“Style is the answer to everything,” said Charles Bukowski of all people once in a lecture that is still floating in the ether of YouTube. Sipping a slit out of a bottle, the pockmarked laureate of the underground talked about one of the few properties that are known to have but can never be acquired.
Bullfighters have style and so do boxers, said Bukowski. He also claimed, somewhat questionably, that he saw more men with style in prison than outside. “Doing a boring thing in style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it,” he then added – and that at least seems undeniable.
No one has ever accused Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who died on August 24th at the age of 80, with dullness. Still, compared to his bandmates cleaning himself, he was so granitic and inconspicuous – in their face paint, their frippery and feathers – that it was easy to be distracted by the indescribable Watts coolness that anchored the Stones sound and on one Line that was far older than the skirt.
Long before he joined the world’s largest rock ‘n’ roll group, Mr. Watts, a trained graphic artist who learned to play after giving up the banjo and turning the body of one into a drum, was a seasoned session player. Basically he considered himself a jazz musician; his heroes were musicians like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Lester Young and phenomenal pop singers like the unjustly forgotten Billy Eckstine.
He studied famous, chic dressers like Fred Astaire, men who found a style and seldom deviated from it throughout their lives. A famous story about the Stones tells how they starved to earn enough money to recruit a drummer and then join the band in no hurry. “Literally!” Keith Richards wrote in Life, his excellent 2010 memoir, “We went shoplifting to get Charlie Watts.”
Mr. Watts was expensive at the time and chose a picture by chance that seldom looked different. “To be honest,” he once told GQ. “I have very old-fashioned and traditional clothes.”
When his bandmates Mick Jagger and Mr. Richards began to peacock in Carnaby Road velvets, used merry rags from Portobello Road, Moroccan djellabas, boas, sequined overalls and dresses from their wives’ or girlfriends closets, Mr. Watts dressed still sober as a lawyer. And when Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards began adding suits to their wardrobe in the late 1970s, their choices tended to be narrow waists, four-breasted lapels, checkerboard or Oxford pocket pants from the brilliant and flamboyant upstart Tommy Nutter.
“I always felt totally out of place at the Rolling Stones,” Watts told GQ, at least in terms of style. Photos of the band appeared with everyone else in sneakers and Mr. Watts in a pair of lace-ups made by 19th-century Mayfair shoemaker George Cleverley. “I hate sneakers,” he said, referring to sports shoes. “Even if they are fashionable.”
Perhaps, in some ways, Mr. Watts was a bit ahead of the other Stones and the rest of us in purely stylistic terms – more in his understanding of conventions and how to secretly infiltrate them, a bit like a jazz musician improvising on core melodies. Perhaps his determination to ditch Mr. Nutter early on and patronize some of the more venerable Savile Row tailors instead had even been a little punk, places that were so discreet in the 1970s that they often didn’t have any signs on theirs Had doors. It was his brilliance at making what these tailors did to his own safe taste.
Take, for example, Peter Webb’s 1971 pictures – lost for 40 years before being rediscovered in the last decade – which show the young Mr. Watts and Mr. Richards from Sticky Fingers at the height of their fame. Mr. Richards is fabulously dressed in black leather with a zipper, graphically patterned velvet pants in black and white, a shirt with a contrasting pattern, a bespoke leather bandoleer belt and a buccaneer shag. Mr Watts, on the other hand, wears a three-piece suit with a six-button vest made of apparently burly mayor’s loden.
Or take the double-breasted dove-gray dressing gown worn by mature Mr. Watts in another shot of himself and his wife Shirley at Ascot. (The couple bred Arabian horses.) Nicely cut for his compact body (he was 1.70 m tall), it is worn with a pale pink waistcoat and tie, a shirt with the rounded collar pinned under the knot, a style he does first had glanced at the cover of Dexter Gordon’s bossy jazz classic “Our Man in Paris” and copied it.
Each of these suits were bespoke, the latter being sewn by H. Huntsman & Sons, a Savile Row institution that has been attracting British swells since 1849. Hers was one of only two tailoring companies that Mr. Watts worked with all his life.
“Mr. Watts was one of the most stylish gentlemen I have ever worked with,” said Dario Carnera, Head Cutter at Huntsman, in an email. “He has given every assignment its own sartorial flair.” He has over 50 years Ordered from the house, the craftsman added. (There is another fabric in the Huntsman catalog – the Springfield stripe – of Mr. Watts’ design.)
By his own rough estimate, Mr. Watts owned several hundred suits, at least as many pairs of shoes, an almost innumerable amount of custom shirts and ties – so many items of clothing that, to reverse an age-old sexist stereotype, it was his wife who complained, that her husband was spending too much time in front of the mirror.
However, Mr Watts rarely wore his sartorial jewelry on stage, preferring the practicality and anonymity of short-sleeved shirts or t-shirts for concerts or touring. In civil life he eventually cultivated and perfected such an elegant, calm and flawless tailoring image as his drumming.