Music Remembrance: Charlie Watts (1941-2021)

By Tim Jackson

Watts’s relentlessly unembellished drive on dozens of classic songs, from “Satisfaction” and “Shattered” to “Connection,” is what makes them so danceable.

The late Charlie Watts

I was fortunate enough to see the Rolling Stones up close a few times. Jagger had his kabuki posturing, Keith Richards his iconic poses that Ron Wood mirrored off to the side, while bassists Bill Wyman or Darryl Jones stood still and solid. But drummer Charlie Watts, who passed away Monday at 80, seemed to be the foundation of the band. His small four-piece Gretsch drum set — along with a small, but meticulously chosen, selection of Zildjian cymbals — was a contrast to the flamboyant drum kits of most rock acts. He played with great efficiency, never drawing attention to himself. A drummer is like the driver of a train of horses. He or she counts everybody in. When they take off, he or she keeps the gait steady. Watts also had a passion for Arabian horses. He and Shirley, his wife of almost 56 years, at one time owned more than 250 of them. He was a country gentleman who wore Savile Row suits and had a lifelong love of jazz.

Watts started in jazz, teaching himself by listening to and watching American drummers. He claims Chico Hamilton as an early influence, particularly the cool swing with brushes Chico created when he accompanied Gerry Mulligan on the song “Soft Shoe/Walkin’ Shoes.” Watts waxed eloquent about Chick Webb, Baby Dodds, Phil Seaman, Shelley Mann, and many others. For a brief period, he fronted his own big band.

Many British drummers of the ’60s had jazz roots while drawing from a wellspring of American styles: swing, rhythm and blues, rockabilly, gospel, and New Orleans. Synchronicity — the right drummer hooking up with the right band — was key: Keith Moon’s unhinged thrashing for the Who; John Bonham’s thundering virtuosity with Led Zeppelin; Mitch Mitchell’s jazzy embellishments for Hendrix; Ginger Baker’s thick double bass drum textures for Cream; Ringo’s creative artistry with George Martin and the Beatles. Charlie Watts helped the Stones define their sound. Wisdom has it that, in much of rock, the band plays to the drummer. In jazz, the drummer plays to the band. In a lot of rock music the bass drum locks in with the bass. Charlie played to Richards’s rhythm guitar, not necessarily with the bass, giving the tracks a unique push and pull, creating a tension between the freedom of jazz and the directness of rock. His solid simplicity was the expression of a stalwart personality. He exerted a sobering effect on a band that could have easily  come apart at the seams.

Charlie’s skills appeared effortless and at times he seemed laughingly bored. But he never wavered. He always played with a “traditional grip” like the early jazz players, never the more aggressive German “matched” grip. A backbeat can be played perceptibly ahead or on the late side of the exact center. It is called “playing in the pocket.” Watts played naturally that way, and it made everything groove. Fills come between Jagger’s phrases. Sometimes they rush imperceptibly ahead, but they always pull back to that groove. Early Rolling Stones songs embraced a raggedy quality that served as a perfect contrast to the Beatles’ more produced pop sound.

Watts was the anchor to hundreds of Jagger and Richards compositions. His relentlessly unembellished drive on dozens of classic songs, from “Satisfaction” and “Shattered” to “Connection,” is what makes them so danceable. The lilting acoustic Spanish guitar on “Paint it Black” gives way to an impatient stream of eighth-notes on the tom-tom. There’s a clever turnaround on the intro to “Start Me Up” and a stuttering entrance in “Street Fighting Man.” “Scarlet” is a recent example of his way of swinging any song, in contrast to stiff-armed fills.

He also put up with the shenanigans of the band itself, which was no small achievement. He appeared to maintain calm at the center of many egomaniacal storms: the sudden death of Brian Jones, the band’s drug use, philandering, and globe-hopping, the endless tours, the exit of Bill Wyman. Watts can be appreciated for his steady simplicity by a beginning drummer or admired for his subtlety by the more advanced. That is partly why I feel a strange sense of loss, beyond dealing with the passing of an icon. He’s been there my entire life.

It was a part of my consciousness: his wide grin and somber, very British visage, appreciating how he approached his craft with integrity. He seemed to be able to balance art and life with Zen-like acceptance: stability amid uncertainty, art amid chaos. There are people in our lives who we will never know personally, but who are integral to the way we see the world and engage as artists. My greatest hope is that each of us may have that same effect on someone and never know it. For millions of fans, Charlie Watts did just that.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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  1. Paul Robicheau on August 25, 2021 at 5:04 pm

    Beautiful piece, Tim. Charlie clearly had a great effect on you as a drummer and beyond. I love how you compare drummers and explain technique yet make it easy for anyone to understand — like Charlie.

    • tim on August 25, 2021 at 7:37 pm

      Thanks, Paul. Writing deepens thoughts on people and events, for me that includes actors, filmmakers, writers, directors, even teachers, friends and family. In this case, there are drummers who have had a more pronounced impact on my own playing (Hal Blaine, Richie Hayward, Russ Kunkel, Alan Dawson) but at a distance with age and insight, things become significant in new ways, as they should. I’m sure you know that as well as anyone. Have you noticed the number of people of a certain age writing memoirs lately!

  2. John Kusiak on August 25, 2021 at 5:09 pm

    Nice piece on Charlie, Tim, I enjoyed reading it and appreciated the personal touch of the last part.

  3. Sophie on August 25, 2021 at 6:17 pm

    He’s been there my whole life too. I’ve seen 15 shows and I’m headed to my 16th in Nashville in October. Charlie will be missed. I always loved when Mick would make fun of his socks. Always impeccably dressed, he seemed the calm in a crazy storm of Rolling Stones madness. He stays alive in the music, just like Bobby Keys and the others who have been a part of the magic. -Sophie your Yoga pal in Syracuse

  4. josephine curtis on August 25, 2021 at 7:10 pm

    very well written tim!!!

  5. Steve Morse on August 25, 2021 at 9:34 pm

    A heartfelt piece, Tim. Wonderful analysis of where Charlie came from musically, and why he mattered so much.

  6. John DeChristopher on August 25, 2021 at 10:56 pm

    When people ask me who my drumming influences were growing up, it’s impossible to name them all. But when people ask me who my all-time favorite drummer is, it’s easy: Charlie Watts. Every moment I spent with Charlie was precious time. His drumming was, and will always be, what I strive for. I’m so glad I got to tell him how important he was to me, though he was genuinely uncomfortable with praise and compliments. The last time we spoke was June 2nd when I called to wish him a happy 80th birthday. We hoped to see each other somewhere on the road. I’m so deeply sad, but so incredibly thankful to have been his friend for 25 years. A dream come true really.

  7. tim jackson on August 26, 2021 at 1:49 pm

    A note:
    For anyone who might read this: John was a VP and Head of Artist Relations at Zildjian Cymbals for decades. I have known him since he sent me drumsticks on the road as a young man from Wurlitzer’s Store on Newbury Street in the late 70’s (when I actually used to break them.; now I just wear them out).
    Now retired (sort of) his current “Live From My Drum Room” is the best broadcast there is for drummers. He is a true gentleman who cares deeply about his craft and who is and has always been a faithful friend to the many, many percussionists whose paths he has crossed and supported over the years. That includes his friendship with Watts. I very much appreciate your comment John

    • John DeChristopher on August 28, 2021 at 9:48 pm

      Thank you, Tim. For anyone interested, I posted a personal tribute to Charlie on my “Live From My Drum Room” YouTube channel and it’s also available as a podcast. Links are in my name. I’ll be posting more tributes with guest drummers in the coming weeks. Charlie was the best.

  8. Diane on August 29, 2021 at 11:24 pm

    The Stones Rolled. Charlie was the steady Rock . Every band needs one.
    Great writing, Tim.

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