There’s a famous 1960s newspaper headline, fed into the press by The Rolling Stones’ iconoclastic manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham, that demands, provocatively, “Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?” The impresario Oldham’s objective was to distinguish his roguish charges from the era’s other truly great outfit, The Beatles, who were then cut cleaner than a knife slices butter.
Viewed in 2021, the headline demands a response of, My daughter can marry whoever she damn well wants, thank you very much…” And yet, at the time of the sentence’s publication, few fathers would have wished their offspring to step out with Mick, Keith or – shudder – Bill Wyman.
But were a 1960s pop fan to bring home Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts – who has now passed, aged 80 – then it’s likely that their father wouldn’t have been too disappointed. Without the Neasden, London-born percussionist, the Rolling Stones wouldn’t have sounded like they did. Watt’s understated timekeeping was the ballast that kept rock’s raunchiest act tempered and on-track. But more so, without him, the band would surely have expired decades ago. The Stones are a band who couldn’t exist if even an ounce more hedonism were added to the mix.
“When people talk about the ’60s, I never think that was me there,” he once claimed. “It was me and I was in it, but I was never enamoured with all that. It’s supposed to be sex and drugs and rock‘n’roll and I’m not really like that.” He was married for 57 years to sculptor Shirley Ann Shepherd – they had a daughter, Seraphina – and when Hugh Hefner invited the band to visit the Playboy Mansion during the Stones’ 1971 ‘Exile On Main Street’ tour, Watts positioned himself in the pornographer’s games room and played pool until it was polite to leave.
“Girls chasing you down the street, screaming… horrible! I hated it,” he once told The Guardian. “Playing the drums was all I was ever interested in.” Just once did outside indulgences almost take hold via a flirtation with drugs between 1983 and 1986 that he would later describe as a “mid-life crisis”: “I drank too much and took drugs. I went mad really. But I stopped it all. It was very easy for me.” The drummer would later reveal that it was the notoriously hedonistic Keith who advised his bandmate to reign himself, and that this is what made him realise that he had a problem.
‘It amuses Mick especially that Charlie cannot believe his ill luck at finding himself in the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band,’ wrote Philip Norman in 1984’s Symphony for the Devil: The Rolling Stones Story. “Wherever he is with the Stones, he lives in constant hope of being allowed to catch the next plane home.” Indeed, when the Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, Charlie stayed home.
Watts didn’t particularly like touring. “I hate leaving home,” he once said. “I love what I do, but I’d love to go home every night.” He wasn’t a fan of festivals either. “I don’t want to do it,” he said in 2013, during the approach to that year’s Glastonbury headline set. “Everyone else does. I don’t like playing outdoors, and I certainly don’t like festivals. I’ve always thought they’re nothing to do with playing. 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…”
What Charlie did like was clothes: in 2006, fashion bible Vanity Fair inducted him into their International Best Dressed List Hall Of Fame. And horses: he and Shirley owned and ran an Arabian horse stud farm in Dolton, Devon, where the couple resided. He collected, too: despite never owning a driving licence, in a rare foray into rockstar indulgence, Watts owned a fleet of classic cars, including a 1937 Lagonda Rapide. He owned signed copies of every Agatha Christie book. But what Charlie liked the most was drums. And jazz.
He started young. He was born on June 2, 1941 and subsequently growing up in a prefab house in Wembley – so many of London’s homes having been flattened by German bombs – his friend and neighbour was one Dave Green, a distinguished name in jazz circles. “We discovered 78rpm records, Green told The New Yorker in 2012″ “Charlie had more records than I did. We used to go to Charlie’s bedroom and just get these records out.” Early favourites were 78rpms of Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk and the Kansas born saxophonist Charlie Parker – who would remain Watts favourite all his life. “Charlie was ahead of me in listening and acquisitions,” admitted Green.
Drums entered the picture when he was 13: “I bought a banjo, and I didn’t like the dots on the neck. So I took the neck off. At the same time I heard a drummer called Chico Hamilton, who played with Gerry Mulligan. I wanted to play like that, with brushes. I didn’t have a snare drum, so I put the banjo head on a stand.”
Charlie’s parents eventually took pity on seeing their son playing his forlorn set-up and in 1955 bought him his first drum set. He left school and became a graphic designer for a local advertising firm. He and Green spent most of their evenings playing in a jazz band in Middlesex called the Jo Jones All Stars. Then a chance meeting with British blues legend Alexis Korner led to Charlie taking a gig with the influential Blues Incorporated, at various times a hub for Cream’s Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce.
Korner’s group were the biggest show in town. On any given night you might bump into then unknowns such as Rod Stewart, John Mayall and Jimmy Page. Sometimes the crowd would include Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones. As soon as the trio saw Charlie, they knew who they wanted to anchor their then fledgling band. Watts took some persuading – he was stitched on for a design gig in Denmark, he wasn’t sure that rock‘n’roll was really his bag.
Then, on February 2nd, 1963 Charlie made his debut as a full-time Stone at London’s Ealing Jazz Club. He still wasn’t sure if rock‘n’roll was really his bag. Maybe he never decided it was. Onstage with the Stones, Watts was languid, yet resolutely rigid. Performing with The Charlie Watts Orchestra/Quintet, you could almost see the fire in his eyes.
The writer Bill German, who started the Beggars Banquet fanzine while still at high school in 1978, has frequently trotted out an anecdote that reveals much about Watts’ personality. The scene is Amsterdam. The topic of conversation is whether the Stones should call it a day. Mick Jagger has casually described Watts has “my drummer”. “[Watts] kept it bottled inside until he got back to his hotel room,” said German. “He then clicked off his TV, put on his shoes, walked down the hall and knocked on Mick’s door. When the lead singer of the Rolling Stones opened it, his drummer clocked him on the jaw. Charlie then turned round and calmly walked away.”
The message was clear and simple, an echo of the rhythms performed by the man himself. He was understated but irreplaceable: there’ll never be another Charlie Watts.