The Rolling Stones Talk Charlie Watts’ Legacy and Their Upcoming First Tour Without Him

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The Rolling Stones and much of the rock world were stunned by the death of Charlie Watts, the band’s drummer since 1963, on August 24. While the group had previously announced that Watts (pictured above, right, in 2019) would not be joining them for their upcoming “No Filter” North American tour due to illness, and his role is being filled by veteran drummer Steve Jordan, it is still difficult to imagine them without him. The group paid tribute to him at a warm-up gig in Massachusetts on Monday.

With the tour launching in St. Louis on Sunday, the group has distributed an interview with the three core members — singer Mick Jagger, guitarist Keith Richards and guitarist Ron Wood — sharing their memories of Watts, their plans for the upcoming shows and beyond. The interview, conducted by David Fricke, is in full below.

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MICK JAGGER:

How have the rehearsals been going with drummer Steve Jordan?

It’s gone well. We all knew him, and I’d played with him before. He’s very respectful of Charlie. He played with Keith before we started the rehearsals, and then he did homework, listening to the tunes. When we talk about what Charlie did on this one, we listen to the original record, and then we listen to the live versions. There’s certain licks that we want to do, that Charlie did. There’s certain drum licks that one doesn’t think about, but they’re part of the tune in a way that a bass part or a guitar part is part of the tune.

Are there songs coming into the rehearsals that you haven’t played in awhile?

We’ve rehearsed 80 to 90 songs. I’m not saying we just touched on them, jammed on them. We can actually play them. That’s a huge amount. Keith and I were saying, the reality is that we have to do at least twelve, 13 numbers that most everyone knows.

But one thing you played when I saw you in Berlin in 2018 was a big surprise: “She’s a Rainbow” [from “Their Satanic Majesties Request”].

We played that on the last tour too [in 2019]. It went from being a deep cut. Because it was in TV ads, people got to know it. We have a couple of numbers from the extras in the “Tattoo You” reissue. We do [the 2020 single] “Living in a Ghost Town,” which sounds pretty good. We’ve got tons of numbers from most eras. So we have a big set list. We can certainly change up the set list. But we still have to do “Paint It, Black.”

Looking back at Charlie, what was his impact on the sound when he joined the Rolling Stones in January, 1963? He came from a serious jazz background. What did he change in the way you, Keith and Brian Jones played blues and R&B?

Some jazz drummers don’t want to play that. But he wasn’t one of those. And he wasn’t just a straight rock drummer. We played with rock drummers before. We played with Carlo Little, who used to play with Screaming Lord Sutch’s band. He had two bass drums – it sounded great. But it wasn’t Charlie. Charlie brought another sensibility, the jazz touch. And he didn’t play very heavy. Sometimes, if I got him mad enough, he would. That was the only way I could get him to play really heavy – to get him mad.

In “Midnight Rambler,” he did a lot of different things in the space of one song: He got heavy, he could swing, he could do it slow. It was a concise lesson in how good he was.

He could do quite subtle cymbal work in some places. Then he could play off my [vocal] riffs with the audience. If you’re a singer, you have a relationship with a drummer which is all about the dance, the accent you’re doing physically as well as vocally. The most obvious example of that was when James Brown had a second drummer. All he’d do was hits when James moved his body or went “Hey, hey.” That guy just watched James, so if he kicked his leg in a certain way, he would accentuate it. Charlie and I had that. We would get into a groove. He would understand what I was trying to do, and I would understand what he was trying to do. That was different from a guitar player’s relationship. And I had that with Charlie, developed over many, many years.

What do you think he saw in the Stones that convinced him want to join?

He enjoyed playing the music because it was very eclectic. He was an eclectic drummer. He loved jazz, but let’s be brutal. Jazz doesn’t pay. Of course, we weren’t getting paid much. That’s why he didn’t join us for a long while. We’d ask him to join, but he had a lot of gigs with different bands. Keith and I had already played with Charlie with Alexis Korner. It wasn’t like he came in for an audition. We knew what it was like to play with him, and he knew what it was like to play with us. He fitted in. He gave a swing to the band – the swerve and subtlety. And he could also be straight-ahead when you wanted to be. “Get Off of My Cloud” – there’s nothing particularly subtle about the drumming on that. He could do that. He was in the pocket.

Many people don’t realize that as a graphic designer by trade, Charlie had a major role in the look and aesthetic of the Stones’ albums and tours. What did he bring in design and vision to the image of the band?

It was a lot of subtle touches. Album covers were very important to the image of the band. And we learned stuff from [original manager] Andrew Loog Oldham – he was into getting the right album cover, making a statement out of it. Charlie and I started to get involved early on –the fine details of the colors; the way the original photo changes in being printed; choosing typefaces. Sometimes there were mistakes. But it was a challenge. We picked art directors, really good people we could work with on logos and stuff like that. And Charlie was very much a part of the team that designed those really big stages like the one for the Steel Wheels tour. We would kick around all these ideas to come up with these big stages. He helped me a lot with that.

The 40th Anniversary edition of “Tattoo You” is coming out on October 22nd. What have you rediscovered about that album – and that era of the Rolling Stones – from putting the reissue together, especially the previously unreleased outtakes?

It’s a funny album. It’s not an album where you can say we went into X studio, we spent six months and this is the album. It’s just tracks that got recorded any time from 1972 to 1981. It wasn’t really an album. It was all over the place. It doesn’t have a kind of center.

But for all of that sprawl, the material shows you were constantly writing and recording – and you never threw anything away that might have some use later on.

Well, we did throw them away a lot. Some of them – there’s no top line, no lyrics, they’re in bits and pieces. Some are cover versions like [the Chi-Lites’ 1970 album cut] “Troubles A’Comin’.” But we never finished it. It didn’t have proper vocals or finished guitar solos. But I know how to do this now. You find a track that’s got a groove and if there’s an idea, you run with the idea and make some fun with it, do some extra things. It comes alive a bit more.

Given everything that has happened in the past year, it’s a question on every fan’s mind: Could this be the last tour?

I’ve been asked that question since I was 31.

And your answer is the same.

I don’t know. I mean, anything could happen. You know, if things are good next year and everyone’s feeling good about touring, I’m sure we’ll do shows. I’m just trying to concentrate on this tour now.

Is there a special memory of Charlie – an incident or story – that sums up what he brought to the Rolling Stones and how he changed each of you in ways that people might not know?

The thing about Charlie was that he was such a quiet guy. I can’t think of that incident when he came into the room and said, “We should do this like this!” I can always remember when he sat down and played “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” He established this great rock beat, then switched it to Latin jazz. The thing about Charlie was that he was always there, always played beautifully and was always willing to discuss what to do about it – how he could make it better. He held the band together for so long, musically, because he was the rock the rest of it was built around. We had a lot of wonderful times apart from playing music together. We used to go and watch cricket. And when we’d get together, we didn’t talk about music. We talked about art, which he knew a lot more about than I did. But the thing he brought was this beautiful sense of swing and swerve that most bands wish they could have. We had some really nice conversations in the last couple of years about how all this happened with the band. It’s a huge loss to us all. It’s very, very hard. But we had wonderful times, and Charlie made some wonderful music.

  

KEITH RICHARDS:

How have the rehearsals been for you, getting the band up and running with drummer Steve Jordan?

It’s been chaotic. But thank God, Steve Jordan is a tower of strength, as was Charlie Watts. Of course, I’ve been working with Steve for 30-odd years. It was Charlie that recommended Steve to me in the mid-Eighties: “Looks like we got some time off. If you’re going to do anything by yourself, there’s your man – Steve Jordan.” And here he is.

How has Steve’s playing changed the sound and songs in the rehearsals?

You don’t change the engine room overnight – which is, of course, what we’ve been working on. Steve and I have been working together on this since somewhere in July. At the time, he was just going to be sitting in for Charlie, which was already to Steve like “Wow!” Steve brings with him a lot of knowledge about the Stones. He’ll say, “No, Charlie plays like this.” Steve is so meticulous, so aware of the seat he’s sitting in. Steve said this to me: Charlie played the drums. He didn’t hit them. Also, Steve and [bassist] Daryl Jones working together is another thing. From a musical point of view, it’s incredibly energetic and wonderfully inspiring. I was like, “I can’t pick this up. I don’t care who it is. I can’t pick this up without Charlie.” But once Steve and I started to get into it, hey, this is the way it’s supposed to be.

What songs have come up in the rehearsals that you haven’t played for awhile?

We came across a couple of hidden gems in this new reissue of Tattoo You which we’d been working on then – “Living in the Heart of Love” and “Troubles A’ Comin’,” a Chi-Lites song. We cut that original track back in the Seventies. Mick dug it out this year: “Hey, listen to this one.” “Hand of Fate” [on 1976’s Black and Blue] – for some reason, that came back to me. I threw it out at rehearsals, and it’s become like, “Oh, yeah!” And we’re playing [2020’s] “Living in a Ghost Town.” We keep up with the times.

Going back to the beginning, Charlie joined the Rolling Stones in January, 1963. But you, Mick and Brian Jones had already played with Charlie when you were all in the band led by the British blues singer Alexis Korner.

He was getting paid; we weren’t. Mick, Brian and I had been drooling for Charlie for months. Charlie said, “I’d love to play with you guys, but I need a couple of regular gigs.” Then Charlie started coming to rehearsals, which was all we ever did in those days – rehearse. There never was a gig. Charlie was fascinated by the Chicago drummers – [Jimmy Reed’s drummer] Earl Phillips; Fred Below and Francis Clay [at Chess Records]. To him, they were jazz players, not rock & roll, which of course they weren’t either. Somehow Charlie crossed that fine line. Charlie could make it roll and most drummers have never been able to do that.  

What do you think he saw in the Stones that made him join – and stick with it?

I never did ask him that myself: “Why the hell did you join us, man?” I presume it was something he heard in the music we were listening to and trying to play. Also, he had that sense of adventure: “I’m just going to be another jazz player in a big pond. Or I can hang with these crazy guys and see where it goes.” The thing that Charlie and I had from day one was we would cringe at the crassness of show biz and its demands. Charlie would run a mile rather than do a promo. In a way, the difference between Charlie Watts on stage and the person is in the way he dressed: on stage, T-shirt, a pair of leisure pants and a pair of Capezios. That’s it. Whereas in real life, private life, Charlie was Mr. Style, man. His joy was to go to Savile Row and have these suits made. It was his playground. His tailor could tell you more about him than I could.

With the 40th Anniversary edition of “Tattoo You” coming out on October 22nd, what have you rediscovered about that album and that time for the Stones? Was it a turning point as you entered the Eighties?

As usual with the Stones, there was a cloud of confusion hanging over everything. To me, it was a period of transition. But then I can look back on any album: “Jesus Christ, that was a turning point.” In retrospect, if I can think of an album that wasn’t a turning point, at least to the band, it probably wasn’t any good. When I listen to everything we did, it was all a period of transition of one kind or another, from the beginning. You learnt on the job, and it was never the same job. It got bigger, and you either made it up as you went along, or let other people do it for you.

For many people, the question on their minds is: Could this be the last tour? Or is it a matter of doing this tour and finding out what feels right and possible?

It’s more that way. We hit a very difficult point, to take this thing out. But we’re gonna do it. Charlie was prepared for us to go ahead. We were expecting him to pick it up somewhere. Steve was, thankfully, going to be the pickup. But things ain’t turned out that way.

Is there a special memory of Charlie – an incident or story – that sums what he meant to you and the band?

I was jotting down a couple of things that I miss. Charlie had an incredible sense of humor. And my joy was I loved to crack him up. If you could hit that spot, he wouldn’t stop, and it was the funniest thing in the world. He had an incredible sense of humor that he kept to himself unless you sparked it. And then it could be painful to laugh. I can’t think of any one moment, because with Charlie Watts, it was his consistency. A most vital part of being in this band was that Charlie Watts was my bed. I could lay on there, and I know that not only would I have a good sleep, but I’d wake up and it’d still be rocking. It was something I’ve had since I was 19. I never doubted it. I never even thought about it. Only now am I thinking about it. At the same time, I know I have a very good man who understands that in Mr. Jordan. Without a drummer, you ain’t nowhere.


RONNIE WOOD:

How are you feeling about finally going back on tour?

It’s a very surreal feeling. It’s like “I’ve done this before,” but there’s a strange thing – “I’ve never done this before” – in the air as well. Rehearsals are going really well, and Steve Jordan has added another light to all of the songs. It’s a very pleasant thing, being carried on the waves – with Charlie’s blessing.

What is Steve bringing to the sound and songs?

Steve has respected Charlie’s approach to the drums, the different attitudes he had for each number. He’s adapted that in his own style, put his own energy and kick into what was originally there. Charlie would have loved it. There’s an energy that Charlie projected through his sticks, but Steve projects it physically as well. Whereas Charlie sat dead still, Steve is moving, and so is the whole drum podium. You can see the satisfaction on Keith’s face, on Mick’s face.  

How did you first meet Steve?

I’ve had a long affiliation with Steve. When I lived in New York, he was always at my house, him and [bassist] Charley Drayton. We were always jamming in my little studio on West 78th Street. We were the Upper West Side Gang with [Bobby] Womack and [Don] Covay. There was a lot of soul exchanged.

What are some of the songs you’ve played in the rehearsals that would surprise people?

There’s things I’ve really enjoyed like “Hand of Fate” [on 1976’s Black and Blue]. And we’re going back down the catalog – “19th Nervous Breakdown,” we do a blinding version of that. When we’re playing it, I’m the biggest fan: “I can’t believe I got the best seat in the house.” “Street Fighting Man” has a new energy. “Midnight Rambler” has a new approach. We thought, “Oh dear, how are we going to do ‘Midnight Rambler’? Because there’s another language of its own in that song. It takes its own course now, and Steve, if anything, is leading the charge: “I’ll tell ya when it’s gonna speed up, I’ll tell ya when it’s gonna be dynamic.” To see Keith say, “Okay, then, you tell me” – it was a really different thing. And Mick’s like, “Yeah, I’ll take that.”

It’s interesting that you mention “Hand of Fate.” Charlie certainly put a stamp on it. But I can see Steve putting some New York soul into it as well.

Same thing with “Under My Thumb” and “Memory Motel,” you know? There’s a couple of new songs that I can’t wait for you to hear: [the Chi-Lites cover] “Trouble’s A’ Comin'” and “Living in the Heart of Love.”

Those songs are among the outtakes in the 40th Anniversary reissue of “Tattoo You.” What is it like revisiting that album and your memories of that time for the Stones?

There’s that old Dobie Gray song too [“Drift Away”]. That was an era when Mick was into those cover versions. In his own way, he was paying respect to the Chi-Lites and the Temptations when we did things like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Just My Imagination.” And it’s been there, that respect for the blues and soul, ever since I can remember hanging out with the Stones.


What were your earliest impressions of Charlie?

My brother Art was playing with Charlie at the time they asked him to join. Charlie said to Art, “I’ve got this offer to join the interval band over at the Marquee.” Art said, “Yeah? What are they called?” “They’re called the Rolling Stones. It might be a gig for a year or so.” That was how I first heard about Charlie. Art would come home and tell me about his friend. Then I saw them at the Richmond Jazz Festival in 1963, and the tent was moving like an elephant. I thought, “This looks like a good thing” – all this Chuck Berry music and blues coming out. 

The Stones got a real steal when they got Charlie. They had other guys before, but Charlie was clearly important to them, because they asked him a couple of times to join. Charlie just did it so much better. It was a natural feel that he had. Nobody had to explain, “I want you to play like this or that.” He just had it straightaway, that Stones feel.

What was it like when you played with him on your first tour with the Stones in 1975?

It was very encouraging, very inspiring. And it was reciprocal. You wanted to play right – leave the holes, the right amount of gaps. But you wanted to be dynamic in what you said with your instrument. And this is no exception, this new approach that we have at these rehearsals. Our sound man who does our monitors said, “This is the best part of my life, the Stones’ rehearsals. I never enjoy myself more.” You can’t get a bigger compliment than that.

Is there a special memory or story you have about Charlie that sums him up for you as a musician and friend?

It’s quite a famous story; you’ve probably heard it before. We were at a video shoot, in the trailer backstage, sitting around twiddling our thumbs. And somebody said to him, “Charlie, after 30 years, you must have done a lot of hangin’ about like this.” And he said, “Yeah, five years work, 25 years hanging around.” That kind of sums him up. He certainly had his powerful views. But he said it with his playing. He just spoke through his instrument.

Could this be the last tour? Or are the rehearsals telling you something different?

I got a feeling that we’re just tickling the surface here. We’re seeing another unexploded mine. It’s got a lot of time on it.

 

 

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