From The May 2017 Issue Of DRUM! | By Wayne Blanchard | Photograph by Francesco Prandoni
Since January, 1963, Charlie Watts — drummer, artist, husband, father, farm owner, jazz buff, style icon, and a quiet, soulful man of sharp wit — has rejected the hedonistic delights and survived the tumultuous travails associated with being a member and shareholder of The World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band. In a word, he’s been cool. Very cool!
By the time The Rolling Stones’ “We Love You” hit the airwaves in August 1967, the Summer Of Love was fading fast. Even then, 50 years ago, there was a sense that Charlie Watts would be quite happy if his world had never moved beyond the black-and-white Britain of the late 1950s and early ’60s. With his typically stoic expression as likely to be broken by a disdaining rolling of the eyes as brightened by a beatific smile, he is, really, like some anachronism of a bygone era. That’s not to say he isn’t hip. Charlie has always been cool. Here is why.
1. No Charlie, No Stones
Let’s get this one right up front, if only because everyone in The Stones is quick to remind us of the reality. There was Mick Jagger’s shout-out, “Charlie’s good tonight, isn’t he?” on Get Your Ya-Yas Out! And there’s Keith Richards’ constant reminder that, without Charlie, there would be no Stones. Ronnie Wood confirms the same in the band’s Tip Of The Tongue documentary: “Charlie’s the engine. We don’t go anywhere without the engine.”
That’s because Charlie’s drumming is authentically swung vintage-style stuff that is, as the band’s 2016 back-to-the-roots album Blue & Lonesome reminds us, propelling a group of 1940s-vintage London lads in a 1960s-vintage rhythm-and-blues band. Rob Wallis of drumming video originators Hudson Music (originally DCI Video) may not have dissected Charlie’s drumming the way he has with the likes of Steve Gadd and Steve Smith, but he is a fan. “Charlie’s got rock-solid time. His playing swings and his shuffles are great because of his comfort with jazz-ride patterns. Without him The Stones would be a completely different- sounding band with a very different feel.”
Top UK drummer Steve White, who played in a drum trio setting with Charlie and Gilson Lavis on the Later … With Jools Holland TV show, has seen the Stone with his big band numerous times at London’s storied jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. “Like all that generation of great British drummers — Ginger, Ringo, Moonie, Mitch — Charlie’s playing is effortless and swinging, musical and cool. No one else sounds like him.”
2. He’s Part Of British Blues History
It may have taken John Mayall’s 1966 album Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton to raise the commercial flag of the British blues movement, but the flame was ignited in 1961, when Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated debuted as the UK’s first electric blues band. Charlie was their drummer. On March 17, 1962, with Ronnie Wood’s brother Art on vocals, they opened west London’s Ealing Club, which attracted everyone from Jimmy Page, Long John Baldry, and Paul Jones to Zoot Money and Rod Stewart, instantly making it the de facto center of the British blues scene.
Club regulars Richards, Jagger, and Brian “Elmo” Jones would get up and join in with Charlie and his band, which at times included future legends Jack Bruce, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Graham Bond, and, at Charlie’s suggestion when he left for The Stones, Ginger Baker. Months later, on July 12, 1962, The Rolling Stones made their debut. Bill Wyman would join in December, and Charlie replaced Tony Chapman in January ’63.
3. He Plays For The Music
Charlie’s playing has been lauded and lambasted by those who claim to know what constitutes good drumming from bad. But detractors tend to overlook the reality that being the right drummer for a band is about being 98 percent compatible on both the playing and personal levels. Would The Stones benefit from furious flamadiddles or hand-foot fills in “Brown Sugar?” No!
“I was brought up on the theory that the drummer is an accompanist,” Charlie noted in a 2008 video interview titled If It Ain’t Got That Swing. “I don’t like drum solos. I admire some people that do them, but generally I prefer drummers playing with the band. The challenge with rock and roll is the regularity of it. My thing is to make it a dance sound; it should swing and bounce.”
“Listen to ‘19th Nervous Breakdown,’” urges former Zildjian AR director John DeChristopher. “He swings like Elvin Jones. I like to think that at a point drummers ‘get’ the ‘less is more’ approach of Charlie — and Ringo — and understand that good, solid time and a great feel are first and foremost to being a great drummer.”
4. He Does It All On A Small Kit
What? No multi-tom setups, double bass drums, gongs, or drum machines? By the late ’60s, even Ringo had gone up to five drums with his maple Ludwig kit for Let It Be. But Charlie (most notably with his early Ludwigs, followed by a black Gretsch kit, and for many years now, the 1957 round badge maple Gretsch set he purchased from a backline rental firm) has stayed with a 12″ x 8″ mounted tom, 16″ x 16″ floor tom, 22″ x 14″ bass drum, and 14″ x 5″ snare.
“Charlie’s probably got the smallest drum kit in rock and roll,” Bill Wyman told St. Louis radio station KSHE 95. “Drummers today have about 50 or 60 items. He’s got about seven. He’s an economist.” Cymbal-wise, DeChristopher notes that, “Charlie doesn’t endorse Zildjian or any cymbal company. He plays what sounds and feels most comfortable to him. He uses his hi-hats and no-name 18″ B8 alloy flat ride for everything, whether it’s The Stones or his own projects.”
5. He Was The First Stone To Officially Marry And Become A Father
Charlie married Shirley Ann Shepherd, a Royal College Of Art sculpture student, in October 1964. “I was with Alexis Korner and she came to the very, very first rehearsal  that I had with him,” Charlie told The Mirror. “That’s how I met her.”
In contrast to Charlie’s mild personality, Shirley was strong-willed and outspoken. Said Jagger’s then-girlfriend Chrissie Shrimpton in Philip Norman’s 2012 book, Mick Jagger: “The rule was ‘no girls,’ but Shirley would nearly always go. We weren’t to go into the studio while the band was recording, but she decided she was going and took me. Mick was furious and ordered us out, but Shirley hissed at me, ‘Don’t move!’ So we sat there with Mick pulling faces at us through the control room glass.”
According to Charlie, times have changed. “She has known Mick and Keith for many, many years and loves both, particularly Mick, who is Mr. Smoothy, a real charmer.
“She is an incredible woman,” he added. “The one regret I have of this life is that I was never home enough. But she always says when I come off tour that I am a nightmare and tells me to go back out.” The Watts’ only child, Seraphina, arrived in 1968.
6. He And Shirley Raise Champion Horses
In addition to being a sculptor, Shirley is an eminent member of the Arab Horse Society, and she and Charlie own a 600-acre award-winning Arabian horse stud farm in rural Devonshire that attracts breeders from around the world. The couple also has taken in a number of retired greyhounds.
7. He Agrees That Mick Taylor Ruled
The arrival of Mick Taylor from John Mayall’s Blues Breakers (where Eric Clapton and Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green preceded him) had a profound effect on The Stones, and the unanimous feeling even 40-plus years later is that the Taylor era of the band was its peak. Charlie agrees in an interview from The Guardian: “Amazing player. I think we did our best music with Mick.” And they did, with Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main St., Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ’N’ Roll, and Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!
Does he have a fave Taylor track? “I don’t really have one, I don’t really listen to them that much.”
8. He’s A Well-Dressed Man
Richards may be dubbed “The Coolest Man Alive,” but when it comes to looking stylishly sharp, Charlie is the man. And though his love of style was inspired by the jazz greats, he claims his father, who would take him along when visiting his tailor, was the real inspiration. British GQ noted that, “Watts almost never stops smiling when talking about music and clothes.”
“I have about 200 suits in London and a few in Devon,” he told the magazine. “I have a very traditional mode of dress … old English. I go to all the shops, wherever I am, but nothing fits me ’cause I’m too small.”
And he doesn’t like photo shoots. “I’ve always felt out of place with The Stones … just the way I look. I’ll have shoes on and they’ve got trainers. I hate trainers, even if they’re fashionable.”
Taking note of his sartorial savvy, Vanity Fair added Charlie to its International Best Dressed List 2002, while GQ elected him into its World’s Best Dressed Men Of The Year in 2012.
9. He’s Really Not Bothered
As long as a track gets recorded and sounds great, Charlie doesn’t seem to care who is on the drums. When he couldn’t be tracked down for what became “It’s Only Rock ’N’ Roll,” Ronnie Wood phoned former Faces bandmate Kenney Jones. “It wasn’t the first time,” Jones told iHeart Radio. “It was just Mick Jagger and me; guitar and drums.” Wood then added the bass. “I thought it was a demo and forgot about it.”
After attempts to record the tune with Charlie, the band opted to use the demo with Jones. “When I found out, I phoned Charlie, who said, ‘That’s okay. It sounds like me anyway.’”
However, Exile On Main St. engineer Glyn Johns did object when Mick Taylor, who he claimed in Mojo magazine, “turned from being a quiet, softly spoken, charming young man into a raving egomaniac junkie,” took it upon himself to overdub some bass and drums, and then argued with Johns when the tracks were erased.
“The Rolling Stones have a f***ing great drummer and a really great bass player,” Johns told Taylor. “You, sunshine, play the guitar — and you’ll hear it rather nicely when I’ve finished this.”
There were other non-Charlie tracks, too. Stones’ producer Jimmy Miller drummed on “Happy,” “Tumbling Dice,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and “Shine A Light.” The cowbell on “Honky Tonk Woman” is also him.
10. It Was He Who Chose Darryl Jones
Bill Wyman’s departure in December ’92 posed a challenge. Would Wood move to bass? (He was a fantastic bassist in the original Jeff Beck Group.) Or would it be some geezer of a certain age playing the pubs and clubs of London?
Somewhat surprisingly, it was Darryl Jones. Born in Chicago the year Charlie joined Blues Incorporated, he had played with Miles Davis and alongside Omar Hakim with Sting. Apparently Charlie reckoned the Miles credential alone was a suitable qualifier.
Jones told Tanya Almor Gambale for abasses.com that when he heard of Wyman’s departure he “left messages with Jagger’s management. They called me and I went in to audition. A few weeks later I went to Ireland, to Ronnie Wood’s place, and played stuff that ended up on Voodoo Lounge. When they were in L.A., in ’94, I went down to the studio. Keith asked if I’d seen Charlie. I said no, then he says, ‘Charlie asked me if we were going to play with you? We’ve auditioned all those guys, chose you to play on the record — I don’t think we’re now gonna go choose someone else.’ Charlie said, ‘Maybe someone should tell him!’ So I’m telling you, you’re gonna go with us.’”
11. He’s Not Jagger’s Drummer
It was one thing for Mrs. Watts to counter Jagger’s commanding nature in the ’60s, but as Richards pointed out in his Life autobiography, Charlie took even greater umbrage with the singer when it was discovered he had used the bargaining power of The Stones to negotiate his own solo deal.
“Mick and I got back to the hotel at about five in the morning, and he called up Charlie. ‘Where’s my drummer?’ No answer. He puts the phone down. We were still sitting there getting pissed when about 20 minutes later there was a knock on the door. It was Charlie — Saville Row suit, perfectly dressed. Tie. Shaved. The whole bit. I could smell the cologne. He walked straight past me, got ahold of Mick and said, ‘Never call me your drummer again.’ He held him up and gave him a right hook.
“Twelve hours later he was saying f**k it, I’m going to go down and do it again. It takes a lot to wind that man up.”
“When Charlie plays,” said White, “it looks to me that he knows who runs the band on stage, despite what the singer might think.”
12. He Kicked His Habits
Charlie got into drugs and drink in a big way in the ’80s. In Ian McPherson’s Portrait Of Charlie the drummer noted: “Looking back, I think it was a mid-life crisis. I became totally another person around 1983 and came out of it about 1986. I nearly lost my wife and everything over my behaviour.”
“At the end of two years on speed and heroin,” he told The Mirror, “I was very ill. My daughter used to tell me I looked like Dracula. I went mad really. I nearly killed myself.”
So what prompted him to stop? “I broke my ankle when I was playing at Ronnie Scott’s, so I had to get straight. I just stopped cold — for me and for my wife. It [drink and drugs] was never me, really.”
Richards also gave him the word. “I passed out in the studio, and that to me was a blatant lack of professionalism. Keith picked me up — this is Keith, who I’ve seen in all sorts of states doing all sorts of things — and he said, ‘This is the sort of thing you do when you’re 60.’” Charlie was in his mid-40s.
13. He Keeps It Simple
The catchy drum intro to “Get Off My Cloud” and Bill Wyman’s descending bass line in “19th Nervous Breakdown” revealed that The Stones were more than just Mick, Keith, and Brian. The slamming 2 and 4 grooves on “Satisfaction” and “Jumping Jack Flash” may not have been as creative as what Ringo played on The Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride” or “Tomorrow Never Knows” (Jagger & Richards tunes seldom call for fancy drum parts) but they were just as inspirational.
“Take simple grooves like ‘Start Me Up’ or ‘Brown Sugar,’” Wallis says, “and play them like Charlie does, with traditional grip and not hitting the hi-hat on the 2 and 4 when the snare is played. Then you get an idea of where his feel comes from. It’s challenging. Try it.”
14. He’s Very Real
Aside from his issues in the ’80s, Charlie has prevailed as a calming force within The Stones. In a 1983 Musician Magazine interview, author Vic Garbarini questioned Richards on the stability Charlie and Wyman brought to the band. “Yeah, they’re incredibly down-to-earth. You can’t be around them and strike any false notes musically or personally. I imagine that if we’d had different guys we could have collapsed in a very short time.”
DeChristopher first met Charlie at a Stones’ sound check in New Jersey in 1997. “I had sent him some vintage 1940s A. Zildjians. He was very appreciative, polite, gracious, and somewhat reserved. He asked, ‘Which Zildjian do you work for?’ I said ‘Armand Zildjian.’ He smiled. [Robert Zildjian had departed to form Sabian.] I invited him to see Brian Blade with Josh Redman at the Regatta Bar in Boston, and he said he’d let me know. Sure enough, I received a call saying he would love to go. Our friendship continues to this day, well beyond my time with Zildjian.”
“I have a letter Charlie sent years ago,” recalls Wallis, “thanking us for a batch of DVDs we sent him. He signed with his trademark “C.R. Watts (drummer, The Rolling Stones),” which I always loved. As if someone wouldn’t know what band he is in!” [laughs]
15. He Sketches His Hotel Beds
When touring, Charlie has a ritual of sketching his hotel beds and furnishings. Maybe that’s an antidote to being away from home. Or could it be that he, who worked as a graphic designer in Denmark, then at a British advertising agency, is simply refusing to let his keen eye and deft hand get away from him? He’s not quite sure. His creative influence also appears in The Stones’ stage sets and album covers.
16. He’s A Cancer Survivor
In 2004 it was revealed that Charlie had throat cancer. After radiotherapy treatments and getting an all-clear confirmation, he quickly got back to normal. Given that scare, it’s not like he wouldn’t be justified in hanging his “Closed” sign on his drums and settling for the good life on the family farm. Instead, he’s as active as ever with the band. “I thought I was going to die,” he told Alun Palmer in The Mirror. “Now I have only got to get a sore throat and I think ‘I wonder.’”
17. He Is Still A Stone
Charlie has said he was considering retiring, but the late 2012 dates at London’s O2 Arena with guests Mick Taylor and Jeff Beck changed his mind. “I say I’ll retire at the end of every tour,” Charlie told The Guardian. “And then I have two weeks off and my wife says, ‘Aren’t you going to work?’”
Still, when The Stones announced to play the massive Glastonbury Festival, he wasn’t too keen. “I don’t want to do it … it’s not what I’d like to do for a weekend, I can tell you.”
18. He Admits He’s Lucky
In an interview with 60 Minutes (Australia) the chat went like this:
60 Minutes: “Charlie Watts, what’s he like?”
Watts: “I’ve got no idea. Miserable most of the time. Sittin’ in the back, moaning about things.”
60 Minutes: “He’s very talented though.”
Watts: “Not really.”
60 Minutes: “He was just lucky, was he?”
Watts: “Very lucky.”
19. He’s As Relevant As Ever
“I saw him in October 2016,” notes DeChristopher. “He was 75 and his playing sounded so strong and solid. He warms up before every show and goes on stage prepared. There’s no phoning it in.”
“In my circles,” White concludes, “The Stones are revered and respected. Keith is a loveable legend, Mick is the consummate front man, and Charlie is and always will be cool.”
Charlie, of course, takes everything in his stride. “I’ve always wanted to be a drummer,” he told Rolling Stone. “I don’t know what else I’d do.”