Keeping the Stones Rolling: The Charlie Watts Factor

Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts was hardly an out-front presence of the group. And he liked it that way.

By Ian Howarth, October 2021

Of all the group members, Watts was the only one who the audience was least physically familiar with. Playing with a seemingly constant impish grin or alternatively a tight-lipped look of determination and concentration, he looked as if he’d easily play an elderly Gimli in a Lord of the Rings film. In fact, Charlie was only 5’ 7” tall. It was only at the end of Stones’ concerts that we got a full-bodied look at him as the group took its final bows. Lead singer MIck Jagger, on the other hand, always struck me as less than the 5’10” his online bio gives. 

Of course, Charlie more than made up for his diminutive stature in his unfailing role as the rhythm-backbone time-keeper for the Stones. Air drummers of a certain age can beat their thighs to the opening beats of songs like Get Off My Cloud and Paint it Black as if it’s part of their DNA. But rock was hardly in Charlie’s bones. Growing up, he worshipped jazz greats like Charlie Parker and his personal favourite, ace jazz drummer Max Roach.  In his late teens to early 20s, Watts played with various jazz musicians while his day job was working in graphic design. As drummer for a group called Blues Incorporated, he got the attention of a just-formed group called the Rolling Stones. In January 1963, Watts played his first gig as a Stone and until his death August 24 of this year, never missed a gig. 

Mick Jagger hams it up behind Charlie Watts at a 1973 concert in Antwerp, The Netherlands. (Photo:Redferns)

There’s no need to debate how valuable Charlie Watts was to the Stones. If you grew up with the group, you knew they were in good hands. Perhaps more important is what other drummers say about Charlie. “The heartbeat of rock ‘n’ roll. The Great Charlie Watts, all due respect, “ said The Roots drummer Questlove. Mickey Hart, one of The Grateful Dead’s drummers, wrote that, “Charlie Watts was a colossus in the world of rock ‘n’ roll drumming. His feet and hands danced like (ballet dancer Rudolph) Nureyev. So elegant, so graceful.” 

In the infinite number of Top 25, 30 or 50 rankings (or strangely the Top 7 rock drummers of all time, Watts is most always ranked amongst others like Led Zep’s John Bonham and Rush’s Neil Peart. (Surprisingly, Ringo Starr gets a lot of respect on these lists.) Frequently at the top of these lists is Peart with his 18-wheeler load of drums, surely the most busy and thorough of rock drummers. Peart’s an intelligent guy, with a particular worldview and a penchant for speaking his mind. One such quote  has him passing comment on different drumming styles and the accompanying physical demands. “I can play like Charlie Watts for the rest of my life, but I can’t play like Neil Peart for the rest of my life,.” he said. At a Toronto SARS benefit concert in July 2003, the Stones headlined along with support acts like Rush, The Guess Who, AC/DC and Justin Timberlake among others, Peart had a chance encounter with Charlie Watts backstage just before Rush was set to go on. As he later recounted in his 2004 book Travelling Music, Peart was at first not sure who the “short, older man” was looking to shake his hand. When it became clear to him who it was, he was unnerved – perhaps even star-struck – but managed a quick hello, apparently followed by Watts saying, “I’m going to watch you.” Peart soldiered on as Watts looked on from off-stage for a brief time. We don’t know if Peart’s apparent lack of respect for Watts’ less than aerobic style of drumming weighed on him after he had his brush with stardom. As it turned out, Charlie outlived Peart – barely. (Peart, who was not just Rush’s drummer but also the group’s principle lyricist, died in January 2020 at the age of 67 from brain cancer.) 

A 1997 visit to New York City with Watts’ daughter Seraphina and granddaughter Charlotte in New York City. (Photo:Getty Images)

It is only fitting that the legion of Rolling Stones fans lovingly refer to Watts by his first name. There’s never any confusion amongst his ageing legion of fans who have supported the band since Watts joined the Stones in 1963. The Stones have carried on in the wake of his death, with “new” drummer 64-year-old Steve Jordan, who brings impressive credentials to a pressure-packed role as Charlies Watt’s replacement. Rush, on the other hand, decided not to go on after Peart’s death. 

Watt’s death is, if nothing else, a stark reminder for the generation who grew up post-WWII (Watts missed the Boomer cut having been born two years after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939) of our own mortality.  Most, now firmly in their 70s, have had plenty of reminders lately that their time on stage is in the curtain call phase of life. The same fans who once trashed the Montreal Forum when the Stones appeared here in 1965 are now more sedentary. Stones concerts now are more about ticket prices and whether your bladder can last a whole concert – a long way from the rock ‘n’ roll rebellion that marked Stones live concerts of the ‘60s. 

Oh, and by the way, at that SARSstock/SARSfest/Molson Canadian Rocks concert in 2003? Rush played a portion of the Stones classic, Paint it Black. Inspired by Peart’s Charlie encounter? Just a coincidence? Maybe it was a last-minute addition to the set list to impress Charlie watching from his just-off-stage VIP spot. 

Charlie was the one Stones member that fans took for granted. And though there was a time when he had his drug and alcohol problems, his personal life rarely made news. Watts was married to Shirley Ann Shepherd in 1964, a partnership that lasted until his death. A rarity in the rock world where marriages are a fragile balance of power which usually tipped the scales heavily in favour of the man. In 1968, he and Ms Shepherd had one daughter, Seraphina, who gave him one granddaughter, Charlotte. 

Miss you, Charlie. 

The Rolling Stones broke new ground in 2016 landing in Havana, Cuba for their first-ever concert in that country.


NOTE: 

The SARS breakout of 2003 wound up killing 42 people in the Toronto metropolitan area. It hit the city’s tourist industry hard. Along with a mad cow scare, Canada’s beef sales in stores and restaurants took a bad PR hit. It was a double-whammy that left the streets of Toronto all but deserted. It was in the heat of this onslaught that Toronto Tourism advertised special tourist packages.. My wife and I took advantage of a weekend deal that included reduced hotel and restaurant prices that were astonishingly discounted. I admit that it was weird walking the nearly-empty streets of Toronto oblivious to native city dwellers’ very real concerns about their health. How were we to know that the SARS pandemic of 2003, with its scientific name of SARS-CoV, followed by MERS-CoV (2012) would lead to yet an even more serious pandemic,

SARS-CoV2 (covid-19) – all within the space of 20 years? Yes, there are pandemic discounts to be had today; if you’re brave or foolish enough, you can get a great deal on a cruise ship.

1 Comment

  1. Anthony Bonaparte

    What a great piece of writing. And very informative to boot. Cheers!

    Reply

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