What Charlie Watts meant to the Rolling Stones

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TV Times via Getty Images

Anyone would have faded into the background in a band that was fronted by the lasciviously preening rock & roll peacock Mick Jagger and the swashbuckling, six-string pirate Keith Richards. But the great thing — or I should say, one of the many great things — about Charlie Watts is that he always seemed to prefer it that way. For nearly six decades, he kept the time as meticulously as a Swiss watch without ever hungering for the thousand-watt klieg lights of fame on stage or off.

The dapper gentleman drummer of the Rolling Stones since 1963, Watts passed away earlier today at age 80 in London. He was the quietly formidable rhythm-section backbone who injected the band's raw English blues-rock swagger with jazzy elegance and swinging sophistication that was always right in the pocket. If he was overshadowed by the more outsized Glimmer Twin personalities in the group, it's also safe to say that the Rolling Stones would never have become THE ROLLING STONES without him as the calm, trusty eye of its storm.

In the '60s, as the group rose to gold-and-platinum-pressed stardom on both sides of the Atlantic, Watts seemed to care little for the bombastic, wild-man pyrotechnics of more colorful peers like the Who's Keith Moon, Led Zeppelin's John Bonham, or Cream's Ginger Baker. His greatest gift was his note-perfect restraint and steadying presence. And in time, he would be recognized as one of the finest (and most selfless) rock drummers of his generation. Without his bedrock style, Richards and the Stones' revolving-door of fellow guitarists — Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, and Ron Wood — would have been left as adrift as a flashy sailboat without a rudder. Not that he merely kept the beat, though. Watts could produce raw, bone-breaking snap and crunch ("Shattered"), as well as an ominous horsemen-of-the-apocalypse gallop ("Paint it Black") or an elastically propulsive trampoline bounce ("Jumpin' Jack Flash") when called for. Rock critic eminence grise Robert Christgau saw through Watts' subdued façade when he called him "rock's greatest drummer." It was a mighty claim at the time, but few could now honestly debate the point.

Georges Chevrier/INA via Getty Images "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," said Richards of Watts (second from right)

Yes, Watts was a subtle, impressionist painter behind his kit (at least next to Richards' go-for-broke riffs), but he could swing a sledgehammer or ride his kicking snare like he was sitting on the back of a Harley if it fit the moment. He was the engine that powered the band no matter what gear they wanted to ride in. Unlike his more famous, hard-partying, paparazzi-prey bandmates, Watts only seemed interested in serving the music he loved — and looking as natty as hell while doing it. He was an outlaw in disguise, the coolest cat in the room.

Charles Robbie Watts was born in London in 1941, the son of a lorry driver for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. He took up the drums at 14, largely with his calculating gimlet eyes set on a career in jazz (his heroes were Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, the latter of whose 78s he would listen to and study like the Talmud at night in his bedroom). In fact, he started out playing in jazz combos, moonlighting as a graphic designer for British ad agencies in case the whole "music thing" didn't pan out (he would also help to design some of the Stones' most classic album sleeves). But in 1963, he took a gamble and signed on with the Stones, playing his first gig with the band at the Ealing Jazz Club on either January 12 or February 2, 1963, depending on the source. "It's All Over Now," their first U.K. hit to reach the top of the charts, quickly followed.

With their debut album, 1964's The Rolling Stones: England's Newest Hit Makers, the band was off to the races just as rock & roll's British Invasion was storming the shores of America. Often pitted against the Beatles in countless dorm-room bull sessions and rock-critic debates, the Stones quickly became identified as the carnal, boozy-bluesy flipside to the Fab Four's more soothing love songs and the experimental studio innovating that would come later. Yes, the Beatles wanted to hold your hand, but the Stones wanted to pillage your village, make off with its women, and salt the earth on the way out of town.

After the Beatles broke up in 1970, the Stones soldiered on. More than that, they found their stride, now unchallenged by worthy rivals. During their artistic peak in the late '60s and early '70s, when the band's outsized live shows often reached ecstatic heights of sexual decadence and wild abandon (sometimes infamously so in the tragic case of Altamont) and their studio albums such as 1969's Let it Bleed, 1971's Sticky Fingers, and 1972's Exile on Main Street (the best rock double album of all time, hands down) became instant chapters in the rock canon, the Stones' were often referred to as "The Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World." Arguable? Perhaps. But they would certainly have the most longevity.

Paul Natkin/Getty Images Charlie Watts performs during the Rolling Stone's 'Steel Wheels' tour in 1989

As the '70s slipped into the '80s, and the '80s into the '90s and beyond, trends in popular music seemed to be ever-changing as punk gave way to new wave, new wave gave way to the MTV Era, the MTV Era gave way to hair metal, and hair metal was killed off by grunge. The Stones would tack with the times (to a degree), but they always seemed to know exactly who they were — and who they weren't. By then, the group had become more of a monolithic road show juggernaut playing to sold-out football stadiums than a studio band. Their album output became less and less regular. And Watts — a family man who by then had become increasingly weary of the globetrotting endurance test of touring — became more and more inclined to spend time in the studio rather than hotel rooms.

But the band was basically a democracy (albeit a dysfunctional one), and the road tended to win out. In time, Watts would grow less single-minded about being an ever-rolling Stone hellbent on not gathering moss, opting instead to fill the band's long hiatuses by dabbling in side projects that nourished his jazz soul. Still, when the Stones would return to the road — and they would always return to the road — there was a sense of comfort (both for fans and Watts' bandmates) in seeing him casually perched on his stool behind the kit with a sly, Cheshire Cat grin on his face that spoke more eloquently than he ever would to the press about the fun he was having being a Rolling Stone.

Taylor Hill/Getty Images Watts performing with the Stones in 2019

Earlier this month, Watts announced that he would be sitting out the Stones' upcoming "No Filter" U.S. tour on doctors' orders. He was the only remaining member of the band, save Jagger and Richards, to appear on every Stones record. Watts, who was recovering from an undisclosed illness, half-joked in a statement to the press: "For once, my timing has been a little off." But fans had assumed that his absence would be a temporary one. After all, it was impossible to imagine the Stones without its anchor.

Even though he was 80, and had been previously diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004, Watts' disclosure felt a bit like the beginning of the end. It was impossible to picture the band playing in front of massive audiences without Richards and Wood glancing back in Watts' direction for unspoken, telepathic direction and guidance.

As Richards put it in a 1979 interview, "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 Rolling Stones." Charlie Watts was, is, and will always be the heartbeat of the Rolling Stones. Now, sadly, is his final encore. May he rest in peace.

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