The news of the passing of Charlie Watts, the drummer for The Rolling Stones, on Tuesday elicited an outpouring of eulogies, stories, and tributes from across the worlds of music and popular culture.
Watts’ distinct swagger has always been a key element of the musical beast that is The Rolling Stones, both in terms of music and character. If Mick Jagger‘s snarling voice and flamboyant flair were the bark and Keith Richards‘ jagged guitar parts and dangerous reputation were the bite, Watts was the undeterred leash, bending to the monster’s whims but never breaking to its might.
Watts was a self-proclaimed homebody, a more grounded and sophisticated onlooker to some of the Stones’ more famous bouts of debauchery. As Watts once said of the substance-assisted, thrown-together sessions that produced Exile on Main St., per The New York Times, “I mean, I lived with Keith, but I used to sit and play and then I’d go to bed.”
Despite his relative abstinence, Watts—described yesterday in a tribute post by Elton John as “the most stylish of men”—was not afraid to get his hands dirty. As you’ve probably seen by now, one fan-favorite tour story from Richards’ 2010 autobiography, Life, has been floating around the internet since the news of Watts’ death:
We got back to the hotel about five in the morning and Mick called up Charlie. I said, don’t call him, not at this hour. But he did, and said, ‘Where’s my drummer?’ No answer … About twenty minutes later, there was a knock at the door. There was Charlie Watts, Savile Row suit, perfectly dressed, tie, shaved the whole fucking bit. I could smell the cologne! I opened the door and he didn’t even look at me, he walked straight past me, got hold of Mick and said, ‘Never call me your drummer again.’ Then he hauled him up by the lapels … and gave him a right hook.
It was Charlie’s distinctive, stoic style and economy of motion behind the kit, however, that set him apart as a drummer and helped give the Stones such an inimitable sound. Lagging ever-so-slightly behind the beat, Watts gave the songs a faint wobble, creating infinite little moments of rhythmic tension and release. “To me,” Richards wrote in Life, “Charlie Watts was the secret essence of the whole thing.”
— The Rolling Stones (@RollingStones) August 27, 2021
In the wake of Watts’ death, read what some of the world’s most celebrated drummers have to say about Charlie Watts and his legendary body of work.
Bill Kreutzmann & Mickey Hart (Grateful Dead)
The dual drummers for the Grateful Dead both spoke up online in response to the death of Charlie Watts. As Hart said in a brief post, “Charlie Watts was a colossus in the world of rock ‘n’ roll drumming. His hands and feet danced like Nureyev, so elegant, so graceful…the bedrock of The Rolling Stones. Don’t worry Charlie, I’m told there’s rock ‘n’ roll in heaven.”
Kreutzmann offered up a more specific anecdote about seeing the Stones perform. “Drummers are bonded together by virtue of their instrument and I am saddened that today we lost a brother,” Billy said following news of Watts’ passing. “The last time I saw the Rolling Stones was in the arena in Oakland where the Grateful Dead had performed many times before. But being in the audience, I got to experience that show as a fan. I even paid for parking! When the Stones brought out Tom Waits to sit in on “Little Red Rooster,” one of my friends reminded me that the Grateful Dead had played that very song in that very room. Charlie had his own feel for it and I loved it. I always admired his steadfast approach, ability, and style. Rest in peace, brother.” He also offered up a link to the “Little Red Rooster” in question in the comments as well as one of his favorites, “Gimme Shelter”, just because.
Ringo Starr, the drummer for that other mega-successful 1960s British rock n’ roll band, chatted with Alan Paul about the Stones drummer for the Wall Street Journal just hours after his death was announced. “He was a beautiful human being,” Starr said.
As Paul wrote,
[Starr and Watts] bonded not just over anchoring two of the most renowned and successful rock bands, but also over their shared minimalist styles.
“We liked to laughingly say that as a drummer he played even less than I did,” said Mr. Starr.
He added: “We had several nights out together, and he would come over here if they were in L.A. or we’d have a dinner with some of the boys. It was like a meetup relationship.”
Starr went on to talk about his favorite Charlie Watts moment—a night when he stoically maintained his easy-going feel while playing alongside two other drummers in a 25-piece jazz band. Read the full story from Ringo here.
Questlove (The Roots)
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is just as revered for his role as the de facto music historian for contemporary culture as he is for his work as the pioneering frontman-from-the-back for the legendary hip-hop crew, The Roots. A student of the music-listening experience as much as of the music itself, Quest recalls formative experiences as a fan and a drummer while listening to Watts and the Stones as a kid.
In a lengthy tribute for Rolling Stone, Questlove went into detail about how Watts’ understated playing affected his own approach to drumming.
“Charlie Watts truly knew what was called for in Rolling Stones songs. I’m not even talking about the Captain Obvious super hits, I’m talking in terms of the stuff that doesn’t get celebrated enough, like his groove on “Almost Hear You Sigh” on Steel Wheels or even their rendition of “Harlem Shuffle” on Dirty Work. … He was the anti-drummer. He wasn’t performative to let you know how hard he was fucking working. He gave you the basic foundation.”
“It’s a mighty task to check your ego at the door when you’re a drummer,” he added, “To not beg for attention or to do anything to distract from the team mentality. And I will say that those first five to six years in the Roots, to maintain that discipline, especially in a genre that wanted complete flash and trickery, my motivation in the back of my mind was always that Watts became a legend not because of who he was associated with, but because he’s providing the foundation. … His serious drumming and stoic drumming was kind of my blueprint with the Roots. Because Charlie did less, that made him more.”
The Roots drummer also imparted an old story from producer Don Was, broke down the unusual mechanics of Watts’ style (“Probably Charlie’s greatest trademark was the fact that he never hits the hi-hat when he hits the snare”), and spoke about his work in the jazz realm. Read Questlove’s full editorial on Charlie Watts via Rolling Stone here.