Within a few years of making their debut in 1964, people were calling the Rolling Stones the Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World, as if it had been their birthright. And despite a great many creative peaks and valleys over the decades, in the 2020s plenty of folks were still happy to call them that. They created consistently compelling, innovative music through the 1960s, and if they were more hit and miss in the '70s and '80s, the fact they could knock out albums like Sticky Fingers (1971), Exile on Main Street (1972), Some Girls (1978), Tattoo You (1981) and Undercover (1983) when the spirit moved them reminded fans that they never truly lost the touch, and as recently as 2016's raw, committed Blue & Lonesome and their enthusiastically received tours of the 2010s, they sounded as if they wanted to be certain the world knew no one could ever count them out as a force to be reckoned with.
Throughout the Stones' history, the twin focal points with most fans were Mick Jagger, the swaggering, lascivious, and kinetic vocalist and frontman, and Keith Richards, the guitarist who defined the notion of rhythm as lead and spent decades as rock's leading poster boy for charmingly reckless behavior. However, to a vocal minority and fans and an impressive number of fellow musicians, the true source of the band's magic could be found at the back of the stage, behind the drums. Charlie Watts, who died on August 24, 2021 at the age of 80, was always an implacable presence in concert, always focused and right in the zone, and he laid out arguably the most satisfying backbeat in rock 'n' roll history. From the late '60s onward, many rock drummers believed the prime indicators of talent were the ability to hit hard, throw as many exotic rudiments into a song as possible, and toss a few extended solos into the set. Charlie Watts had no use for any of that. What Watts brought to the Stones was a style that rolled just as much as it rocked. He gave their performances a swing that few of their peers could match, and their music had a groove that was the product of an unerring instinct about where to put the two and four on the snare, and fills that accented the songs and lifted them up, rather than nailing them down. Ginger Baker's work in Cream may have exemplified one school of thought about rock drumming, but Watts saw his job as a drummer not as a place to compete with his bandmates, but to support, complement, and augment when they were doing. As Watts once told a journalist, "I don’t like drum solos. I never take them. I admire some people who do them, but generally, I don’t like them. It’s not something I sit and listen to. I prefer drummers in the band playing with the band."
Charlie's bandmates similarly appreciated his talents and philosophy, and the way he interacted with other musicians. Keith Richards once said, "Everybody thinks Mick and Keith are the Rolling Stones. If Charlie wasn’t doing what he’s doing on drums, that wouldn’t be true at all. You’d find out that Charlie Watts is the Stones." And plenty of other musicians took note of Watt's style and how it worked with the Stones. Joan Jett paid tribute in a social media post that read in part, "He most elegant and dignified drummer in rock and roll. He played exactly what was needed -- no more -- no less. He is one of a kind." And former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss said of his work, "The saying 'you're only as good as your drummer' never meant more."
One of the reasons Watts stood out among rock drummers was at heart, he wasn't a rock star, but a jazz artist. He cut his teeth as a musician playing in jazz combos in England, and he immersed himself in the sounds of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Charlie Parker -- it was said that the very natty Watts took to sleeping in his suit for a while because it wanted it to have the same rumpled look that Parker's threads usually had. Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records and a man who knew jazz and blues like few others (and who signed on to distribute Rolling Stones Records when it was founded in 1971), once described Watts as "one of the greatest drummers that I have ever heard." He added, "The only other musicians I know who have had the same kind of feel as Charlie does are the great jazz drummers like Dave Tough, Big Sid Catlett and Jo Jones. It’s all a matter of having a sense of time and Charlie Watts is one of the very, very few, if any, drummers in rock 'n' roll who really have that sense." Rock was Charlie's career, but jazz was truly his passion; he published a book for children about Charlie Parker, Ode to a High Flying Bird in 1965 (he also did the illustrations), and starting in the '80s, when the Stones weren't busy with recording and touring, he could be seen playing in the U.K. and Europe with one of his several jazz ensembles, and he released a handful of fine jazz albums, beginning with 1986's Live at Fulham Town Hall, credited to the Charlie Watts Orchestra.
Watts is also probably the only great drummer who discovered his instrument via the banjo. The son of a truck driver, Charlie was born in London in 1941 and grew up in Wembley. In his early teens, he developed a keen interest in music and wanted to play. He bought a banjo, but quickly discovered he didn't like having to learn the fingerings necessary to play. As he told a reporter for the New Yorker, "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. I didn't have a snare drum, so I put the banjo head on a stand." His parents sensed his potential and got him a cheap drum kit, which gave him the incentive to save his money and get better gear. Soon Watts was buying as many jazz records as he could afford, and was playing jazz with local groups (though many preferred old school "trad jazz" to the more modern stuff that turned his head) as well as more lucrative wedding gigs on weekends. Watts didn't intend to make music his full-time job -- he was pursuing a career as a graphic artist and designer and making a decent living at it -- but he was a good enough drummer that word spread, and he was invited to join Blues Incorporated, a rhythm & blues group led by Alexis Korner. Watts eventually accepted the offer, even though as a jazz snob he wasn't well versed in R&B, and when the embryonic version of the Rolling Stones that was starting to haunt London blues and jazz clubs heard him at work, they knew he was the drummer they needed. Watts demanded a greater salary than the Stones were initially willing to pay, but in 1963 they offered him five pounds a week to take over as their drummer, and he accepted. It was a financial sacrifice the Stones knew they needed to make to succeed; in his autobiography, Keith Richards wrote, "We starved ourselves to pay for him! Literally. We went shoplifting to get Charlie Watts."
Keith Richards and Brian Jones gave Watts a crash course in blues and rock 'n' roll (Charlie later admitted he didn't realize how good Elvis Presley's early sides were until they guided him through them), and it didn't take long for the investment to pay off. By 1964, with the world looking to Great Britain for musical talent in the wake of the Beatles' international success, the Stones signed with the British Decca label, and they quickly became stars in the U.K., with America and the rest of the world falling in line in 1965 with the international success of their glorious hymn to petulance, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Most everyone knows the story from this point on, as the Rolling Stones became one of the world's most iconic rock bands and their ongoing parade of decadence and debauchery became nearly as well known as their records. Of course, true to form, Watts had only so much interest in the wild life that his bandmates had adopted. By his own account, Charlie preferred to get a good sleep after a gig, and made a habit of drawing a sketch of his hotel room before turning in for the night. Watts was in his forties when he surprisingly began dabbling in hard drugs while going through a midlife crisis in the late '70s. It led to a steep decline into heroin and speed that was severe enough that even Richards was alarmed at his consumption. When Watts realized that his addiction could cost him his marriage to Shirley Ann Shepherd, who he wed in 1964 when she was an art school student, he cleaned up. They stayed together, and he practiced moderation, for the rest of his life.
Over the years, change would come to the Rolling Stones -- Brian Jones would be fired from the band in 1969, shortly before his death by drowning, and Mick Taylor would take his place, only to quit the group in 1975, with Ron Wood becoming his permanent replacement the following year. At the end of 1992, Bill Wyman stepped down as the Stones' bassist, and Darryl Jones quietly took his place for recording and touring, though he has yet to be made an official member of the band (he's doubtless paid well enough to take away the sting). Despite occasional periods of tension, the Stones stayed together through it all, and became respected venerable elder statesmen of rock, regularly selling out stadiums around the world even as they slipped well past conventional retirement age. And through it all, Charlie Watts was their foundation, his presence as dependable as his backbeat, looking greyer but otherwise losing none of his focus or authority behind the kit. (Watch the documentary Gimme Shelter, which deals with the Stones' 1969 American tour and the disastrous Altamont Speedway concert, and note that even as Hell's Angels wander about the stage, chaos rains down all around them, and an audience member is being stabbed to death, Charlie never misses a beat.) On August 19, 2019, he drove the Stones through a show in Miami, Florida, playing the final song as rain poured down (a hurricane was expected to sweep through the area the following day, so the band moved the show up from the original date). The COVID-19 pandemic scuttled plans for a number of concerts in 2020, and on August 3, 2021, it was announced that Watts would be sitting out the rescheduled dates, set to begin in September, due to health issues, with Steve Jordan (a friend of the band who had played on Keith Richards' solo project) as his temporary replacement. On August 24, the world learned Watts' absence from the group would be permanent.
At this writing, it's anyone's guess what the future of the Rolling Stones will be. It's fair to expect they will fulfill their scheduled touring commitments with Jordan on drums, but given how close the partnership between Charlie Watts and Keith Richards has always been, coupled with the fact Mick and Keith are respectively 78 and 77 years old, it's not hard to imagine this could be the final chapter of the World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band. No word has yet been released on the Stones' future plans, or what Charlie's final thoughts on the subject might have been, but chances are good he wasn't especially worried about it. When he talked about the band, two themes were consistent -- he loved to play music, and he didn't care much about stardom or the complications of the music business. As he himself said in 2003, "I loved playing with Keith and the band -- I still do -- but I wasn’t interested in being a pop idol sitting there with girls screaming. It’s not the world I come from. It’s not what I wanted to be, and I still think it’s silly." Maybe it was silly. But the music that made fans scream was not, and to a very large extent, we have Charlie Watts to thank for that.