Charlie Watts, the longtime drummer of the Rolling Stones who provided a steady rhythmic hand for decades behind the band’s fiery leaders, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, helping make the group one of the most phenomenally successful rock bands in history, died Aug. 24 at a London hospital. He was 80.
His publicist, Bernard Doherty, announced the death but did not provide a cause. Watts had announced earlier this month that, because of an unspecified health problem, he would not be joining the Rolling Stones on a tour later this year. He had recovered from throat cancer in 2004.
A onetime art student who was steeped in jazz and blues music, Watts joined the Stones in 1963, when the band was getting its start in London, and for the next 56 years he played every gig the band had, from tiny basement clubs to giant stadiums. He provided a sharp, booming sound on drums that helped propel such early classics as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” “Paint It Black” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
“I couldn’t do my stuff if I didn’t have Charlie Watts,” guitarist Richards told the Times of London in 2002. “I don’t always realize how blessed I’ve been to work with a drummer like that for 40 years.”
From his early teens, when he began listening to the music of Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, Watts aspired to be a jazz drummer, along the lines of Chico Hamilton or Kenny Clarke. After attending art school, he worked in advertising and played drums on the side in Dixieland and jazz groups before joining Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated in the early 1960s.
“I never liked rock-and-roll as a kid,” he told the New Hampshire Union Leader in 1994. “I didn’t like rock’s image. The people I liked were Miles Davis and Coleman Hawkins. I thought rock was dreadful.”
One of his early bandmates, Brian Jones, introduced him to Jagger and Richards, who were looking for a drummer for their new group that would become the Rolling Stones. Urged by Richards, Watts began to listen to classic blues and early rock.
When he first joined the Stones, he considered them just another band. “I thought they’d last three months, then a year, then three years,” he told the Guardian in 2004, “then I stopped counting.”
Watts never completely abandoned his jazz sensibility, even as the Stones released hard-rocking hits, written by Jagger and Richards, that took them to the top of the charts in the mid-1960s. But Watts’s style did not rely exclusively on a hard-cracking backbeat and a cymbal crash. He played with an almost melodic sensitivity on such Stones songs as “Ruby Tuesday,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Angie” and “Wild Horses.” He used a cowbell to introduce the 1969 No. 1 hit “Honky Tonk Women,” then later adopted a disco beat on “Miss You,” a hit from 1978.
Thin and wiry, with powerful forearms and callused fingers, Watts sat stone-faced behind the drums, as he aged from a hirsute ’60s rocker to a silver-haired master of percussion. He drew maximum sound from a minimal drum kit, consisting of one snare, a bass drum, two tom-toms, four cymbals and a high hat.
“There’s tremendous personality and subtlety in his playing,” Richards wrote in “Life,” his 2010 autobiography. “If you look at the size of his kit, it’s ludicrous compared with what most drummers use these days. They’ve got a fort with them. . . . Charlie’s quintessentially a jazz drummer, which means that the rest of the band is a jazz band in a way.”
Watts was perhaps the most unassuming member of the Stones, seldom making headlines except when the band was on tour. When Watts married in 1964, other bandmates tried to keep it a secret in an effort to preserve the band’s image as dangerous rebels.
Despite the critical and popular success of such albums as “Sticky Fingers” (1971), “Exile on Main St.” (1972) and “Some Girls” (1978), the Stones began to drift apart in the 1970s and 1980s, as some members became caught up in drug and alcohol problems. Even Watts, a steady presence onstage, became addicted to heroin in the 1980s. He said he nearly lost his career and his home before he kicked drugs, with the help of his wife, Shirley.
“It got so bad,” he later said, “that even Keith Richards, bless him, told me to get it together.”
Watts later became known as a dapper dresser, who except when performing with the Stones, was generally seen wearing tailored suits and tweed jackets.
Even though Jagger and Richards were the acknowledged leaders of the Stones, Watts was something of grounded center of the group, keeping the other members from becoming too consumed by their rock star fame.
One night in Amsterdam in the 1980s, when Richards was celebrating his marriage, he and Jagger stayed up most of the night drinking. At 5 a.m., Jagger called Watts’s hotel room, according to Richards’s autobiography, and said, “Where’s my drummer?”
“About twenty minutes later,” Richards went on, “there was a knock at the door. There was Charlie Watts, Savile Row suit, perfectly dressed, tie, shaved. . . . I opened the door and he didn’t even look at me, he walked straight past me, got hold of Mick and said, ‘Never call me your drummer again.’ Then he hauled him up by the lapels . . . and gave him a right hook. Mick fell back onto a silver platter of smoked salmon on the table and began to slide towards the open window and the canal below it. . . . [I] caught Mick just before he slid into the Amsterdam canal.”
Charles Robert Watts was born June 2, 1941, in London. His father was a truck driver, his mother a homemaker.
Fascinated by drumming, he took apart a banjo when he was about 12 and used the head as a drum, playing brushes softly in a jazz style. His parents bought him a drum kit when he was 14, and he often played with his next-door neighbor, Dave Green, who became one of England’s top jazz bassists.
Beginning the late 1980s, Watts returned to his early interest in jazz through recordings and concert appearances with groups ranging in size from five to more than 30. He lived on a country estate, where he and his wife raised horses. He had extensive collections of antiques and automobiles, even though he did not how to drive.
But whenever the phone rang for a new Rolling Stones recording or tour, Watts was always ready to get back to rock-and-roll. He was the only member of the group, besides Jagger and Richards, to appear on every Stones album ever made.
“I try and play the right music to Mick and Keith’s songs,” he told the Newcastle Herald in 1999. “If it all adds up to defining the parameters of rock, so be it.”
Survivors include his wife, the former Shirley Shepherd; a daughter, a fashion model; a sister; and a granddaughter.
Watts helped Jagger design the stage sets for the band’s elaborate world tours, but on the road he generally stayed to himself, listening to jazz and drawing sketches of his hotel rooms. His final performance with the Stones came on Aug. 30, 2019, in Miami.
“I suppose I’ve seen 40 years of Mick’s bum running around in front of me,” Watts once said, according to Britain’s Daily Mirror newspaper. “That’s all I can see when I’m at the back of the stage. But I’m not complaining. One of the biggest compliments I can have as a drummer is that someone is dancing to you. The drums should dance and they should make you want to dance.”