Saying Goodbye to Charlie Watts (RIP), the Engine of the Rolling Stones for Half a Century

Char­lie Watts, the Rolling Stones’ icon­ic drum­mer since 1962, passed away yes­ter­day from unspec­i­fied caus­es at the age of 80. His death is a great loss for rock and roll. “When Char­lie Watts dies, the beat stops,” Rob Harvil­la writes at the Ringer, “nev­er to be played again with such mes­mer­iz­ing force, with such ultra-suave propul­sion, with such casu­al­ly indomitable rad­ness.” These are not tech­ni­cal terms, and Watts was not a tech­ni­cal drum­mer. “I’m not a para­did­dle man,” he said in 2000. “It’s not tech­ni­cal, it’s emo­tion­al. One of the hard­est things of all is to get that feel­ing across.”

Watts per­fect­ed the inde­fin­able feel of rock and roll by way of jazz, play­ing along to his favorite records by Char­lie Park­er — first with a set of wire brush­es on an unstrung ban­jo, then on the first drum kit his father bought him.

From the greats, he learned to swing and mas­tered dynam­ics. The com­mand­ing mar­tial crack of Watts’ snare held a band of mot­ley pirates togeth­er — with­out him, the Stones might have dis­solved into a col­lec­tion of preen­ing antics and wan­der­ing blues licks; with him at the cen­ter, they coa­lesced into a team. “I don’t know how the hell that old suck­er got to be so good,” Keef mar­veled.

Watts would be the last one to talk about how good he was — he hat­ed inter­views and star­dom in gen­er­al. “I’ve nev­er been inter­est­ed in all that stuff and still am not,” he said. “I don’t know what show­biz is and I’ve nev­er watched MTV. There are peo­ple who just play instru­ments, and I’m pleased to know that I’m one of them.” His sin­gu­lar focus came from lis­ten­ing intent­ly to what oth­ers were doing, as he says in the inter­view at the top, and copy­ing what they did, a method he calls “one of my flaws…. I learned by watch­ing.” But the means by which Watts learned to play made him the per­fect drum­mer for the Stones. He watched, lis­tened, learned the songs, then played them per­fect­ly in tune with the band, keep­ing them in time while respond­ing dynam­i­cal­ly to Richards and Jagger’s inter­play.

“I should have gone to school and learned how to do it,” Watts says, with typ­i­cal self-dep­re­ca­tion. Instead, he made his school the jazz clubs of Lon­don and Paris, where he went to see Bud Pow­ell’s drum­mer Ken­ny Clark. Just as he’d done in his room on his first drum kit, he lis­tened intent­ly and copied what he heard. Watts looked like a man who stood apart from the band, with his world-weary expres­sion, end­less col­lec­tion of sharp suits and reserved demeanor. But when he played with the Stones, they locked togeth­er. It was love, he said, “I love this band.”

His life was a tes­ta­ment to the vital­i­ty of the music that made him, at 80, still want to go back on the road after announc­ing just two weeks ago that he’d have to sit out this year’s tour. Forty years ago, Watts couldn’t fore­see the band he helped make world famous last­ing very much longer. “I nev­er thought it would last five min­utes,” he said in 1981, “but I fig­ured I’d live that five min­utes to the hilt because I love them. They’re big­ger than I am if you real­ly want to know. I admire them, I like them as friends, I argue with them and I love them…. I don’t real­ly care if it stops…. “ Now that he’s gone, it’s hard to see how the Stones can go on.

As near­ly every mem­ber of the band, espe­cial­ly Richards, has said at one time or anoth­er, no Char­lie Watts, no Rolling Stones. “Charlie’s the engine,” said Ron­nie Wood in the Stones doc­u­men­tary Tip of the Tongue. “We don’t go any­where with­out the engine.” Wher­ev­er they go now, there’s no ques­tion the Rolling Stones would have been a dif­fer­ent band entire­ly with­out him. See some of his best live moments in the clips above and learn what Char­lie him­self thought of his play­ing in the short doc­u­men­tary at the top, “If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” a record of his approach to drum­ming and life in gen­er­al that cap­tures the true spir­it of a rock leg­end.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A Char­lie Watts-Cen­tric View of the Rolling Stones: Watch Mar­tin Scorsese’s Footage of Char­lie & the Band Per­form­ing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “All Down the Line”

Rolling Stones Drum­mer Char­lie Watts Writes a Children’s Book Cel­e­brat­ing Char­lie Park­er (1964)

A Visu­al His­to­ry of The Rolling Stones Doc­u­ment­ed in a Beau­ti­ful, 450-Page Pho­to Book by Taschen

The Sto­ry of the Rolling Stones: A Selec­tion of Doc­u­men­taries on the Quin­tes­sen­tial Rock-and-Roll Band

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • MRM says:

    Great remem­brance. You may have meant to say: ‘where he went to see Bud Pow­ell’s drum­mer, Ken­ny Clark.

    “I should have gone to school and learned how to do it,” Watts says, with typ­i­cal self-dep­re­ca­tion. Instead, he made his school the jazz clubs of Lon­don and Paris, where he went to see drum­mers like Bud Pow­ell and Ken­ny Clark.

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