Charlie Watts: A Legendary Drummer and His Jazzier Roots
From Watts’ early jazz roots, it wasn’t a far leap into The Rolling Stones. He had been a graphic designer at an advertising agency in London, moonlighting now and then with Alexis Korner’s R&B band. When he got the offer to join the Stones, supposedly the band had been saving their food money to be able to afford their drummer of choice. For Watts, he quickly received an intense education in the blues that Brian Jones loved so much, mainly Jimmy Reed and Elmore James. He also got a birds-eye view of the soon-to-be burgeoning British Invasion.
“When we started, it was all about how the two guitars played together and where the rhythm section fit in,” Watts says. “When you’re playing rock and roll, the challenge is strength. As Keith used to say, ‘we play by feel.’ But feel is numbers too and you have to count, which is what practicing helps. When you’re a drummer, though, you need other people to play. You can’t really just play on your own. Once we started working, we played as much as we could. I remember getting my set of Ludwig drums, which was the only American brand you could buy then. Ringo (Starr) had the black oyster pearl set, and I didn’t want the same, so I got the sky-blue pearl kit. I’ve still got them, too.”
When he’s drumming flat-out boogie woogie on a club stage not much bigger than a closet, it’s the same hands and feet that have played in the world’s biggest stadiums for nearly 50 years as the back line for the Stones. In so many ways, it’s almost an Olympic feat, but maybe the real gift that Watts has given us all these years is the easygoing manner by which he’s maintained his cool.
There is never a question that whatever he does, it will be done straight from the soul. Listen to the way the man takes his time before beginning the beat on a ballad like “Wild Horses.” He waits for the second verse, always taking his time, and then comes in on the snare drum like the world is waiting. No flash, no foolishness—just a feeling that right now that is the only beat that really matters.
One of the highest compliments about his abilities came from no less a source than Ahmet Ertegun. As someone who was a first-hand witness to jazz’s rise to prominence in America, as well as a man who helped give birth to rock and roll as head of Atlantic Records, Ertegun said that the reason The Rolling Stones were the best rock band in the land was the fact that Watts knew how to swing.
For his notoriety as the only drummer The Rolling Stones have ever had, jazz will always be his original inspiration. “I don’t try and separate music—not really,” he says. “I just try to play the best I can. When we started, we liked to play a Bo Diddley beat, and I loved that. But I also love Tony Williams with Miles Davis, and Earl Palmer with Fats Domino. It’s all music. Listening to how other people approach it is fascinating. I know I can never become as good as the people I’ve watched. It’s terribly frustrating. There’s so much to learn. You think you’ve cracked it and then you go to some little club in New Orleans and there’s some guy that nobody’s ever heard of but five of his mates who play in the band and you just think that’s it [because he’s so good]. Or you go and see a master like Roy Haynes, and when you see him you go, ‘I’ll never ever get there.’”
Considering where the young man started, Watts has gone far. Keith Richards once said that The Rolling Stones would continue as long as Watts wants to play, but when that’s done, the band will call it a day. No doubt that might be hyperbole, but it still rings with plenty of truth.
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