In Memoriam: Charlie Watts
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Though several mid-1960s contemporaries were able to maintain their positions in rock’s front line, to this day, The Rolling Stones’s core drummer Charlie Watts, singer Mick Jagger, and guitarist Keith Richards have remained the genre’s most influential and long-lived partnership. So, fans were shocked when Watts announced that he was dropping out of the Rolling Stones’s upcoming tour to recover from a successful procedure, and when it was later revealed that the drummer had passed away on August 24, 2021.
As a child, Charlie Watts dreamed of jazz. He collected records by jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk (Stuyvesant alumni), Charlie Parker, and Jelly Roll Morton. After hearing Chico Hamilton’s drum on Gerry Mulligan’s “Walkin’ Shoes,” Watts was finally persuaded to take up a new instrument: the drums. He created his first snare drum at home by removing the neck of a banjo and using brushes as drumsticks. Decades later, Watts was working as a graphic designer and making money on the side performing in various jazz ensembles around London. Though he wasn’t acquainted with the particularities of the blues, Watts accepted Mick Jagger’s offer to join his band. However, his inexperience quickly became insignificant as Watts was able to incorporate his unique sound into the future Rolling Stones and create a foundation for rock by doing so.
Watts anchored The Rolling Stones with his sharp dressing and subtlety even as musical chaos swirled around him on stage; he had a quiet mystique and a reputation as an old-school gentleman. Charlie Watts, unlike his contemporaries, drummed in a unique, concise manner, and above all, his beats acted service to the other members. Though Watts was able to implement stylings that were genre-defying and authentic, he never did so in a flashy manner. Richards even mentioned in “Life,” his 2010 memoir, “Charlie Watts has always been the bed that I lie on, musically.”
The Rolling Stones’s 1968 album “Beggars Banquet” explicitly reveals Watt’s inventiveness as a musician. In the album’s top hit, “Sympathy for the Devil,” conga drums supported a hypnotic and malefic beat, but Watts was able to still flawlessly incorporate his own roots of the Jazz Latin style—a feat that was unheard of for other drummers his age. The tracks “Shake Your Hips” and “Exile on Main Street” also extraordinarily showcase the drummer’s one-of-a-kind talent. Watts's decision to use percussive skittering with a seemingly accidental thump throughout the songs brilliantly created a sense of anticipation. This edging beat keeps listeners engaged and asserts Watts’ continued versatility.
Charlie Watts was just as solid offstage with his family. Though many expect rock and roll members to bask themselves in drugs, sex, and fame, Watts lived a relatively quiet life with his wife Shirley, and daughter Seraphina. He and his wife bred Arabian horses as a hobby and even continued his interest in jazz with his 32-piece Charlie Watts Orchestra.
Looking back at old Rolling Stones live performances, it is amazing how Watts was able to look so serene when he played—drumming performances are usually sweaty, exaggerated, and combative, but Watts rarely was. Even as an elderly cancer survivor, Watts was able to maintain his composure on stage. Charlie Watts was one of the greatest drummers of his generation and continues to inspire more generations of young musicians as his music and message live on.