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Charlie Watts — Farewell to the gentleman drummer

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Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Charlie Watts, the gentleman drummer for one of the world’s most notorious, sexiest, wildest and loudest rock groups ever – the Rolling Stones – has passed away peacefully in hospital, aged 80.

He was born Charles Robert Watts on 2 June 1941, in Bloomsbury, London, to a truck driver Dad and housewife Mum. As a child, Watts grew up in Wembley, which was regularly bombed by the Luftwaffe during World War II. He found solace in his large collection of 78 RPM jazz records and became interested in drumming at the age of 13.

After completing his high school education, Watts enrolled in an art college and found work as a graphic designer for an advertising agency. He was artistically gifted and later contributed graphic art and comic strips to Rolling Stones album covers.

In mid-1962, Watts met Brian Jones, Ian “Stu” Stewart, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards via the London Rhythm and Blues (R&B) club scene. He agreed to play with their fledgling band, the Rolling Stones – initially for no pay – because he loved the R&B genre and the musical possibilities it presented. The Stones made him a permanent band member in 1963 and Watts remained with the group until his death, making him one of the band’s longest-serving and most faithful members.

As the Rolling Stones pumped out hit after hit, Watts became renowned for his gentlemanly behaviour, which was in stark contrast to the wild hijinks of fellow band members Brian Jones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Watts was never a flashy drummer but he held his own with early hits like '(I Can't Get No) Satisfactionand 'Jumping Jack Flash'.

Watts was also the driving force behind 'Brown Sugar', which the Stones famously performed on the back of a flatbed truck in New York City, in the middle of Manhattan’s teeming traffic.

In 1964, Watts married the love of his life – Shirley Anne Shepherd – who bore him a daughter, Seraphina, in 1968. Seraphina later gave birth to Watts’ beloved and only grandchild, Charlotte.

Watts was unusual in the rock world because he was always faithful to his wife and did not succumb to the groupies that threw themselves at rock stars with monotonous regularity.

He famously wrote that he

'wasn’t interested in being a pop idol, sitting there with girls screaming'.

When invited to the Playboy Mansion in the 1970s, Watts took advantage of Hugh Hefner’s games room and remained oblivious to the scantily clad Playboy bunnies laid on for him and the rest of the group.

Despite never holding a driver’s licence, Watts liked to collect prestige cars and would sit in them in the driveway of his country home, enjoying the luxury.

In addition, Watts was known as a very snappy dresser. A British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, named Watts was one of the World’s Best Dressed Men and Vanity Fair magazine inducted him into the Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 2006.

However, even quiet and unassuming gentlemen drummers have their breaking points. According to Stones biographer Stephen Davis, one night on tour, Keith Richards took Mick Jagger out for a night on the tiles. By the time they returned to their hotel at five in the morning, Jagger was absolutely plastered.

He called up Watts, who was fast asleep in his own room and started shouting into the phone:

“Izzat my drummer then? Where’s my fucking drummer?”

The mild-mannered Watts, always the quiet one in the group, crawled out of bed and had a leisurely shave. He donned a crisp white shirt and the best suit Savile Row had to offer. He shined his shoes, knotted his tie and padded quietly down the stairs.

Upon reaching Jagger’s room, Watts knocked discreetly and was shown in. Watts suddenly grabbed a most astonished Jagger and felled him with a roadhouse punch.

“Don’t ever call me 'your drummer' again. You’re my fucking singer.”

In our critic’s choice selection – 'Ruby Tuesday' – we agree. This shows off Watts’ drum work to great aplomb.

As the Stones went from strength to strength in half a century of rock stardom, Watts garnered several accolades. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and Modern Drummer magazine named Watts – along with Ringo Star, Keith Moon, Steve Gadd and Buddy Rich – as members of their Drummers’ Hall of Fame.

Influential music critic Robert Christgau called Watts "rock's greatest drummer".

Watts briefly dabbled with drugs and alcohol but dealt with his demons in a quiet and unassuming manner. That said, his health deteriorated in later years and he had to beg off the Stones’ 2021 'No Filter' tour because he had to undergo an unspecified medical procedure.

Watts’ death prompted a flood of tributes from the usual rock suspects and a few quirky people like Yoko Ono, who offered sincere condolences to Watts’ beloved family.

Surviving Stones members let pictures do the talking. Lead guitarist Keith Richards shared a photo of Watts’ Gretsch drum kit with a “closed” sign hanging from the mike stand while lead singer Mick Jagger tweeted a sweet picture of Watts smiling while playing the drums.

Elton John described Watts as

'the ultimate drummer, the most stylish of men and such brilliant company'.

Paul McCartney said Watts was

“a rock and a fantastic drummer — steady as a rock”.

Brian May of Queen said that Watts was

'the nicest gent you could ever meet... and such a pillar of strength for the Rolling Stones'.

The '90s grunge band Pearl Jam wrote:

'The impact he’s had on musicians and listeners across the planet is profound.'

Several rock critics noticed that when the Stones toured, the applause was always loudest for Mr Charlie Watts.

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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