Remembering Charlie Watts (1941 – 2021)


Charlie Watts. Photo Courtesy of Michael Conen.

The Rolling Stone’s longtime drummer Charlie Watts passed away this week at the age of 80. The London-born drummer started playing with the band back in 1963, after playing for Blues Incorporated. After over six decades of playing music, he is largely considered one of the greatest drummers of all time. After such a tragic event, it’s time to look back at Watt’s career and the everlasting effect on the music industry.

Rise to Fame

Charlie Watts was born on June 2, 1941, in Bloomsbury, London. His earliest records were jazz recordings such as Jelly Roll Morton and Charlie Parker. It wasn’t until attending Tyler Croft Secondary Modern School that he started developing a taste for art, music, cricket, and football. He became interested in drumming at the age of 13, then received a drum set the following year.

“I 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 a drummer called Chico Hamilton, who played with Gerry Mulligan, and I wanted to play like that, with brushes,” Watts told the New Yorker in 2012. “I didn’t have a snare drum, so I put the banjo head on a stand.”

After leaving Harrow Art School, Watts began working as a graphic designer for an advertising company called Charlie Daniel Studios. While doing so, Watts was playing the drums with local bands in various locations. In 1958, he and his childhood neighbor Dave Green started a jazz band in Middlesex, called the Jo Jones All-Stars. Then, in 1961, Watts met Alexis Korner, who invited him to join Blues Incorporated. During this time, Watts was still working on advertising with Charles, Hobson, and Gray.

Watts was introduced to Brian Jones, Ian “Stu” Steward, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards in mid-1962. The group would often visit London rhythm and blues clubs, and when they heard Watts play, they had to have him. It wasn’t until January 1963 when Watts officially joined the band. The agreement took a while to come to because The Rolling Stones couldn’t initially afford Watts, who was receiving a regular salary from his gigs.

The Legacy He Left Behind

Watts would become the permanent drummer for The Rolling Stones for the next 58 years. The drummer has admitted not to be attracted to the rock and roll lifestyle the rest of his bandmates partake in. “I’ve never filled the stereotype of the rock star,” Watts said. “Back in the ’70s, Bill Wyman and I decided to grow beards, and the effort left us exhausted.” Instead, he took a more quiet, private approach to life. Watts rarely engaged with the groupies or partying, although he did have to admit to battling addiction in the 80s.

“[They were] my way of dealing with [family problems] …” Watts said in 2008. “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 behavior.”

Despite the addiction, Watts maintained a well-respected career that caught the attention of critics around the world. In 2006, Modern Drummer voted Watts into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame, joining Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Steve Gadd, and Buddy Rich. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Watts 12th on their “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” list ten years later.

Watts was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004, despite having quit smoking in the late 1980s. The drummer underwent radiotherapy, which caused the cancer to go into remission. Following this scare, Watts continued to tour with The Rolling Stones until August 5, 2021, when the drummer decided to sit out of their upcoming ‘No Filter Tour’ after undergoing an unspecified medical procedure. This became the first time since 1963 Watts didn’t play alongside The Rolling Stones. Instead, Steven Jordan, drummer of Keith Richards’ side project X-Pensive Winos, will be filling in for Watts.

Charlie Watts beim Steinegg Live Festival 2010

Tributes for the Drummer

News about Watts’ death flooded social media on Tuesday, Aug. 24. The band paid tribute to the drummer by replacing the official website’s contents with a single picture of Watts in his memory. Despite the tragic news, The Rolling Stones have decided to continue with their ‘No Filter Tour,’ with Jordan filling in temporarily. Following the news, several musicians paid tribute to Watts and his family.

“So sad to hear about Charlie Watts, Stones drummer, dying. He was a lovely guy. I knew he was ill, but I didn’t know he was this ill. Lots of love to his wife and kids and his family, and his extended family, and condolences to the Stones. It’s a huge blow to them because Charlie was a rock, a fantastic dummer, steady as a rock. Love you Charlie, have always loved you, you beautiful man.” –Sir Paul McCartney

“Full Moon. Rainbow. Always a sign. Charlie Watts wept at Keith Moon’s funeral. I wish I was capable of such tears today. Instead I just want to say goodbye. Not a rock drummer, a jazz drummer really, and that’s why the Stones swung like the Basie band!! Such a lovely man. God bless his wife and daughter, and I’ll bet the horses will miss him too.” –Pete Townshend.

“We are so deeply, deeply saddened to hear of Charlie Watts passing. The impact he’s had on musicians and listeners across the planet is profound. His drumming style and drum sound will live on forever in the songs. The songs that are forever in our hearts. That’s where Charlie will be now. We were so lucky to have him. All our love and support to Mick, Keith, Ronnie and all of the Stones crew and family. It was a true honor every time we were in his presence.” -Eddie Vedder

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