Sophistication is not a word normally associated with rock stars, and certainly not the immortal decadence associated with the Rolling Stones. And yet, with the passing of Charlie Watts this past Tuesday, the word has popped up multiple times to describe his playing as well as his quiet, anti-rock star demeanor.
Charlie was the eye of the crossfire hurricane that is the Rolling Stones sound, his steady backbeat providing calm in the midst of Keith Richards’ wild guitar riffs and Mick Jagger’s sneering, seedy vocals. A jazz musician at heart who initially eschewed the blues influences of his bandmates, Charlie gave the Stones sound a big band swing that defined the seductive grooves of classics like “Honky Tonk Women” and “Beast of Burden.” Richards’ deathless “Satisfaction” intro would not sound nearly as muscular with Charlie’s insistent ‘four on the floor’ backbeat hammering away underneath it, punctuating the aggression at the heart of the song.
In the band’s live shows, Charlie was the secret weapon: whenever Keith Richards got lost in a solo or Jagger mistimed a vocal cue, you could always count on Watts to right the ship and get the band back on track. Richards would play through him, using him as the guide post to set up the tempos and grooves of songs to get the right feeling going on any given night. On the band’s live epic, “Midnight Rambler,” the entire band would have their eyes locked on him the whole time as he effortlessly navigated them through the song’s many dynamics and tempo shifts. Watts played with the Stones until he was 78 years old, and his final tour in 2019 had him sounding as brisk, sharp and punchy as ever, and still swinging.
The parallels between Watts’ playing and his personality have often been discussed; in both he was unassuming, never wont to take center stage, but always just an emphatic enough presence to make him indispensable to the Stones’ legacy. In interviews and promotional video, Charlie had a dryly comedic role, often rolling his eyes in mock embarrassment at Jagger’s endless preening and prancing. He always seemed genuinely bemused that he was apart of the biggest rock and roll band on the planet, and it was always charming and endearing how humbly he approached fame.
Not that he didn’t indulge: Watts collected Arabian horses and vintage sports car, the latter his most jarring excess considering he never drove. He was perhaps second to David Bowie as rock’s most immaculate sartorial figure, decked to the nines in gorgeous Saville Row tailored suits and colorful shirts. He also briefly took over for Richards as the band’s resident heroine addict in the mid-1980s’, a period that gave birth to one of the most famous backstage Stone moments: an enraged Jagger called Watts down for a rehearsal and angrily referred to him as my drummer. Watts, who by own his admission was drunk, heartily decked the likely unsuspecting frontman and told him “you’re my fucking singer.” Watts wasn’t wrong; without him, Jagger would not have a beat or shuffle for him to unleash his spastic yet effective running and vamping upon the world for the last six decades.
Watts quit heroine cold turkey when he realized the effect it was having on his marriage to his wife Shirley, who he stayed with for 57 years. When Bill Wyman was bragging about having sex with 2,000 women in 1965 alone and Jagger was having teenyboppers throw themselves at him 24/7, Watts had a steadfast, happy family life until the day he died. In music and life, Watts has been described as a rock: reliable, still, seemingly indistinct, but if you were to remove it from the landscape, it would seem less vibrant and unique.
Without Charlie in the band’s aural landscape, the Rolling Stones lose their swing and punch. They had a replacement inked for Charlie before he passed, as he had pulled out of their upcoming U.S. tour three weeks before his death under more pretenses (temporary illness, ‘returning for the 60th anniversary next year’); it’s Steve Jordan, Richards’ drummer from his side project the X-Pensive Winos. Jordan is an excellent drummer, and it’s crucial that they brought in someone who has chemistry with Keith Richards, who once said ‘no Charlie, no Stones’ when Watts battled cancer in 2004. Jordan, however, will not be Charlie. The history won’t be there, nor the natural chemistry that developed out of nearly 60 years of playing together. It’s going to be exciting to see the Stones face a true challenge again, as opposed to coasting on the spectacle and hype of their longevity. It may be good, great even, but it won’t be as good as having Charles Robert Watts there.