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2021 Took Charlie Watts, But His Beat Goes On

Our 2021 Annual Report continues with a look at one of music's biggest losses this year

Charlie Watts
Charlie Watts, photo by photo by Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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    Our 2021 Annual Report continues with a look at one of music’s biggest losses this year. As December rolls along, stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles about the best music, film, and TV of 2021. You can find it all in one place here.


    During most of the band’s nearly 60 years, a Rolling Stones concert began with Keith Richards playing one of those famous guitar licks. But that changed on the fall leg of the group’s continuing ”No Filter Tour.”

    It had to.

    The first sound audiences heard this time out was Charlie Watts playing the drums, and the first image they saw was Watts on the video screen, larger than life (but not reputation), before any of The Stones walked on the stage. Emerging to open with “Tumbling Dice,” the band dedicated each show to the late drummer.  It was an appropriate, and necessary, homage to the man Mick Jagger said was “the rock the rest of it was built around.”

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    Watts’ passing on August 24th, at the age of 80 — just three weeks after announcing he would be sitting out a tour for his first time during his tenure with The Stones — shook the world in a way that few have before. It was a death in the family, a cause for universal mourning even beyond the music world. Network news programs reported on it. Tributes poured in from all corners of the world. There was a genuine recognition that a legend had left our midst, and that both The Rolling Stones and rock ‘n’ roll as a whole would never be the same.

    “Charlie was a great guy, a lot of fun — and he had a harder band to keep together!” the Beatles’ Ringo Starr recalled a few weeks later. “We’ll miss Charlie. He was a beautiful human being. He was, like, the quiet man.”

    Quiet, perhaps, but with an impact that was as loud as anybody who sat behind a drum kit during — or even before — the rock era. His passing created an opportunity for the world to acknowledge and, in many cases, learn about how important and special Watts really was.

    Drumming discussions seldom mentioned Watts in the company of The Who’s Keith Moon, Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, or many of his other hard-hitting, nimble-limbed colleagues. But those who knew considered Watts a leader in the field, a first among equals, a man of taste (and wealth, due to The Rolling Stones’ iconic success) who played with a jazzman’s touch for staying in the pocket and just enough behind the beat to keep the song on track, providing a foundation for his bandmates’ sometimes unpredictable musical excursions.

    Watts was the dependable, workmanlike rock The Stones were built on — “the engine room,” as Richards often referred to him — subtly clever and swinging, picking his spots to stand out only when it was called for.

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    “A most vital part of being in this band was that Charlie Watts was my bed,” Richards said before the “No Filter Tour” began. “I could lay on there, and I know that not only would I have a good sleep, but I’d wake up and it’d still be rocking. It was something I’ve had since I was 19. I never doubted it. I never even thought about it.”

    Jagger added that Watts “held the band together for so long, musically, because he was always there, always played beautifully and was always willing to discuss what to do about it — how he could make it better.”

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    Some years earlier, bassist Bill Wyman, who played with Watts in The Rolling Stones from ’63 to ’92, identified his rhythm section partner as “an economist… I look at all these drummers that have all these pieces on [their kits] to band around on, and Charlie has, like, seven. And he gets as much out of what he has as they do — maybe more — just ’cause he’s such a great player.”

    During The Stones’ 1978 tour, Watts — a member of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame — explained the sensibility to writer Chet Flippo: “Rock swings with a heavy backbeat. It’s supposed to be fun, and that’s why I like it. It’s dance music… Heavy backbeat, that’s what it is.”

    Raised in the northwest London district of Kingsbury, Watts played soccer and cricket as a youth but became enamored with jazz early on, buying 78 RPM releases by Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, and others. Starting out playing banjo, Watts was inspired by Gerry Mulligan’s drummer Chico Hamilton to put his banjo head on a stand and use it as a snare drum.

    Watts’ parents bought him his first proper drum kit in 1955, and he began playing with the Jo Jones All Stars in clubs and coffee houses. All the while, he was studying at Harrow Art School and eventually working as a graphic designer for Charles Daniels Studios.

    Watts had taken a job in Denmark when Alexis Korner asked him to join his band Blues Incorporated in 1961. The drummer returned to London, where he worked days at another advertising company, before meeting Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Ian Stewart as they entered Korner’s orbit. They began courting him to join The Rolling Stones when they formed the band in 1962, and Watts finally agreed in January of 1963.

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    “I thought it would be good fun, and I liked [the other band members],” Watts once said. “I did not at all think it would be a lifetime job. How could I?” In fact, two years after joining the group, Watts published an illustrated book about Charlie Parker, Ode to a High Flying Bird, he’d written during his art school days.

    In addition to playing drums, Watts also lent his graphic skills to the band early on. He helped design the covers for albums such as Between the Buttons, as well as tour stages, logos, and posters.

    While maintaining an unassuming presence on stage, where his playing did the talking, Watts certainly understood his value within the band. He was also, for the most part, the Rolling Stone least affected by the group’s iconic success. In his book STP: A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones, Robert Greenfield recounted that during The Stones’ 1972 North American tour, Watts spent a visit to the Playboy Mansion playing billiards rather than cavorting with women.

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    “Being a Rolling Stone has almost passed [Watts] by,” Wyman wrote in his memoir, Stone Alone. “He has never courted fame or sought pop stardom. Inside a band of powerful personalities he remains a true British eccentric.”

    But not one without an ego of his own. Perhaps the most famous bit of Watts lore was when he received a late-night drunken phone call from Jagger, who was asking, “Where’s my drummer?” Watts responded by shaving, putting on a suit and tie, going to the singer’s hotel room, knocking on the door and punching him. “Never call me ‘your drummer’ again,” he told Jagger.

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