The Rolling Stones announced that their drummer of nearly 60 years, Charlie Watts, died peacefully Monday in a London hospital at age 80, with his family around him. No cause of death was given, but he had recently undergone an undisclosed medical procedure. Watts was the oldest member of the band, and along with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, one of the last three original members. He had previously beaten throat cancer.
Watts wasn’t a flashy drummer like Keith Moon of the Who, and God bless him, he didn’t go in for 20-minute drum solos. He was known for his rock-steady beat, with a touch of swing that kept the Stones a “rock and roll” band instead of a “ROCK” band, and for his ability to anchor the songs and keep his sometimes undisciplined (to put it mildly) bandmates on track.
Full disclosure: I’ve never been a Stones fan (I’m a Kinks and Who man), mostly because of my distaste for Mick Jagger. But I’ve always admired Watts’ musicianship and his cool down-to-earth style that reflected his anchor role in the band. I’m not going to list all of the Stones hits he was on or recount the band’s familiar history, because that will be all over the news. I’d rather tell you some things you might not hear elsewhere. Like this:
During one period when Jagger was particularly full of himself, he sneered that Watts was “only my drummer,” and later placed a drunken call to his hotel room at 5 a.m. and repeatedly shouted, “Where’s my drummer?!” After stewing on that for a day, the next night, Watts turned off his hotel room TV, put on his shoes, walked down the hall, knocked on Jagger’s door, and when he opened it, punched him in the jaw and knocked him into a platter of smoked salmon. Keith Richards passed him in the hall and asked where he was coming from. He said, “I’ve just punched Mick Jagger in the face,” and kept walking calmly back to his room.
Jazz and blues were his first loves, and Watts taught himself to play by listening to jazz records by artists such as Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. When he joined the Stones, he assumed the band wouldn’t last more than a week. He hated the rock star lifestyle and was said to have wished he could go home after every show. He collected cars but didn’t drive; he would just sit in them in the garage.
In recent years, he formed his own side group, the Charlie Watts Quintet, which played traditional jazz versions of the Great American Songbook. They released several fine CDs that are sadly out of print but you can find some of the music online. Here’s a taste of the other side of Charlie Watts, performing the music he truly loved, with “I’ve Got A Crush On You.”
You can find other songs and performances by them on YouTube. And if you have Amazon Prime Music, you can stream the album, “Charlie Watts Meets the Danish Radio Big Band,” featuring some great but pretty unrecognizable big band jazz arrangements of several Stones songs, including “Satisfaction” and “Paint It Black.”