According to his publicist, Watts “passed away peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family.”
“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,” Watts’ publicist, Bernard Doherty, said in a statement.
Just three weeks ago it was revealed that Watts would miss The Rolling Stones’ upcoming US tour after undergoing an unspecified medical procedure. At the time, a representative for the band said the procedure was “completely successful, but his doctors this week concluded that he now needs proper rest and recuperation.”
In his own statement, Watts joked that “for once, my timing has been a little off… I am working hard to get fully fit but I have today accepted on the advice of the experts that this will take a while.”
Charlie Watts joined The Rolling Stones shortly after their formation in January 1963 and remained a constant and reliable presence behind the kit for the next 58 years. He was the only member of the band other than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to have been featured on all of their studio albums, and also never missed a gig.
Watts was born in London on June 2nd, 1941 during the height of World War II. His father drove a truck for the English rail system and his mother raised Charlie and his sister Linda. The war would shape his childhood literally: Watts grew up in one of the many prefabricated homes built on the wreckage of the bombings. “They were all over London, these prefabs,” Watts told the New Yorker in 2012. “It felt like a community.”
Around the age of 13, Watts became enamored with jazz music, collecting records from Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton, Gerry Mulligan, and Thelonious Monk. This sparked a desire to play an instrument himself.
“I bought a banjo, and I didn’t like the dots on the neck,” Watts said. “So I took the neck off, and at the same time I heard a drummer called Chico Hamilton, who played with Gerry Mulligan, and I wanted to play like that, with brushes. I didn’t have a snare drum, so I put the banjo head on a stand.”
Seeing how he had mutilated the banjo, “My parents bought me one of those first drum kits every drummer knows too well,” Watts told Stanley Watts for his book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. He then wrote the word “Chico” on the kit, as an homage to his hero Chico Hamilton.
In 1958 or ’59, he began playing in his first band, a jazz outfit called the Jo Jones All Stars. “All stars, laughingly called,” Watts said. But that path seemed unlikely to result in stable income, and so he studied graphic design at Harrow Art School, after which he worked for an ad firm in London.
But he never lost his love of music, and in 1962 began to frequent London’s Ealing Club, where young artists in the “trad” scene were experimenting with jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues. He began drumming for Alexis Korner’s group Blues Incorporated, which briefly featured a vocalist by the name of Mick Jagger.
Jagger formed The Rolling Stones in 1963, with a lineup boasting guitarist Keith Richards, guitarist Brian Jones, bassist Bill Wyman, pianist Ian Stewart, and drummer Tony Chapman. In short order, Jagger had decided that Chapman was the only thing holding him back, and entreated Watts to take his place. The rest is rock and roll history.
Over his seven-decade career, Watts’ playing rapidly evolved. On The Stones’ first international hit, 1965’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” he provided the track’s thumping heartbeat. By 1966’s frenetic “Paint It Black,” his playful personality was starting to come through, as he developed different percussive riffs to accompany the various musical movements.
By the end of the decade, Watts was indisputably one of the great living percussionists. The wildness he brought to 1967’s “Street Fighting Man,” the groovy shuffle in “Sympathy for the Devil” and the blistering rock of “Stray Cat Blues,” (both 1968), put him in a class of his own.
As Keith Richards began to exert his influence over the band, Watt’s provided the structure that allowed that musicianship to stand tall. 1972’s Tumbling Dice is often thought to reflect Richards’ vision for a more raw and rootsy rock sound, but it was Watts’ percussive textures that allowed those searing guitars to shine. “Charlie Watts gives me the freedom to fly on stage,” Richards recalled.
Like so many of the Stones, Watts struggled with substance abuse, though he cleaned up for good in 1986. And those brushes with alcohol and heroin did no lasting damage to his marriage; Watts’ had been married to his wife Shirley since 1964, before The Rolling Stones became international household names.
In recent years, Watts had begun to pine for the smaller jazz clubs he played when he began. “In jazz you’re closer,” he said in 2012. “In a football stadium, you can’t say you’re closely knit together. It’s difficult to know what Mick’s up to when you can’t even see him. He’s gone around the corner and he’s half a mile away.”
He had also begun to think about retirement, though his old pal Richards was against it. “I’m always saying, ‘I’m tired, I want to retire,’ and [Richards] says, ‘Charlie, what else would you do?’” Ultimately, he kept on rocking until his health would not allow him to continue.
His passing has been mourned by some of the greatest musicians of all time, including Paul McCartney, Elton John, Brian Wilson, and more. Read a selection of tributes here, and revisit some of his most remarkable musical performances below.