everyone knows this story, but it’s a good one, so let’s enjoy it again. In an eighties hotel room in Amsterdam, a drunken Jagger once reportedly woke Watts, bellowing down the phone, ‘Where’s my drummer?” Watts got out of bed, dressed himself, impeccably of course, no doubt in one of the beautiful suits he was famous for, polished those shoes, combed his hair, shaved(!), and went downstairs, where he decked Jagger with a right hook, saying “Don’t ever call me ‘your drummer’ again. You’re my fucking singer!”
I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. The Rolling Stones, at their height, made the greatest records I have ever heard, and I’ve heard a few. The records they made from 1968 to 1972/3 will be played as long as humans have hearts in their chests and need reminding about how glorious it is to be alive, even if that time be oft so cruelly short. A large part of what makes those records so glorious, those records that make you want to grin and dance and fuck and kick something over, is the playing of Charlie Robert Watts, the Wembley Whammer, the man who refused play the snare and the hi-hat on the same stroke, the man who made rock n’ roll swing.
Every band, and I don’t care who they are or how strenuously they might deny it, have tried to sound like The Rolling Stones since The Rolling Stones and none of them have managed it. They didn’t have Jagger’s voice and swagger, they didn’t have Keith’s piratical rhythm or his genius chords and they most assuredly did not have Charlie Watts' beat because the universe only saw fit to make one of him. And now we don’t have him either. But, then again, we always will. Raise a glass to a good man and a hero. And play those records fucking loud.
There'll be a full tribute to Watts in the next issue of Hot Press.