Charlie Watts Invented Rock Drumming

The best Charlie Watts stories and obituaries we've seen since yesterday including that infamous Mick Jagger punch.

Charlie Watts Invented Rock Drumming

By

Aaron Chan

8/25/2021 4:55 PM

Even if you were one of the few people who aren't a fan of The Rolling Stones, you likely had an opinion on their relentless drive to keep touring and making music. I went to A Bigger Bang, the smash world tour The Stones mounted in 2006. When The Rolling Stones roll into town, it consumes your entire locale: 80,000 people attend, sometimes double or triple if they play multiple nights (which means even if you don’t go, you’re probably going to hear about it), radio stations alter their rotations, and the town goes into a bit of a fury, not just at the Jurassic-scaled, pyrotechnic spectacle set to parade and inflate into their hometowns, but that the men behind one of the most powerful rhythmic forces and smartest songwriting brain trusts is coming to represent.

Losing Charlie Watts is pretty big. The future of The Rolling Stones, an act who can still pull touring revenues in the nine digits from their invaluable legacy seems to be uncertain; it’s true, they’ll likely still play shows, but the idea that Watts was any less integral than Jagger and Richards is turning out to be more and more untrue. As the backbeat of a band that made songs to make you move, Watts’ style and identity was crucial to the DNA of The Stones and while drummers are normally the more replaceable quotients of bands (either by other famous drummers or their sons), the absence of Charlie Watts feels closer to the chest.

Watts was The Rolling Stones’ only drummer for the entirety of their professional career, joining in 1963 after Jagger fired original drummer Tony Chapman. Aside from the other two, he was the only consistent member of The Stones. When it was announced that Watts was sitting out from tour three weeks ago due to a major surgery, it was the first time he had missed a concert in 57 years. The band replaced him with legendary modern session player Steve Jordan who may or may not become a permanent fixture within the band. Watts, tired from a long life of touring gigantic stadiums, had flirted with the idea of retirement and with the dream of relegating his talents to tighter knit jazz clubs, but Richards begged him not to.

It’s about as sad as any time a legend in rock and roll dies: contemporaries reminisce, bandmates keep to themselves aside from a light public statement, and fans light candles, but the death of Watts is quite unique, as he was a private person in the most public group of all time. He did not prefer the rock star life, staying humble and preserving his jazz minded discipline. His marriage of 59 years feels like centuries in rock and roll. It was this lack of self-indulgence and affinity for the clean over the flashy that set Charlie apart from his rock drummer contemporaries that strayed away from real time and played drum solos that rivalled the length of most episodic television. Watts was strict, more importantly he had an incredible presence of mind. It was this style of rock drumming that would ultimately become the modern standard.

Watts’ adaptability was nothing short of vital to the Jagger-Richards songwriting machine. There was no genre Charlie would or could not tackle. His jazz swing kept uptempo numbers going. He’s why “Paint it Black” takes flight, why the guitars, horns, and keys in the early 70s material have the right amount of space to shine. When The Stones needed a slow-moving train rhythm on “I Got the Blues,” Charlie was up for it. The pounding snare that makes “Live With Me” so devilishly frantic, that was entirely him. When he had to take more of a backseat to allow for “Sympathy for the Devil’ to take on a more percussion-based arrangement, he played simple time. Reflection from his peers confirms that Watts was not the type of lad to take shit, which is interesting since his recorded works reflect an unselfish man who would do anything to serve the better of the song. Thankfully, as the countless obituaries indicate, this narrative extended beyond his music and Watts was loved by nearly everyone he worked with. It’s been a satisfying affirmation if anything of the positive presence Watts was within the artistic community in the outpour following his death. Here are some of the things that people have been realizing since yesterday afternoon through obituaries and stories from his friends.

 

He Was a Jazz Drummer First and Foremost

Charlie’s love of New Orleans-style showy musicians who played jazz and rock and roll and what was known as R&B was pretty much the key to The Stones’ rhythmic intersection. Many historians enjoy the idea that Watts maintained a more jazz like approach from his boozy rock star bandmates and his later career decisions seem to affirm this. He loved the idea of eloquence, owning over 200 suits and a collection of vintage automobiles despite never attaining a driver’s license. Beginning in 1986 he started recording solo jazz albums, some with spare combos and some with full orchestras. Watts’ 2013 interview with Rolling Stone focuses almost entirely on jazz legends like Tony Williams, Buddy Rich, and Keith Moon, another notable jazz drummer who played in an arena rock band.

 

He Punched Mick Jagger in Amsterdam in 1984

A story surfacing frequently since Watts passed comes from Keith Richards’ autobiography Life, where Richards retells how Watts was the only one who could put Jagger in his place during his egocentric periods.

“There was a rare moment, in late 1984, of Charlie throwing his drummer’s punch — a punch I’ve seen a couple of times and it’s lethal; it carries a lot of balance and timing,” Richards wrote. “He has to be badly provoked. He threw this one at Mick.”

Jagger and Richards were strangely not on good terms at the time, but still made a night on the town happen in Holland. A very intoxicated Jagger apparently called Watts at five in the morning demanding “Where’s my drummer?” Surprisingly, Watts showed up twenty minutes later in a Savile Row suit, clean shaven and wearing cologne as if he were preparing for a morning brief at a financial firm.

I opened the door, and he didn’t even look at me, he walked straight past me, got hold of Mick and said, ‘Never call me your drummer again.’ Then he hauled him up by the lapels of my jacket and gave him a right hook…Mick fell back onto a silver platter of smoked salmon on the table and began to slide towards the open window and the canal below it. And I was thinking, this is a good one, and then I realized it was my wedding jacket. And I grabbed hold of it and caught Mick just before he slid into the Amsterdam canal.

Richards posits the idea that if he had not lent Jagger his wedding jacket that night he may have been killed as the item was Keith’s incentive to grab hold of him before he fell into the canal. Richards spent the next 24 hours talking Watts down, before adding that “It takes a lot to wind that man up.”

Charlie, my darling, you will be sorely missed.

 

Keith Richards Was Probably His Best Friend in the Band

Making somewhat of an underrated bromance, Watts and Richards’ archival interviews show nothing but mutual support:

“There’s nothing forced about Charlie, least of all his modesty. It’s totally real. He cannot understand what people see in his drumming,” Richards once said.

Watts credits Keef with converting him from jazz to rock. An avid fan of Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins before he had integrated into The Stones, Richards shook Watts’ world, showing him John Lee Hooker & Muddy Waters and teaching him how to properly listen to Elvis Presley. Watts relied on Richards as the lead line for every Stones composition, setting the band apart from any R&B act up to that point. Watts played behind the beat on purpose giving everything a sly drag, while Keef’s guitar lines led the way.

 

?uestlove Explains Why Watts Was a Great Drummer:

Charlie Watts truly knew what was called for in Rolling Stones songs. I’m not even talking about the Captain Obvious super hits, I’m talking in terms of the stuff that doesn’t get celebrated enough, like his groove on “Almost Hear You Sigh” on Steel Wheels or even their rendition of “Harlem Shuffle” on Dirty Work. I know a lot has been debated on, “What’s the perfect bracket between the Stones’ work: Where did it start and where does it end?” But in my opinion, he’s always been a solid foundational drummer. He was the anti-drummer. He wasn’t performative to let you know how hard he was fucking working. He gave you the basic foundation.

What I really felt akin to, as far as Charlie’s and my drumming is concerned, was the fact that my reputation is as stoic as Charlie’s reputation — like, the serious face that he always had. I came to the world in a time where the temptation to show off was at a high, and it’s a mighty task to check your ego at the door when you’re a drummer, to not beg for attention or to do anything to distract from the team mentality. And I will say that those first five to six years in the Roots, to maintain that discipline, especially in a genre that wanted complete flash and trickery, my motivation in the back of my mind was always that Watts became a legend not because of who he was associated with, but because he’s providing the foundation.

A solid foundation, to me, is more important than the size of your drum set or how fast you drum or how loud you drum. And only real drummers know the value of Charlie Watts and the fact that he was the world’s greatest metronome. His serious drumming and stoic drumming was kind of my blueprint with the Roots. Because Charlie did less, that made him more.

Probably Charlie’s greatest trademark was the fact that he never hits the hi-hat when he hits the snare, which is very unusual, because drummers are programmed to hit everything at the same time. I’ve never seen a drummer just individually hit them the way he does. His hi-hat hand never played when the snare hand played, and the same with how he applies his rolls and his kicks and what not. Like, again, a rare moment of him just rolling his ass off is the end of “Start Me Up,” which is sort of like, “Ooh, he’s getting loose tonight.” But I realize that that’s more mastery than it is not being advanced enough.

The average amateur or newbie will probably think, “The less that I do, the more it will reveal that I’m not as skilled as the next person.” And that’s absolutely, positively not the case of Charlie Watts. His level of drumming, especially the fact that it was so unorthodox, I definitely could hear a difference in my drumming, once I stopped depending on the hi-hat for a lot. Like with “Brown Sugar,” that’s a great example where his concentration on the kick and the snare and not so much on the hi-hat actually makes it bigger, the same with the four-on-the-floor — or in this case, the eight-on-the-floor — for “Satisfaction.” Just the fact that he does less and that makes it sounds heavier.

Max Weinberg Tells a Story on How Watts Helped Him Out After The E Street Band Broke Up:

 

I was once in his hotel room on 52nd Street. Charlie had just arrived. The Stones were playing Madison Square Garden that night. It was myself and a friend of mine, and we were both interviewing him for Modern Drummer magazine. Charlie invited me in because he had to unpack. He had these leather suitcases, and he opens them up, and everything in them was immaculately folded, which is quite the opposite of mine when I’m on tour. So I was most impressed with that. But then he took everything out and refolded everything and put it in the drawers. And I’ve never seen any rock & roller, ever, put anything in the drawers. But he was very precise about where everything had to go. And it kind of reflected his drumming.

One of the things that we connected on was that I knew a lot of the drummers that he admired. The night of the day the E Street Street Band broke up, which was October 18th, 1989, I got a call from Charlie Watts. The juxtaposition was freaky. And he says, “You’re friends with Joe Morello, right?” I said, “Yes.” Joe was, of course, the legendary drummer for the Dave Brubeck Quartet. And he goes, “And you also know Mel Lewis?” Mel was an extraordinarily famous bebop drummer. I said, “Yeah, I met Mel when I was a teenager.” And Mel, famously, for 40 years, railed against rock & roll. He hated rock.

So Charlie says, “I don’t see any reason why they would, but do you think you might let Joe and Mel know that it would be such an honor for me to meet them.  They’re such heroes of mine.” And I said, “Charlie, if I can get that together for you, it would be my honor.”

And this is hours after the E Street Band broke up, right? And my high school reunion was the night before. So my head is spinning. But I had a mission now.  Mel was actually in the last stages of cancer, and he passed away about six months later. And Joe was blind. But I called both of them and I said, “My friend, Charlie Watts, of the Rolling Stones, would love to just say hello to you. And the Stones are playing in New York.”

We ended up going, and Charlie had arranged everything. I was met at the outer gate, and they let me drive down the ramp right to the backstage area where each of the Stones have a sort of tented area. And we’re ushered in to see Charlie, and Charlie’s face lights up like it’s Christmas. He literally grabs both of their hands and says, “Gentlemen, it is such an honor for me to meet you.” And he starts talking about obscure records they played on. And now it’s like, “Wow, this kid really knows our work!” And I’m standing there, so depressed because the band had broken up. But I just pulled off this summit meeting.

I was planning to go to law school, and Charlie starts talking about Micky Waller, who, when he got fired from Rod Stewart’s band, became an attorney. In any case, we took a picture, the five of us, and there’s Mel Lewis, Joe Morello, our mutual friend, the great drummer Danny Gottlieb, who came with us, and Charlie’s in the middle, and he has his arms around Joe and Mel’s waists, and he is just beaming like a 12-year-old.

Then we go to the show, and Mel Lewis, who had spent years railing about how rock & roll music was the decline of Western civilization, he got it. He loved it. He said, “Charlie is a hell of a drummer. He’s solid as a rock.”

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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">I love you my fellow Gemini ~ I will dearly miss you ~ you are the best🙏❤️☀️ <a href="https://t.co/aMYTGWikxB">pic.twitter.com/aMYTGWikxB</a></p>&mdash; Ronnie Wood (@ronniewood) <a href="https://twitter.com/ronniewood/status/1430425382897995780?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 25, 2021</a></blockquote><script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Paul on Charlie Watts ❤️ <a href="https://t.co/rn2elK6cFE">pic.twitter.com/rn2elK6cFE</a></p>&mdash; Paul McCartney (@PaulMcCartney) <a href="https://twitter.com/PaulMcCartney/status/1430221433100177409?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 24, 2021</a></blockquote><script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr"><a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/God?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#God</a> bless Charlie Watts we’re going to miss you man peace and love to the family Ringo 😎✌️🌟❤️🌈🎶☮️ <a href="https://t.co/3tSFg7EMQG">pic.twitter.com/3tSFg7EMQG</a></p>&mdash; #RingoStarr (@ringostarrmusic) <a href="https://twitter.com/ringostarrmusic/status/1430214308101705730?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 24, 2021</a></blockquote><script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">I’m just shocked to hear about Charlie Watts. I don’t know what to say, I feel terrible for Charlie’s family. Charlie was a great drummer and I loved the Stones music, they made great records. Love &amp; Mercy. <a href="https://t.co/C4q2zXvVKo">pic.twitter.com/C4q2zXvVKo</a></p>&mdash; Brian Wilson (@BrianWilsonLive) <a href="https://twitter.com/BrianWilsonLive/status/1430220368971710465?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 24, 2021</a></blockquote><script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">A very sad day. Charlie Watts was the ultimate drummer. The most stylish of men, and such brilliant company. My deepest condolences to Shirley, Seraphina and Charlotte. And of course, The Rolling Stones. <br><br>@therollingstones <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/CharlieWatts?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#CharlieWatts</a><a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RIP?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#RIP</a><a href="https://t.co/9rjSSgioZL">pic.twitter.com/9rjSSgioZL</a></p>&mdash; Elton John (@eltonofficial) <a href="https://twitter.com/eltonofficial/status/1430213430095630343?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 24, 2021</a></blockquote><script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

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transform: translateX(16px) translateY(-4px) rotate(30deg)"></div></div><div style="margin-left: auto;"><div style=" width: 0px; border-top: 8px solid #F4F4F4; border-right: 8px solid transparent; transform: translateY(16px);"></div><div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; flex-grow: 0; height: 12px; width: 16px; transform: translateY(-4px);"></div><div style=" width: 0; height: 0; border-top: 8px solid #F4F4F4; border-left: 8px solid transparent; transform: translateY(-4px) translateX(8px);"></div></div></div><div style="display: flex; flex-direction: column; flex-grow: 1; justify-content: center; margin-bottom: 24px;"><div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 4px; flex-grow: 0; height: 14px; margin-bottom: 6px; width: 224px;"></div><div style=" background-color: #F4F4F4; border-radius: 4px; flex-grow: 0; height: 14px; width: 144px;"></div></div></a><p style=" color:#c9c8cd; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px; margin-bottom:0; margin-top:8px; overflow:hidden; padding:8px 0 7px; text-align:center; text-overflow:ellipsis; white-space:nowrap;"><a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/CS989zFsAZT/?utm_source=ig_embed&amp;utm_campaign=loading" style=" color:#c9c8cd; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:normal; line-height:17px; text-decoration:none;" target="_blank">A post shared by pete townshend (@yaggerdang)</a></p></div></blockquote><script async src="//www.instagram.com/embed.js"></script>

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">So sorry to hear the very sad news of Charlie Watts passing. He was such a nice guy and a major influence in the music business - he’ll be sadly missed. My deepest condolences to his family and to Mick, Ronnie, Keith and all his friends and fans. R.I.P.<br><br>Tony <a href="https://t.co/62veFSUjoz">pic.twitter.com/62veFSUjoz</a></p>&mdash; Tony Iommi (@tonyiommi) <a href="https://twitter.com/tonyiommi/status/1430242378003136530?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 24, 2021</a></blockquote><script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">In total shock Charlie Watts was a lovely guy. He will be sorely missed. Deepest sympathy to his wife, the band and all his family and friends. 1/2 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/charliewatts?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#charliewatts</a><a href="https://twitter.com/RollingStones?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@RollingStones</a></p>&mdash; Dave Davies (@davedavieskinks) <a href="https://twitter.com/davedavieskinks/status/1430211486719352837?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 24, 2021</a></blockquote><script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">I first saw The <a href="https://twitter.com/RollingStones?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@RollingStones</a> in 1966 in the Bay Area and have been a fan ever since. Charlie Watts was one of the great drummers and will be missed. Rest easy Charlie <a href="https://t.co/FQKOXiSUpG">pic.twitter.com/FQKOXiSUpG</a></p>&mdash; John Fogerty (@John_Fogerty) <a href="https://twitter.com/John_Fogerty/status/1430221890921041924?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 24, 2021</a></blockquote><script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="und" dir="ltr"><a href="https://t.co/qPBwIKeUx3">pic.twitter.com/qPBwIKeUx3</a></p>&mdash; Nick Mason (@nickmasondrums) <a href="https://twitter.com/nickmasondrums/status/1430468890983899139?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 25, 2021</a></blockquote><script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>