Charlie Watts, the self-effacing and unshakeable Rolling Stones drummer who helped anchor one of rock’s greatest rhythm sections and used his “day job” to support his enduring love of jazz, has died, according to his publicist. He was 80.
Bernard Doherty said Tuesday that 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,” Doherty said.
Watts had announced he would not tour with the Stones in 2021 because of an undefined health issue.
The quiet, elegantly dressed Watts was often ranked with Keith Moon, Ginger Baker and a handful of others as a premier rock drummer, respected worldwide for his muscular, swinging style as the Stones rose from their scruffy beginnings to international superstardom.
He joined the band early in 1963 and remained over the next 60 years, ranked just behind Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as the group’s longest lasting and most essential member.
Watts stayed on, and largely held himself apart, through the drug abuse, creative clashes and ego wars that helped kill founding member Brian Jones, drove bassist Bill Wyman and Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor to quit and otherwise made being in the Stones the most exhausting of jobs.
A classic Stones song like “Brown Sugar” and “Start Me Up” often began with a hard guitar riff from Richards, with Watts following closely behind, and Wyman, as the bassist liked to say, “fattening the sound.” Watts’ speed, power and time keeping were never better showcased than during the concert documentary, “Shine a Light,” when director Martin Scorsese filmed “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” from where he drummed toward the back of the stage.
The Stones began, Watts said, “as white blokes from England playing Black American music” but quickly evolved their own distinctive sound. Watts was a jazz drummer in his early years and never lost his affinity for the music he first loved, heading his own jazz band and taking on numerous other side projects.
He had his eccentricities — Watts liked to collect cars even though he didn’t drive and would simply sit in them in his garage. But he was a steadying influence on stage and off as the Stones defied all expectations by rocking well into their 70s, decades longer than their old rivals the Beatles.
Watts didn’t care for flashy solos or attention of any kind, but with Wyman and Richards forged some of rock’s deepest grooves on “Honky Tonk Women,” “Brown Sugar” and other songs. The drummer adapted well to everything from the disco of “Miss You” to the jazzy “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and the dreamy ballad “Moonlight Mile.”
Jagger and Richards at times seemed to agree on little else besides their admiration of Watts, both as a man and a musician. Richards called Watts “the key” and often joked that their affinity was so strong that on stage he’d sometimes try to rattle Watts by suddenly changing the beat — only to have Watts change it right back.
He also had an impact on the Rolling Stones that extended beyond drumming. He worked with Jagger on the ever more spectacular stage designs for the group’s tours. He also provided illustrations for the back cover of the acclaimed 1967 album “Between the Buttons” and inadvertently gave the record its title. When he asked Stones manager Andrew Oldham what the album would be called, Oldham responded “Between the buttons,” meaning undecided. Watts thought that “Between the Buttons” was the actual name and included it in his artwork.
To the world, he was a rock star. But Watts often said that the actual experience was draining and unpleasant, and even frightening. “Girls chasing you down the street, screaming…horrible!… I hated it,” he told The Guardian newspaper in an interview. In another interview, he described the drumming life as a “cross between being an athlete and a total nervous wreck.”
Watts found refuge from the rock life, marrying Shirley Ann Shepherd in 1964 and having a daughter, Seraphina, soon after. While other famous rock marriages crumbled, theirs held. Jagger and Richards could only envy their bandmate’s indifference to stardom and relative contentment in his private life, which included happily tending horses on a rural estate in Devon, England.
Author Philip Norman, who has written extensively about the Rolling Stones, said Watts lived “in constant hope of being allowed to catch the next plane home.” On tour, he made a point of drawing each hotel room he stayed in, a way of marking time until he could return to his family. He said little about playing the same songs for more than 40 years as the Stones recycled their classics. But he did branch out far beyond “Satisfaction” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by assembling and performing with jazz bands in the second half of his career.
Charles Robert Watts, son of a lorry driver and a housewife, was born in Neasden, London, on June 2, 1941. From childhood, he was passionate about music — jazz in particular. He fell in love with the drums after hearing Chico Hamilton and taught himself to play by listening to records by Johnny Dodds, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and other jazz giants.
He worked for a London advertising firm after he attended Harrow Art College and played drums in his spare time. London was home to a blues and jazz revival in the early 1960s, with Jagger, Richards and Eric Clapton among the future superstars getting their start. Watts’ career took off after he played with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, for whom Jagger also performed, and was encouraged by Korner to join the Stones.
Watts wasn’t a rock music fan at first and remembered being guided by Richards and Brian Jones as he absorbed blues and rock records, notably the music of bluesman Jimmy Reed. He said the band could trace its roots to a brief period when he had lost his job and shared an apartment with Jagger and Richards because he could live there rent-free.
“Keith Richards taught me rock and roll,” Watts said. “We’d have nothing to do all day and we’d play these records over and over again. I learned to love Muddy Waters. Keith turned me on to how good Elvis Presley was, and I’d always hated Elvis up ’til then.”
Watts was the final man to join the Stones; the band had searched for months to find a permanent drummer and feared Watts was too accomplished for them. Richards recalled the band wanting him so badly to join that members cut down on expenses so they could afford to pay Watts a proper salary. Watts said he believed at first the band would be lucky to last a year.
“Every band I’d ever been in had lasted a week,” he said. “I always thought the Stones would last a week, then a fortnight, and then suddenly, it’s 30 years.”
For much of his career, Watts resisted the excesses of his bandmates, but he fell into heroin addiction in the mid-1980s. He would credit his stable relationship with his wife for getting him off drugs.
“I was warring with myself at that time,” he told Rolling Stone magazine.
With his financial future secure because of the Stones’ status as one of the world’s most popular live bands, Watts was able to indulge his passion for jazz by putting together some of the most talented musicians in Britain for a series of recordings and performances. They typically played during the long breaks between Stones tours.
His first jazz record, the 1986 “Live at Fulham Town Hall,” was recorded by the Charlie Watts Orchestra. Others by the Charlie Watts Quintet followed, and he expanded that group into the Charlie Watts and the Tentet.
Watts was an acclaimed jazz bandleader when he was stricken with throat cancer in 2004. He received extensive treatment and made a full recovery. His return to health allowed him to resume touring with both the Stones and his jazz band.
By then, the young man who had worn his brown hair down to his shoulders in the late 1960s had evolved into a craggy, white-haired, impeccably dressed senior statesman of rock. Getting Watts to talk about his place in rock history was almost impossible, but he seemed to enjoy talking about fashion. It was not unusual to see him attired in a custom-made suit and polka dot tie while his bandmates wore jeans and T-shirts.
In the tumultuous, extremely competitive world of rock and roll, Watts seemed to make few enemies.
“It all seems to boil down to a certain quality which is as rare as hen’s teeth in the music business, but which Charlie Watts is perceived to have in abundance. In a word, decency,” columnist Barbara Ellen wrote after interviewing Watts in 2000.
“You’ve got to hand it to a…man who’s played with the world’s most influential rock ‘n’ roll band…and stayed happily married to his wife, Shirley….A man who, moreover, remains resolutely determined not to take his elevated position too seriously.”