In many ways, Charlie Watts – who once said, “Girls chasing you down the street, screaming… horrible! I hated it. Playing drums was all I was interested in” – was the antithesis of the rock’n’roll image his band embodied. Just have a listen to his brilliant episode of Desert Island Discs, for which he selected an extremely wholesome collection of jazz, Frank Sinatra, classical music and test match cricket. Yet there are still so, so many fabulous stories about the iconic Rolling Stones drummer, who has sadly died at the age of 80. Here are 10 of our favourites.
Iconic Jagger sass
In Keith Richards’ endlessly entertaining 2010 memoir Life, the guitarist remembers one of the rare times he saw Charlie Watts throwing his “lethal” drummer’s punch. It was 1984 and the Rolling Stones were in Amsterdam and on less than good terms. At 5am a drunken Mick Jagger phoned Watts, asking, “Where’s my drummer?” There was no answer, but 20 minutes later there was a knock on their hotel room door. It was Watts, in full Savile Row regalia.
“He walked straight past me, got hold of Mick and said ‘Never call me your drummer again’,” remembered Richards. “Then he hauled him up… and gave him a right hook. Mick fell back onto a silver platter of smoked salmon on the table and began to slide towards the open window and the canal below it… It took me 24 hours after that to talk Charlie down.” In 2018 Watts confirmed to NME that he finished the encounter by saying to Jagger: “You’re my singer.” Iconic.
Most musicians’ dream gig is a headline slot at Glastonbury Festival. Not so for Charlie Watts. “I don’t want to do it,” he told The Guardian ahead of the Rolling Stones’ appearance in 2013. “Everyone else does. I don’t like playing outdoors, and I certainly don’t like festivals… Glastonbury, it’s old hat, really. I never liked the hippy thing to start with. It’s not what I’d like to do for a weekend, I can tell you.” He added: “The worst thing playing outdoors is when the wind blows, if you’re a drummer, because the cymbals move… it really is hard to play then.”
The Stones’ snappiest dresser
Charlie Watts never looked anything less than amazing. Elegant, dapper and always sharp-suited, he was a regular at London’s Savile Row, home to the finest tailors in the world. According to Keith Richards, Watts would “spend day after day in Savile Row with his tailors, just feeling the quality, deciding which buttons to use”.
The power of jazz
Part of Charlie Watts’ innate cool came from the fact that he could give or take rock’n’roll. He was a jazz man first and foremost, coming to the band from a background of UK greats such as Alexis Korner, playing with his Blues Incorporated band before he joined the Stones. In one of Keith Richards’ early diaries, he wrote: “Charlie swings very nicely but can’t rock. Fabulous guy, though…” According to Richards, in the beginning, Watts wasn’t hitting the drums hard enough, but it didn’t take long for him to nail it. “There’s tremendous personality and subtlety in his playing,” wrote Richards in Life, calling him “the bed that I lie on musically.”
He wasn’t the biggest Stones fan
He may have been a member of arguably the biggest band in the world, but when asked what his favourite Rolling Stones song was, Charlie Watts replied: “God, I don’t really have one to be honest, I don’t really listen to them that much.”
King of the kit
Charlie Watts was such a master of the drums that he could make even the shonkiest kit sound incredible. The drums on ‘Street Fighting Man’ are actually a tiny 1930s practice kit that came in a suitcase that popped open, featuring with one small cymbal and a half size tambourine acting as a snare.
He was generally known as being the most sensible member of the Rolling Stones, so it was something of a shock when Watts developed a debilitating heroin habit in the 1980s. “Maybe towards the end of 1986, I hit an all-time low in my personal life and in my relationship with Mick,” he said, according to The Guardian. “I was mad on drink and drugs. I became a completely different person; not a nice one. I nearly lost my wife and family and everything.” It was Keith Richards, of all people, who helped him kick the habit and get his life back on track.
Hit the road
Charlie Watts boasted a neat collection of classic cars, from the super-rare 1937 Lagonda Rapide Cabriolet to a vintage 2CV. The only catch was that he didn’t know how to drive. “I do have four vintage cars and can’t drive the bloody things,” he told NME in 2018. Watts also had period-appropriate suits made up to match his many motors.
He was as normal as they come
“I’m not really a rockstar,” Watts also said to NME. He was with the same woman, Shirley Ann Shepherd, for his entire life, getting married in 1964 after declining to invite or even tell his bandmates about the event. When the Stones were invited to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion in the 1970s, Watts went to the games room instead of talking to any of the women at the party.
Some people are content with simply nicking the tiny bottles of shampoo from their hotel rooms, but Charlie Watts went one step further, sketching a picture of every hotel bed he ever slept in. During his appearance on Desert Island Discs, he explained: “It’s a diary and now I can’t miss one because it’s like ruining ‘a day in the life of’. So I just draw every bed that I sleep in when I tour with the Rolling Stones.” Rest easy, Charlie.