Despite being in one of the biggest, most famous bands of all time, Charlie Watts was never the classic “rock star.” Contrary to the outsize personalities of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the late Rolling Stones drummer was quiet, often ambivalent about fame, and more at home playing jazz in a club than bashing away to a packed stadium. But it was that temperament, coupled with his skills behind the kit, that kept the Stones going for nearly 60 years. “Charlie’s always there, but he doesn’t want to let everybody know,” Richards once said. “There’s very few drummers like that. 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 Stones.”
In the wake of his death on Tuesday at age 80, revisit some of the stories about Watts’s eccentricities, stoicism, and unflappable nature that made him one of the greatest drummers of all time and by far the most shockingly interesting Stone.
1. He Punched Mick Jagger
There are a few versions of this story, but the gist is the same — after a night out in Amsterdam with Richards, Jagger drunkenly called Watts’s hotel room at 5 a.m. and asked, “Where’s my drummer?” when Watts picked up. Irate, Watts got out of bed, shaved, got dressed to the nines in a bespoke suit, went to Richards’s room, and punched Jagger in the face. The better version of the story has it ending with Watts saying, “Don’t ever call me your drummer again. You’re my fucking singer!” That detail isn’t included in Richards’s retelling of it, but Keith’s version, which appeared in his autobiography, Life, includes the detail of Jagger falling over on a tray of smoked salmon and nearly falling out of the window into a canal. The only reason Richards stopped the fight? Jagger was wearing Keith’s wedding jacket.
2. He Didn’t Care for Rock and Roll
Growing up, Watts listened almost solely to jazz rather than the ’50s rock idols of the day. “Part of it is that I never was a teenager,” he once said of his youth. “I’d be off in the corner talking about Kierkegaard. I always took myself too seriously and thought Buddy Holly was a great joke.” While he’d later get into rock and roll through the blues, he never lost his love of jazz. When the Stones were on breaks, he recorded several albums in the genre and performed with his own bands, including the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie, which featured his childhood friend Dave Green on upright bass.
3. He Reluctantly Joined the Stones
Watts gigged as a drummer while working a day job at an advertising agency, ultimately joining Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, a band with a fluid membership that included Jagger and future Cream bassist Jack Bruce, among others. He became friendly with the Stones in their earliest years, once telling them they had to get “a fucking great drummer,” a role he didn’t think worked. As they cycled through stickmen, they always held out hope he’d agree to join them, which he finally did in 1963, with Korner’s encouragement. Pianist Ian Stewart, who became best known as the unofficial sixth member of the group, recalled how it all happened: “I said to Charlie, ‘Look, you’re in the band. That’s it.’ And Charlie said, ‘Yeah, all right then, but I don’t know what my mum’s gonna say.’” He didn’t have the highest hopes for the band — in 1981, he said, “I never thought it would last five minutes, but I figured I’d live that five minutes to the hilt because I love them.”
4. He Had a Wry Sense of Humor
While he came off as quiet in most interviews, he liked to have a laugh. Stewart once descried him and Richards as “a fuckin’ comedy team” and his pose with a donkey on the cover of the live album Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out! is a classic. Then, there’s this letter he wrote to Rolling Stone after critic Jon Landau panned their 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request while praising Watts’s drumming:
5. He Never Missed a Gig
The band’s upcoming No Filter tour was going to mark the first time Watts didn’t perform with the Stones since he joined, a remarkable feat considering his age and sporadic health issues. During the Stones’ debauched ’70s heyday, Watts was relatively sober, but his dabbling in alcohol, heroin, and amphetamines became more of a habit by the early ’80s. Richards, the notorious addict, was part of the reason Watts got clean. “I passed out in the studio, and that to me was a blatant lack of professionalism. Keith picked me up — this is Keith, who I’ve seen in all sorts of states doing all sorts of things — and he said, ‘This is the sort of thing you do when you’re 60,’” Watts later recalled.
He quit everything, cold turkey, after falling down a flight of stairs and breaking his ankle. “It really brought it home to me how far down I’d gone,” he said in 2000. “I just stopped everything — drinking, smoking, taking drugs, everything, all at once. I just thought, Enough is enough.” Despite giving up cigarettes, Watts developed throat cancer in 2004 but beat it after surgeries and six weeks of radiation treatment.
6. He Was Married for Almost His Entire Music Career
Watts met Shirley Ann Shepherd in 1961 during his first rehearsal with Korner’s band and they married three years later, making him the first Stone to tie the knot. She stuck with him through all of his fame and substance abuse issues, and together they had one daughter, Seraphina, and two grandchildren.
“She is an incredible woman,” he once said. “The one regret I have of this life is that I was never home enough. But she always says when I come off tour that I am a nightmare and tells me to go back out.”
7. He Had a Great Signature
Whether it was a piece of correspondence or an autograph on one of his works of art, Watts would sign things with “C.R. Watts (drummer, The Rolling Stones).” Even Halsdon Arabians, the horse farm he owned with Shirley, currently has “Mr. and Mrs. C.R. Watts, Owners” on its contact page.
8. He Sketched Drawings of All of His Hotel Beds
One of Watts’s complaints about life on the road is that he had trouble sleeping because he had no one to go to bed with. So, he passed the time in his hotel rooms by sketching his beds. “I keep a diary of drawings. I’ve drawn every bed I’ve slept in on tour since 1967. It’s a fantastic non-book. I used to take a lot of things that keep you awake, and I’d have nothing to do. So I have all these hotel rooms recorded,” he told Rolling Stone in 1996. “What’s nice about it is, it’s visual, and it just goes on and on, and you think, “Is this ever gonna end?” You’ve got Washington in ’67 and then you’ve got Washington a couple of years ago, and they’re kind of the same.”
9. His Warm-up Routine Was Based on Jazz Showgirls
To loosen up before gigs, Watts would stand backstage and perform a series of hip wiggles that amused Richards to no end. He said he got the routine from the dancers at New York City’s famed Cotton Club. See him in action:
10. He Loved Suits and Style
Inspired by his father’s love of tailored clothes, Watts became somewhat of an expert in the world of fashion, owning over 200 suits. He cited Fred Astaire and jazz legends like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington as his style inspirations and landed on best-dressed lists in Vanity Fair and GQ.
11. He Also Loved Cars, But Couldn’t Drive
Watts collected vintage automobiles just for their aesthetics, as he didn’t have a driver’s license. “Charlie is a great English eccentric,” Richards said. “I mean, how else can you describe a guy who buys a 1936 Alfa Romeo just to look at the dashboard? Can’t drive — just sits there and looks at it.” Bandmate Ronnie Wood once claimed that Watts also had bespoke suits made to match each of his cars, just to look period-appropriate while sitting in them and listening to the engines run.
12. He Was Obsessed With Aesthetics
In addition to his love of fashion and vintage cars, Watts’s fixation on visuals led him to pen a cartoon book about Charlie Parker, illustrate the back cover of the Stones’ 1967 LP Between the Buttons, and help design their massive stage rigs alongside Mick Jagger. As Richards once said, it was more than just a love of the arts: “At the end of the show, he’ll leave the stage, and the sirens will be going, limousines waiting, and Charlie will walk back to his drum kit and change the position of his drumsticks by 2 millimeters. Then he’ll look at it. Then if it looks good, he’ll leave. He has this preoccupation with aesthetics, this vision of how things should be that nobody will ever know about except Charlie. The drums are about to be stripped down and put in the back of a truck, and he cannot leave if he’s got it in his mind that he’s left his sticks in a displeasing way. It’s so Zen.”
13. He Wouldn’t Play Drum Solos
It’s not that Watts didn’t like hearing drum solos — he’d often tell people to check out Buddy Rich’s — but the man never enjoyed doing them himself. “I can’t do them, really,” he said in 2012. “I get fed up halfway through attempting to do one, so I don’t really do it. But I love hearing other people doing them, certain other people. I’m more interested in drums as an accompaniment thing. I’ve always been like that. When I was young, a lot of the records when I was young I used to like were really more about the rhythm section than a drum solo.”
14. He Couldn’t Imagine Life Without Drumming
Going back decades, Watts said on multiple occasions that he’d be fine if the Stones called it quits, but he’d be lost without the drums. “For me, there’s no other way of life. If tomorrow it packs up, fine. ‘C’est la vie,’ as they say in Germany,” he quipped in 1973. In 1989, he explained that Shirley hated the noise he made at home, so he didn’t have a drum kit in his house: “To play the drums, I have to go on the road, and to go on the road I have to leave home and it’s like a terribly vicious circle that’s always been my life. I don’t like living out of suitcases. I hate being away from home. I always do tours thinking they’re the last one, and at the end of them I always leave the band.”
As recently as 2018, he said, “I love playing the drums and I love playing with Mick and Keith and Ronnie, I don’t know about the rest of it. It wouldn’t bother me if the Rolling Stones said that’s it … enough,” before adding, “I don’t know what I would do if I stopped. Keith is a great one for saying once you’re going, keep going. The big worry for me is being well enough.”
More From This Series
- Watch the Last Rolling Stones Performance With Charlie Watts
- Ringo Starr, Elton John, and More Remember Rolling Stones Drummer Charlie Watts
- ‘Never Call Me Your Drummer Again’