Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts has died in London at the age of 80. The above photo was shared by Mick Jagger on Instagram in tribute to his friend.
I love that Charlie Watts once punched Mick Jagger. It’s not that there were regular fisticuffs between these two Rolling Stones over their almost 60-years of playing together – when you’re as cool as Watts, how could there be? It’s perfect that it was a one off; even better that he reportedly showered, shaved, applied cologne and put on one of his famous Savile Row suits before doing it.
Gimme Shelter – 1969
It’s both emblematic of the detached, dapper-cool of one of music’s greatest drummers, as well as being a slightly misleading incident. Misleading in the sense that Watts later explained that his rage at Jagger saying, “where’s my drummer?” was partially down to alcohol. It was the early 80s and Jagger’s ego over his fledgling solo career was causing some tension in the band, and a late night hotel phone call from Jagger to Watts with the line about his drummer was the final straw.
So with that he got dressed as if he was off to a wedding, walked into Jagger’s hotel room and bopped him in the face. “Never call me your drummer again”, was all that was said.
Ventilator Blues – 1972
Casual fans might think this sort of thing was par for the course for a band as notorious as the Stones, but the early-to-mid 80s was the only time in his life that Watts struggled with drink and drugs. By 1986 he was completely sober, and unlike his lothario bandmates, Watts was ever-faithful to his wife Shirley who he wed in 1964. This October would’ve been their 57th wedding anniversary.
Beast Of Burden – 1978
A monogamist in a rock & roll band, Watts was also a jazz enthusiast in a rock & roll band. Jazz was really his passion and he was always ready to deflect any praise about his skills. As Rolling Stone magazine wrote yesterday in tribute:
The other Stones found Charlie impossible to dazzle. Charlie wasn’t even impressed by himself, let alone his bandmates. Keith told Rolling Stone in his 1981 cover story, “As far as I’m concerned, I’d just say that I’m continually thankful — and more so as we go along — that we have Charlie Watts sittin’ there, you know? He’s the guy who doesn’t believe it, because he’s like that.” The interviewer finds it hard to believe. But Keith insists, “There’s nothing forced about Charlie, least of all his modesty. It’s totally real. He cannot understand what people see in his drumming.”
Waiting On A Friend – 1981
Well, Charlie Watts was clearly right about many things in life, but his assessment of his own skills behind his equally modest drum kit was not one of them. He tops various lists of the most important drummers of all time with everyone from Ringo Starr to Max Weinberg to Stewart Copeland euphoric in praise since news of his death.
Winter – 1973
And – of course – in those tributes is the more quiet grief of his Rolling Stones bandmates. Jagger might’ve been the one Rolling Stone that Charlie Watts punched, but the love between the two was obvious. It’s also a testament to that love that unlike the Jagger of the early 80s, the 2021 model isn’t short of humility.
Sweet Virginia – 1972
So much so that Jagger’s caption-less Instagram post (see above) for his departed friend is not of the two of them together, it’s not of a Stones gig, but instead it’s of Watts looking unusually animated while playing with his own jazz band, The ABC and D of Boogie Woogie, in Switzerland, back in January 2010.
Miss You – 1978
Speaking of which, for me, the most resonant tribute to Watts these past couple of days is from the ABC in Australia who reminded me of something I knew as a kid, without ever necessarily knowing how to articulate: that if Jagger was the flamboyant, dangerous, androgynous frontman, and if Richards was the more measured, more badass sidekick, then the always best-dressed, always unruffled Watts was never doing anything less than marching to the beat of his own drum.
Shine A Light – 1972
The above eight songs have long been my absolute favourite Rolling Stones tracks. Even though they’re not chosen to specifically represent the best of Charlie Watts, to me it’s unmistakable that they do. There’s the socially charged rock ‘n’ soul of Gimme’ Shelter, the mournful rock balladry of Winter, the laid back R&B of Beast Of Burden, the country of Sweet Virginia, the gospel of Shine A Light, the reggae-lite of Waiting On A Friend, the disco-blues of Miss You and the rough ‘n’ ready blues of Ventilator Blues.
The fact that one drummer could do all of the above tells you so much of what you need to know about Charlie Watts.
“May the good Lord shine a light on you.”