In memory of Charlie Watts

Charlie was always the best dressed one. He carried himself with an air of peace that was unmistakably British, an aura of humble grace that drummers rarely possess.

Just look at him on the cover of Aftermath: the rest of the band look like schoolboys, while Charlie, all the way to the top right, is dressed impeccably well, in suit and tie – “off in the corner talking about Kierkegaard”.

Having married his wife Shirley in 1964 – and stayed with her to this day – he was the anti-thesis to the sex-hungry Mick Jagger and the pirate-spirit of Keith Richards. In the world’s most famous rowdy rock band, he carried himself with an air of zen – probably something he carried over from his origin as a jazz drummer.

“I sit there, and I hear what’s going on, and if I can make it, that’s fine,” he said in 73. And my god, could he play – his style is often termed as dry and precise, but the fantastic element of his playing comes in this slight off-kilter timing, where the drums swing just that tiniest bit late. Unhurried and charismatic, his drumming took especial focus on the later Stones albums, when the band progressively embraced disco and dance music influences – just check out “Miss You”. How do you even get a drum to sound so good?

Being of impeccable style and smartness, having worked as a graphic designer before playing in jazz bands and finally joining the Stones in 1963, he also took over other parts of the band’s work schedule. For 1967’s Between the Buttons, he designed the poem and cartoon on the back cover. With Jagger, he designed a few of the band’s tour stages, many of them iconic for their time. Robert Christgau calls him “rock’s geatest drummer”, but his love for jazz saw him expand to other projects.

Besides the Stones, he played in big bands, boogie woogie combos, in jazz groups, and even released a dance album with Jim Keltner. In the 60s, outside his work with the Stones, he released a cartoon in homage to Charlier Parker and spent a lot of time on his horse farm in Devon.

He really was so much more than just a rock drummer, he was class and good taste personified. Keith Richards once said of him “They say he’s a dying breed, but with people like Charlie, they must always have been rare,” and revealed that he wished to be buried next to him. It makes sense that, whenever Mick and Keith had an issue, one of them would seek out Charlie and ask him what to do.

He was brutally honest. According to Keith’s autobiography Life, some time in the mid-80s, Mick was so high he called Charlie in some hotel in the middle of the night, asking “Where’s my drummer?” In total composure, Charlie got up, shaved, put on a suit and tie, walked down the stairs and punched Jagger in the face; “Don’t ever call me your drummer again. You’re my fucking singer!” It’s evident what he meant when he once said his playing was like painting with pastel colours, while Mick would go for bright red.

But he loved his job, and mused he wouldn’t know what else to do but play. Even when he confessed that he thought about quitting every time he toured with the Stones, Charlie went on the road with utmost acceptance of his obligations. He joked that his wife would tell him to go play, because he didn’t have anything to do at home, and recently opined that if the call from Jagger came, announcing the band would hang up their concert costumes, he would be glad. He claimed to rarely sleep while touring, instead talking to whoever was around and sketching every hotel bed he slept in since 67. He kept the notebook as a diary.

For a short time, Charlie wasn’t well. From 83 to 86, he took drugs and drank too much. After falling down the basement stairs, he quit it all, over night, and carried on. So composed and graceful was Charlie, people only believed the story when Jagger talked about it years later.

Charlie was the graceful, authentic, down-to-earth anchor of the Rolling Stones as we know them, a guy you’d see sitting at the side in a jazz club, sketching the players, or hunking over his drum kit, after a concert is long over, to adjust something by tiny fractions. In 2006, Vanity Fair named him as one of the most stylish men in the world.

Recently, he had been recording new songs with the Stones, but announced just two weeks ago he had to miss on their upcoming tour. “For once my timing has been a little off,” he joked in his usually dry manner. Keith was right – there really is no one like him.

Charlie Watts
1941 – 2021