Much has been said about the magic that was Charlie Watts’ drumming—his combination of a rock and roller’s rhythm and power with deftness and swing of a jazz musician.
Fact is, Watts’ drumming was the bedrock of most of the Rolling Stones’ music, and was a defining element of much of it. While the images of Mick Jagger’s devilish preening and Keith Richards’ hard-driving lifestyle and signature chunky guitar riffs may define that band for most casual observers, Watts’ drumming provided the signature sound of many of the band’s best songs.
Watts, 80, died Tuesday in a London hospital after a brief and undisclosed illness. He had battled throat cancer in the early 2000s, but recovered and reclaimed his spot behind the drum kit.
“He passed away peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family,” his publicist Bernard Doherty said in a written statement. “Charlie was a cherished husband, father and grandfather and also as a member of The Rolling Stones one of the greatest drummers of his generation.”
His work gave many of the Stones’ best songs their feel, their essence. The steady swing and the tom-tom rolls of “19th Nervous Breakdown,” the insistent aggressive thump of “Paint It Black,” the simple, tough backbeat of “Let it Bleed” or “Neighbours,” the rollicking “Rip This Joint,” the discofied push of “Miss You” and even the swaying wallop of “Rough Justice.” Listen to that latter song, off the relatively recent A Bigger Bang; Watts creates a cacophony without even seeming to hit his drums particularly hard. It simply kicks ass.
At times, he could even help save mediocre material. On “Where the Boys Go” from Emotional Rescue, for instance, Watts’ light touch makes the song swing, providing moments of real groove on what otherwise was essentially a throwaway number.
Charlie Watts laid the foundation for many, if not all, of the Stones’ best songs over a half century. And as with professional athletes, longevity at a high level is one measure of greatness. So too, in Watts’ case, is the wide variety of styles his band played and excelled at over the years is a testament to his overall excellence and adaptability.
Watts didn’t have the sheer power of John Bonham, the frenzied flair of Keith Moon or the technical complexity of Neil Peart. But his style, informed by the jazz he loved, met the varied needs of the Stones to a tee.
Most drummers sound better live than in the studio, and Watts was no exception, even if his subtlety didn’t always translate optimally to big arenas. I saw him play with the Stones on the band’s Oakland stop during the Steel Wheels tour in 1989, and Watts was as subtle and smooth as conditions permitted.
Jagger formed The Rolling Stones in 1963 with guitarists Richards and Brian Jones, bassist Bill Wyman, pianist Ian Stewart and drummer Tony Chapman. Chapman left shortly after and replaced by Watts, whom Jagger had known from his time singing in another band. Other than Jagger and Richards, Watts was the only member to play on all of the Rolling Stones’ albums. He had never missed a show. Just as he provided the appropriate beat, Watts also may have been the foundation of the band itself. He was the low-key, relatively quiet-living rock in this band of outsize-personality rollers known for their sexual conquests, drug consumption, issues with falling out of trees, the disastrous Altamont concert in 1969, the departure of key members Mick Taylor and, later, Bill Wyman and the 1969 “death by misadventure” of Brian Jones.
It isn’t a stretch to see Watts—married to the same woman, Shirley, for 56 years, starting in 1964, as the Stones were rising in prominence—being the “glue guy” in this band, even if Jagger and Richards called most of the visible shots and got most of the attention. Perhaps Mick and Keith knew they could shoot too high, or take risks of misfiring in the pursuit of greatness, because Charlie was there to catch them.
It was a big deal when, a few weeks ago, the Stones announced Watts wouldn’t be on the 2021 “No Filter” tour, having undergone that medical procedure. A band spokesperson announced it was “completely successful.” Doctors said he needed rest to recover. Watts himself released a statement, joking that “for once, my timing has been a little off.”
Imagine how devastating it is for Jagger, Richards, Ronnie Wood and the others to know Watts won’t be back at all. In the back of our minds, we knew this moment would come, eventually. Given Jagger’s businesslike approach to the Greatest Band in the World, it’s hard to imagine they’ll simply call it a career, the way Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones put Led Zeppelin to bed when their drummer, Bonham, died in 1980.
But will the music going forward really be the Rolling Stones? The Glimmer Twins will still hold court, of course—Richards may well never die—and little brother Woody will be there, too. But with key sidemen Ian Stewart, Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan already passed on, and Watts now joining them, it won’t be the Stones as we have known them.
Follow journalist Sam Richards at Twitter.com/samrichardsWC.