The Simple Genius of Charlie Watts, As Told Through 6 Classic Rolling Stones Songs

His most memorable moments with the Stones aren’t five-minute drum solos, but rather small, precise elements that could only have been created by Charlie Watts. Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images

Charlie Watts was the rock in the Rolling Stones’ roll, the understated yet impeccably dressed and perpetually abashed drummer who had a bleacher seat to one of the greatest rock-and-roll shows on Earth. Watts died Tuesday, August 24, at the age of 80; a cause of death has not yet been announced, but he had been battling health issues recently, resulting in his stepping down from the Stones’ upcoming rescheduled 2021 tour dates. He’d never missed a show.

Watts was born in London in 1941. He was an avid jazz fan from a very early age, and had a specific adoration of Charlie Parker. After a short stint playing in various blues bands (most notably Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated) he joined the Rolling Stones in 1963, and they haven’t played a gig without him since. Watts was conspicuously absent from the headlines that his fellow bandmates grabbed early and often in the ’60s, especially when it came to the consumption of recreational drugs and also in the matter of rebelling against the Establishment; Charlie was not arrested for peeing on a gas-station wall, nor was he at Keith Richards’s Redlands country estate when the police raided it for suspicion of drugs, sending Keith and Mick to the slammer. While the other Stones consorted with movie stars, fashion models, “It” girls and other society darlings, Charlie quietly married his longtime love, the former Shirley Ann Shepherd, in 1964, and they have stayed together through the decades. While Mick, Keith, and Brian were dressing in paisley, Charlie favored Savile Row, and in 2006, Vanity Fair named him to its International Best Dressed List.

Watts continued to pursue his devotion to jazz through a series of non-Stones projects, like his illustrated children’s book Ode to a Highflying Bird, about the life of Charlie Parker. He joined forces with the Stones’ longtime keyboardist and forever fifth Stone, Ian Stewart, in a jazz outfit called Rocket 88. In the 1980s, while the Stones were on hiatus, he put together a big band, the Charlie Watts Orchestra, and in the 1990s, formed the Charlie Watts Quintet, which focused on the jazz music he never stopped loving. Neither project ever played large venues but they were both projects he pursued seriously. The ’80s were also the time that Watts finally fell into addiction, dabbling with heroin and alcohol. “‘You should do this when you’re older,’” he once recalled Keith Richards advising him. “Keith telling me this! But it stuck and I just stopped along with everything else.”

Unlike many of his contemporaries, like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham or Keith Moon of the Who, Charlie’s drumming style and drum kit remained close to his jazz roots. His kit was Spartan, consisting of about seven items total, including cymbals, and that never changed — even Ringo Starr, who also started with a small kit, expanded as the Beatles progressed. “I was always brought up with the theory that the drummer is an accompanist,” he said in 2008. His most memorable moments with the Stones aren’t five-minute drum solos, but rather small, precise elements that could only have been created by Charlie Watts. Here are six examples that showcase the best of Watts’s consistent focus on substance over flash, and his belief that less was more.

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965)

Yes, of course, it’s the guitar riff that makes this song memorable — but that riff would be floating aimlessly without Charlie Watts’s steady, unflagging beat holding the thing down. It gives Mick Jagger the scaffolding to hang the lyrics on, and there is not a greater moment in a Rolling Stones concert than that three-second drum break in the song, about a minute in: no no no [break] that’s what I say. There are three of these moments in the song, each consisting of only ten beats, but it is integral to the song’s greatness: the combined anticipation that it is approaching, like pulling the spring back on a flying toy, and then the release as it soars into the air. Charlie’s beats are that moment between takeoff and crash landing. Your fists punctuate the air, your fingers drum on the steering wheel, your hips rock back and forth, for each of those ten beats. HEY HEY HEY / THAT’S WHAT I SAY. 

“Gimme Shelter” (1969)

In a song that is by design and intention over the top, Charlie sifted through everything that was going on — Merry Clayton’s primal wail, the exquisite guitar lines, the snnnnnkkk of the güiro — and found the sonic gaps that needed to be filled. One two three four five cymbal crash. That precision and the timing, how he holds back a split second between each of those beats, creates a specific darkness and malice. The simplicity of his contribution here is its genius.

“Paint It, Black” (1966)

The opening track to Aftermath, “Paint It, Black” is a feverish mélange of frantic Khachaturian sturm und drang shoved into leather pants with a sitar line for good measure. The reason this chaos worked is because Charlie Watts counted them in with a near-orchestral flourish, then faded into the background. There’s a time change which he switches to without effort, garnished with a tasteful flourish on the cymbals, before dropping back into the original time signature. He swings from formality to sleaze as the song requires, and that is not as easy as it sounds. Paint it black, you devil.

“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (1971)

Charlie’s work on “CYHMK” is an incredible showcase of at least half a dozen different techniques, approaches, rhythms, and beats. His rhythmic sensitivity is at an all-time high here, and as noted in other songs in this list, his syncopated fluency throughout is the glue that holds this seven-plus-minute ecstatic ramble of a song from collapsing. He’s probably not the instrument you’re most focused on during this song, but put on some headphones and check out the jazz shuffle he mixes into the bridge during both Bobby Keys’s sax and Mick Taylor’s guitar solos. Charlie even figures out how to make it all swing toward the end, hitting the cymbals with a bit of a Latin flair.

“Street Fighting Man” (1968)

There is so much about this song that is perfection, starting with the way they composed the music for this anti-war protest song while still keeping it a rock-and-roll song. The guitar intro serves as a reveille, and then there is Charlie Watts, striking the drum to bring us to attention before providing the perfect soundtrack to match that opening line: “Everywhere I hear the sound / Of marching, charging feet.” That is precisely what you hear.

“Midnight Rambler” (1969)

The first thing I think of when I listen to Charlie’s work on “Rambler” is stamina. It’s a heavy, sweaty seven minutes of driving this particular, um, vehicle down the road and through the swamp, putting up the guard rails, and having to keep an eye on the other four characters traveling alongside him who are prone to following their own whims. I love that moment about two minutes in when the tempo picks up, and he heralds it with these easy, no-sweat rolls to the hi-hat; about 20 seconds later, he pulls the beat out and into the pocket before you know what’s happening, hanging in there as the band cruises through the bridge and into the song’s exquisitely tense conclusion. God damn.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Shake Your Hips” (1972), “Stupid Girl” (1966), “Start Me Up” (1981), “Sway” (1971), “Dance (Pt. 1)” (1981)

The Simple Genius of Charlie Watts in 6 Classic Stones Songs