Obituary: Charlie Watts (1941-2021)

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By Gary Cordwell

“Charlie’s good tonight innee?”

You’ll have heard the anecdote countless times already, but it bears repeating. 1984. Amsterdam. Charlie Watts receives a call in his hotel room from a somewhat inebriated Mick Jagger, demanding to know where “his drummer” is. Watts hangs up, puts on a Saville Row suit, a freshly shined pair of shoes, a dab of fine cologne. He heads downstairs, finds Jagger, decks him with a single punch, politely informs him that “I’m not your drummer, you’re my fucking singer”, and walks back to his room.

Charlie Watts, ladies and gentlemen. Quiet, steely, no-nonsense, immaculately dressed and possessed of a singularly brilliant sense of timing. The world is a lesser place in his absence.

The legendary Rolling Stones drummer died yesterday, age 80. Only a week ago the Stones had announced that he would have to sit out the forthcoming American leg of their tour while he recovered from a routine medical procedure. His sudden death has sent a tangible shockwave through the music world. The outpouring of love and affection for a man who seemed to physically wither in the spotlight has been universal.

We all know the facts. Joined the Rolling Stones in 1963 and was, literally, a lifer. He came from a jazz background which informed his playing, giving it that crucial swing which was lacking in so many other rock and pop acts of the time. He has played on more classic albums and singles than most musicians could imagine in their wildest dreams. He formed his Big Band to play his beloved jazz classics during down time from being in the biggest band in the world. Ever the contrarian, Watts developed a drug habit in the mid-80’s while the rest of his bandmates were busy cleaning up. He decided to stop – on a dime, with no fuss or fanfare, when he realised that he was beginning to not recognise who he was.

He married Shirley Ann Shepherd in 1964 and remained married to her for the rest of his life – again, not your typical rock star behaviour. But was Watts ever a rock star? Only in name. He genuinely seemed to be completely baffled by the stardom, the showbiz, the artifice. He was always at least one step removed, viewing it all as an outsider, with an air of detatched wry amusement, perfectly happy to let Mick ‘n Keef strike the poses, handle the PR and live the lifestyle. The most reluctant megastar on the planet, always giving the impression of a jazzer – happiest playing a small, dark club somewhere, occasionally, begrudgingly heading off on the road with the Stones to help his old mates out.

But we weren’t fooled. He could downplay his contributions and shuffle around the world, an Eyeore in a pinstripe suit, giving his if-I-really-must answers to mindless questions he’d heard a million times, but we have the music he left behind. His legacy. And he can’t escape the timeless brilliance of that. His groove was absolutely vital to the rapidly developing sound of the Stones. Richards frequently referred to him as the engine room of the band and that’s exactly what he was. He held the band together, watch any live footage of them and you’ll see Keith, Mick and Ronnie looking back to the drum riser countless times, checking in, seeing what the boss was doing. Put any other drummer in there and it would have been a mess, a car crash, it would have flown off the rails in a heartbeat. Watts’ instinctive genius and swing was the glue. Would Keith Richards have developed his trademark style if he hadn’t been playing alongside Charlie?

What to listen to to remember Charlie at his peak? Where does one begin – the opening groove to ‘Honky Tonk Women’, ‘Beast Of Burden’, ‘Sway’, ‘Stray Cat Blues’, the irresistible dirty funk of ‘Monkey Man’, ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ or the masterclass of ‘Gimme Shelter’? It doesn’t matter, what does matter is that you play it, play it loud and remember one of the greats.

RIP Charlie Watts. Gentleman. Drummer. Rolling Stone.