The outpouring of love after the announcement of the death of the Rolling Stones drummer and ‘dresser’ par excellence Charlie Watts, was lovely to see. To me, he seemed as relatively unaffected as you could possibly be surrounded by the madness of being a Rolling Stone. His sardonic, wit, and no-nonsense attitude to all the ‘fluff’ he was in the middle of always made me smile. And then there is the clobber. The man was Dap-Per. He had aneffortless style and knew his threads. Like all who went through the 1970s, there was the occasional sartorial wobble even for someone so tuned in as Mr Watts, but in photo after photo, posted all over social media, from the early 1960s to the end of his life, he certainly wore it well.
He was born Charles Robert Watts on the 2nd of June 1941 in the University College Hospital off of Bloomsbury . Dad, also called Charlie, was a lorry driver and Mum Lil a factory worker. He also has a sister, Linda. The family lived in Wembley, in prefab housing due to the high number of regular housing destroyed during the Second World War. An eventual family move to Kingsbury, North West London saw him study at Tylers Croft Secondary Modern School . He showed creative tendencies from the off, being very good at art and music, he also excelled at cricket and football.
Things then changed however, when he heard the drummer Chico Hamilton playing with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan on the track ‘Walking Shoes.’ ‘I’d bought a banjo, and I didn’t like the dots on the neck. So, I took the neck off, and at the same time I heard Chico and I wanted to play like that, with brushes. I didn’t have a snare drum, so I put the banjo head on a stand.’ He would eventually spend every spare minute practising along to his record collection, on a proper drum kit bought for ‘Charlie boy’ by his parents, as a Christmas present for £12 in 1955.
Early drumming influences included Britain’s Phil Seamen, but bebopper Kenny Clarke was his favourite. ‘To me, how an American plays the drums is how you should play the drums,’ he said years later. ‘That’s how I play. I mean, I play regular snare drum, I don’t play tympani style, although I know guys who play fantastically like that. I play march-drum style.’
Once Charlie left school, he attended Harrow Art School and from 1958 he played in the Jo Jones All Stars with his Wembley neighbour and later legendary bass player, Dave Green. Between gigs, Charlie worked for an advertising company, first as tea boy, then making his way to be a graphic designer at the company. He was already clothes obsessed, and a keen follower of the styles sold by the company Austin’s on Shaftesbury Avenue, where Ivy League led the way, marking our boy out as an early modernist for sure.
In 1962, he joined the Blues Incorporated line up, led by Alexis Korner. ‘I went into rhythm and blues. When they asked me to play, I didn’t know what it was. I thought it meant Charlie Parker, played slow. On a good night it was amazing, a cross between R’n’B and Charlie Mingus, which was what Alexis wanted.’ Alongside Charlie and Alexis in the band, were Cyril Davies on vocals and harmonica and Jack Bruce, later of Cream, on bass.
A few months later, Charlie met Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Ian ‘Stu’ Stewart and Brian Jones on the R’n’B gig circuit. They liked the look and sound of him, though it took a while for them to get him in their band permanently, with his wage demands of £5 a week, higher than they could afford. ‘We went shoplifting to get Charlie Watts,’ Keith later wrote in his memoir, ‘We cut down on our rations, we wanted him so bad, man.’
Finally, they all came together when he went full time with them from a February gig at the Ealing Jazz Club in 1963. Pretty much from the get-go, the Stones had a unique sound with Charlie following Richards by a split second, instead of the band in general following their drummer. ‘We all thought Charlie was very kind of hip, because of his jackets and shirts,’ said Jagger. ‘Because he was working in an advertising agency, he was very different. It was good for the band to have someone who was sort of sharp …’‘With Charlie,’ said Stu, ‘we were thinking about the atmosphere in the band. In the early days I thought Keith might be an awkward person to get to know. I’d watch Keith with other people, and he always seemed to back away a bit. But he and Charlie were a f*****’ comedy team. They had a dual sense of humour.’Somewhat ironically considering the company he would be joining , Charlie was the first of the line-up to smoke marijuana, even hiding that fact from the ‘the kids’ namely Jagger and Richards.
In many ways he was an odd pop star. In truth, he was a ‘Jazzer’ first and foremost. He loved the playing but hated all the hanging about being screamed at . Despite the constant attention of groupies who followed the band wherever they landed, he remained faithful to his long-term girlfriend and then wife Shirley, who he married in 1964 and who was studying sculpture at the Royal College of Art when they met. They had a daughter Seraphina in 1968
‘I’ve never filled the stereotype of the rock star,’ he once remarked. ‘Back in the ’70s, Bill Wyman and I decided to grow beards, and the effort left us exhausted.’Shirley and Charlie eventually moved to Devon to a 600-acre stud farm and bred Arabian horses and sheepdogs in a business later worth £10 million. Jazz definitely remained his first love though, as lifelong friend Dave Green attested to when talking about their early days.
‘We discovered 78rpm records. Charlie had more records than I did … We used to go to Charlie’s bedroom and just get these records out.’ Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were early idols. book called ‘Ode to a High Flying Bird’ in honour of his hero whilst at art In fact, he loved Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker so much he drew a 36 page children’s school. The book was later picked up and published in 1964, as his profile and that of the Stones grew.
With Mick not talking to Keith or vice versa, Charlie went on the road in the 1980s, with his jazz big band playing alongside Evan Parker, Courtney Pine and Jack Bruce and he recorded at Ronnie Scott’s with his Charlie Watts Tentet.
He also lost his way personally around that time, when drink and surprisingly heroin began to affect him. It all culminated in him giving Jagger a right hander in the early hours, when he was called by the singer when back on the road, who demanded to know ‘Where’s my drummer?’ It is reported that, Charlie got up, shaved and dressed in a suit, shirt and tie, then fronted up Jagger. After hitting him he said ‘Never call me your drummer again. You’re my f****** singer!’
‘I think it was a mid-life crisis. All I know is that I became totally another person around 1983 and came out of it about 1986. I nearly lost my wife and everything over my behaviour.’
Despite his now in-famous 25th anniversary quote of ‘it’s been five years of music and 20 years of hanging around,’ being in the Stones was good to Charlie. He amassed huge wealth , with an estimated £70million in the bank. With it he bought many nice things, among them, vintage cars, vintage drum kits that once belonged to his heroes and books.
‘Agatha Christie: I’ve got every book she wrote in paperback. Graham Greene, I have all of them. Evelyn Waugh, he’s another one. P G Wodehouse, everything he wrote.’
Of course he also loved his clothes, especially his vast collection of Savile Row suits. He also loved cricket and test matches at The Oval or Lords. In June 2004, despite quitting smoking in the late 1980s, he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
‘I went into hospital,’ Watts recalled, ‘and eight months later Mick said, ‘We’re going to do a record. But we’ll only do it when you’re ready.’ They were buggering about, writing songs, and when I was ready, I went down and that was it, A Bigger Bang. Then I did a two-year tour. It seems that whenever we stop, I get ill. So maybe I should carry on!’
His last live concert with the band was the 30th August 2019 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida and he never missed a single concert throughout his career with the band.
I have purposely written this without mentioning too much of the actual music he played on. For this blog, I wanted to concentrate on the man and as I often do, I leave the final words to those who knew and loved him. Mum Lillian – ‘He’s always been a good boy. Never had any police knocking on the door or anything like that. And he’s always been terribly kind to old people. He was always a neat dresser. That’s why I get perturbed when they call them ugly and dirty. When he’s home you can’t get him out of the bathroom. People think he’s moody. But he’s not really. He’s just quiet. He hates fuss and gossip.’
Keith – ‘Charlie is incredibly honest, brutally honest. Lying bores him. He just sees right through you to start with. And he’s not even that interested in knowing, he just does. That’s Charlie Watts. He just knows you immediately. If he likes you, he’ll tell you things, give you things, and you’ll leave feeling like you’ve been talking to Jesus Christ…The only word I can use for Charlie is deep.’
And finally the man himself.
‘You have to be a good drummer to play with the Stones, and I try to be as good as I can. It’s terribly simple what I do, actually. It’s what I like, the way I like it. I’m not a paradiddle man. I play songs. It’s not technical, it’s emotional. One of the hardest things of all is to get that feeling across.’
You certainly did that sir. Goodnight, God bless and thank you.
The Mumper of SE5
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