Charlie Watts, whose powerful but unobtrusive drums set the pace of the Rolling Stones for more than 50 years, died in London on Tuesday. He was 80 years old.
His death in a hospital was announced by his publicist Bernard Doherty. Further details were not immediately disclosed.
The Rolling Stones announced earlier this month that Watts would not be participating in the band’s upcoming “No Filter” tour of the US after undergoing unspecified emergency medical treatment that the band officials said was successful.
Restrained, dignified and graceful Watts was never more extravagant, on or off the stage, like most of his rock stars, let alone Stones singer Mick Jagger; he was content to be one of the best rock drummers of his generation and to play with a jazz influenced swing that made the band’s gigantic success possible. As Stones guitarist Keith Richards said in his 2010 autobiography Life, “Charlie Watts was always the bed I lay in musically.”
While some rock drummers hunted for volume and bombast, Watts defined his game with subtlety, swing, and a solid groove.
“The snare sound of Charlie Watts is similar to Mick’s voice and Keith’s guitar that of the Rolling Stones,” wrote Bruce Springsteen in an introduction to the 1991 edition of drummer Max Weinberg’s book The Big Beat. “When Mick sings: ‘It’s only rock’n’roll but I like it’ [Es solo rock ‘n’ roll pero me gusta]”Charlie is here to show you why!”
Charles Robert Watts was born in London on June 2, 1941. His mother, Lillian Charlotte Eaves, was a housewife; his father, Charles Richard Watts, was with the Royal Air Force and became a truck driver for British Railways after World War II.
Charlie’s first instrument was a banjo, but confused by the finger movements required to play it, he took off her neck and turned her body into a clear box. He discovered jazz at the age of 12 and soon became a fan of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.
In 1960 Watts graduated from the Harrow School of Art and found employment as a graphic designer with a London advertising agency. He wrote and illustrated Ode to a Highflying Bird, a children’s book about jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker (although it wasn’t published until 1965). In the evenings he played drums with various groups.
Most were jazz combos, but he was also invited to join Alexis Korner’s raw rhythm-and-blues collective Blues Incorporated. Watts declined the invitation because he was leaving England to work as a graphic designer in Scandinavia, but he joined the group when he returned a few months later.
The newly formed Rolling Stones (then Rollin ‘Stones) knew they needed a good drummer, but they couldn’t afford to pay Watts, who was already earning a regular salary through his various concerts. “We are starving to pay you!” Wrote Richards. “Literally. We were shoplifting to get Charlie Watts.”
In early 1963, when they could finally guarantee £ 5 a week, Watts joined the band, completing the canonical line-up of Richards, Jagger, guitarist Brian Jones, bassist Bill Wyman and pianist Ian Stewart. He got involved with his bandmates and immersed himself in Chicago blues records.
After the success of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones quickly developed from a group specializing in electric blues to one of the most important bands of the British invasion of the 1960s chart top hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, Watts’ drum Pattern was also important. He was tireless on “Paint It, Black” (Number One in 1966), flexible on “Ruby Tuesday” (Number One in 1967) and the master of the cowbell groove with a little funk on “Honky Tonk Women” (Number One in 1969).
Watts was ambivalent about his fame as a member of the group often referred to as “the best rock ‘n’ roll in the world”. As he said in the 2003 book According to the Rolling Stones, “I loved playing with Keith and the band – I still do – but I wasn’t interested in being a pop idol with that seated screaming girl. It’s not the world I’m from. It’s not what I wanted to be and I still think it’s silly. “
Over the years Watts used his graphic arts education to help design the sets, merchandise and album art for the band; He even added a comic strip to the back of the 1967 album Between the Buttons. While the Stones cultivated their bad boy image and indulged in a collective appetite for debauchery, Watts avoided sex and drugs. In 1964 he secretly married Shirley Anne Shepherd, an art student and sculptor.
During the tours he went back to his hotel room alone; every night he drew his room. “Since 1967 I’ve drawn every bed I’ve slept in on the go,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1996. “It’s a fantastic non-book.”
While other members of the Stones fought for control of the band, Watts stayed largely out of domestic politics. As he told The Weekend Australian in 2014, “I usually mumble in the background.”
Jones, who considered himself a front man, was fired from the Stones in 1969 (and found dead in his pool shortly afterwards). Jagger and Richards spent decades in poor conditions, sometimes making albums without being in the studio at the same time. Watts was happy to work with either or both.
However, there was one occasion on which Watts complained about being treated as an employee rather than an equal member of the group. In 1984 Jagger and Richards went out for a drink in Amsterdam one evening. When they got to their hotel around 5am, Jagger Watts called, woke him up and asked, “Where’s my drummer?” Twenty minutes later Watts appeared in Jagger’s room, coldly enraged but clean-shaven and smartly dressed in a Savile Row suit and tie.
“Never call me your drummer again,” he said to Jagger before grabbing his lapel and giving him a proper hook. Richards said it barely saved Jagger from falling out a window into an Amsterdam canal.
“It’s not something I’m proud of and if I hadn’t been drinking I never would have,” said Watts in 2003. “The bottom line is, don’t bother me.”
At that time, Watts was in the early stages of a midlife crisis that manifested itself in a two-year rampage. Just as the other Stones got into moderation in their 40s, he became addicted to amphetamines and heroin, which nearly destroyed his marriage. After passing out in a recording studio and breaking his ankle falling from a ladder, he suddenly put it down.
Watts and his wife had a daughter, Seraphina, in 1968 and after a stay in France as a tax exile, they moved to a farm in south-west England. There they bred award-winning Arabian horses and gradually expanded their kennel to over 250 horses on 280 hectares of land. No information was initially available about his survivors. His publicist Doherty said Watts “died peacefully” in the hospital, “surrounded by his family”.
The Rolling Stones recorded 30 studio albums, nine of which topped the American charts and ten the British charts. The band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, a ceremony Watts did not attend.
Over time, the Stones decided to release an album every four years, followed by an extremely lucrative world tour. (They raised more than $ 500 million on their “Bigger Bang” tour between 2005 and 2007).
But Watts’ real love was still jazz, and the time between these tours he filled with jazz groups of different sizes: the Charlie Watts Quintet, the Charlie Watts Tentet, the Charlie Watts Orchestra. But soon he would be back with the Stones, playing in sold-out stadiums and making beds in empty hotel rooms.
He was not held back by age, not by cancer of the throat in 2004. In 2016, Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich told Billboard that he saw Watts as his role model because he wanted to keep playing until he was 70. “The only roadmap is Charlie Watts,” he said.
Even so, Watts kept the pace on a simple four-part drum kit and anchored the Rolling Stones show.
“I always wanted to be a drummer,” he told Rolling Stone in 1996, adding that he envisioned a more intimate environment for rock shows in stadiums. “I always had the illusion that I was in the Blue Note or Birdland with Charlie Parker before it. It didn’t sound like it, but that was the illusion I had ”.