Recently, Charlie Watts had announced that he would miss the Stones’ upcoming tour because of a medical procedure he had. No other information was given, other than Steve Jordan would be sitting in for him on the tour.
And now there are two: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The original Rolling Stones had six members: Jagger, Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Watts and Ian Stewart. Ian Stewart? He was the piano player who was deemed too square for the other bad boys, so he moved on to work on their tours, and play a bit of piano when needed. Jones died and was replaced by Mick Taylor, who was then replaced by Ron Wood. Wyman retired.
Charlie Watts was a jazz guy, who had to learn about playing the blues. It was not unusual for drummers of the era to have been in jazz groups. Before rock and roll, and blues, bad boys were in jazz groups. Watts hooked up with Alex Korner, and his Blues Incorporated group. Like John Mayall, Korner was legendary in the British blues genre, many young musicians passed through those two bands on their way to Cream, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and the Faces. Watts left Korner to join what became the Rolling Stones.
Watts was not like Ginger Baker (Cream, Blind Faith) or Keith Moon (The Who) or Carl Palmer (ELP, Asia) or John Bonham (Led Zeppelin). Watts’ style was more subdued, more like Ringo Starr or Dave Clark. Subdued does not infer invisible or inferior, just not showy or bombastic. Watts was a good timekeeper and did not keep an army of tom-toms and cymbals or a large gong hanging behind him. You can debate what style of music the Stones played, it ranged from blues to pop to hard rock to country to disco. They were not a heavy metal band so Watts did not need to be Bonham, Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge) or Bill Ward (Black Sabbath). The Stones were also not progressive-rock so Watts did not need to be Yes (Bill Bruford), Palmer, Barriemore Barlow (Jethro Tull) or Phil Collins (Genesis).
When the Stones needed a driving beat like “Paint it Black” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or the saucy drum groove of “Honky Tonk Women” or the bluesy shuffle of “Midnight Rambler”, Watts adapted his style to fit their needs. In the 1970s, the Stones needed a measured beat to drive “Time Waits for No One”, then a reggae groove for the Black and Blue album. On the Some Girls album, Watts had to shift styles between a country beat for “Far Away Eyes,” grunge for several raucous songs, and the disco-flavored “Miss You.”
Watts never gave up his desire to make music different from the Stones. He released a big band record, played on jazz, boogie-woogie and blues projects. The Charlie Watts Quintet toured and released several albums.
From the beginning, Watts seemed like the older brother in the Stones. He carried himself differently, in part because of his serious look and his more silent persona. He wasn’t the rowdy or A type personality of Jagger and Richards, or the hippy, psychedelic ladies man of Jones.
Watts had his own alcohol and substance abuse issues. In the late 1970s, he had a heroine problem. I didn’t know it at the time, it was Richards who was arrested with drugs, who reportedly used blood transfusions to clean up. When you are in a band with Jagger, Richards and Jones, who notices the quiet other guys?
I always thought Charlie Watts grew into his serious, older face. His hair turned gray and he started dressing in finely tailored suits, even while playing the drums. Tour after tour, Watts was on his riser with his drum kit, banging out “Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up” as the Stones circled the globe playing the largest venues.
If you look at photos or videos of Watts playing, you see him holding his sticks the old fashioned way. Even in the age of bashers with big kits, Charlie Watts with his standard kit and traditional grip, oozed style and a link to the old days.
Rest In Peace, Charlie Watts.