Charlie Watts Held the Rolling Stones Together for Half a Century

Watts’s authority was such that he interacted with the other players in a way that no other drummer of the era did. Photo: TV Times/Future Publishing via Getty Images

(Editor’s Note: The writer is the journalist Bill Wyman, not the Rolling Stones bass player of the same name.)

A hotel in Amsterdam, October 1984. The Rolling Stones have gathered to discuss their future after several years of estrangement. Mick Jagger, the singer, and his lifetime musical partner, guitarist Keith Richards — both highly inebriated — discuss a new album very late one night.

The 1980s are not pretty for the Rolling Stones. The eventual album to come from this meeting, Dirty Work, would prove one of the Stones’ least-loved efforts. Jagger is, in fact, distracted by a solo career; the other band members aren’t happy about that, or about his growing hauteur after almost two decades of managing the band’s affairs.

At 5 a.m., Jagger decides he needs to talk to Charlie Watts, the band’s drummer. He calls Watts’s hotel room.

As Stones biographer Stephen Davis tells the now-essential Charlie Watts tale:

“Izzat my drummer, then?” Mick bawled. “Where’s my fucking drummer? Get yer arse down here right away!” …

Charlie got up, shaved, put on a fresh white shirt and a tailored Savile Row double-breasted suit, tied his tie, slipped on bench-crafted shoes from Lobb in St. James. 

“Charlie came down,” Keith said, “grabbed Mick, went boom! Dished him a left hook that knocked him into a plate of smoked salmon and then he almost floated out the window and into a canal in Amsterdam. 

“My favorite jacket, which Mick was wearing, got ruined.” 

“Don’t ever call me ‘your drummer’ again,” Charlie growled between clenched teeth. “You’re my fucking singer.”

In his late teens, in the early years of the 1960s, Charlie Watts was a poised and unflappable young man. He was a drummer and loved and played jazz, albeit a somewhat quaint British idea of what jazz was at the time, called “trad jazz,” which sounded a lot like what Americans called Dixieland. He was quiet and possessed the simple virtues of faithfulness and dutifulness. He was the kind of person who, when he eventually got married, would remain by all accounts faithful and monogamous over some six decades, and when he got a job, he would occupy it steadfastly for that same period.

Existing at any other time, he is likely to have lived out his life in happy obscurity. But he had the good fortune to grow up in a society on the cusp of massive change. Watts was born in 1941 to working-class parents; he grew up in Wembley, northwest of London; decades later, the town would be best known for a massive stadium, which the Stones would, of course, play. He was obsessed with jazz from a young age, entranced by the saxophone of Earl Bostic and the drums of Chico Hamilton. He got his first drum set at 11. He was good at art and duly went to the Harrow Art School to study graphic design; the British art-school system was a petri dish for the roiling musical innovation at the time. He expanded his interests to be-bop, particularly Charlie Parker — even designing a children’s book, Ode to a High Flying Bird, dedicated to him — and soon fell into the London trad-jazz scene.

But that world was being roiled, some thought, by a new strain of adopted American music, which was developing a scruffy but loyal band of followers in London. They were obsessed with records made by Black musicians from America, songs that came to England on heavy vinyl LPs obtained by mail order, dark and pumping visions from a culture and society thousands of years away played by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James. Three of those London kids — Jagger, Richards, and a blond, decadent guitarist named Brian Jones — wanted to play music like that and needed a drummer.

Watts was a purist and sneered at both rock and roll and the blues, but it’s possible that, whatever the music they were playing, he saw something in the potential of the Rolling Stones. In Keith Richards’s telling, which might be true, Watts one night in late 1962 was playing in a band on the same bill as a rudimentary version of the Stones with interchanging drummers: “We did our set and Charlie was knocked out by it,” Richards would recall in his autobiography. “‘You’re great, man,’ he says, ‘but you need a fucking good drummer.’ So we said, ‘Charlie, we can’t afford you, man.’ Because Charlie had a job [at an ad agency] and just wanted to do weekend gigs. Charlie used to play anything then — he’d play pubs, anything, just to play, cause he loves to play with good people. But he always had to do it for economic reasons. By this time we’re getting three, four gigs a week. ‘Well, we can’t pay you as much as that band but… ,’ we said. So he said, Ok and told the other band to fuck off: ‘I’m gonna play with these guys.’ That was it. When we got Charlie, that really made it for us.”

The band’s reputation grew. Back then, the (small) audience liked Jones, who could wow the crowds with his approximation of the slide guitar of Elmore James on a song like “Dust My Broom.” And they slowly started to notice the lead singer, who was small and had, by the teen-idol standards of the day, “crude” features but could still command a club’s attention when standing on a small table to sing. A sophisticated ear would have noticed that this marriage might have fallen apart had the group not had a solid, implacable backdrop to their music in the form of Watts’s drums.

Watts soon developed an almost mystical connection to Richards, who, it quickly transpired, was a signal talent himself. “The whole heart and soul of this band is Keith and Charlie,” Richards wrote in his autobiography. “I mean, that’s apparent to anybody who’s breathing, or has a musical bone in his body. That is where the engine room is.” Richards’s guitar playing evolved; it became elusive and sometimes twisting, sometimes suggesting things that weren’t there, but always sinuousy tied to Watts’s crack beat.

The Stones were dirty and impolite and played a music hardly anyone in England had ever heard of. But there was an alchemy in the band that was unique, and it revolved around Watts, whose authority was such that he interacted with the other players in a way that no other drummer of the era did. The Who’s Keith Moon was a wild man, of course, but was always marching to his own (ahem) drummer; Ringo Starr, some fans forget, was sometimes replaced on early Beatles recordings by a studio-session man; and a virtuoso like Ginger Baker had yet to make his presence felt. Watts centered the band musically and almost intellectually.

For one thing, Watts had swing; from the start, the Rolling Stones were tight and had an irresistible groove that stood apart from other bands’ stolid work. But then came the subtleties of Watts’s interactions with the other players. The band’s bassist, Bill Wyman (no relation to this writer), joined late too, and he and Watts worked in lockstep together, as any respectable rhythm section would. But Wyman was a minimalist who considered it his job to keep his role as unobtrusive as possible; this gave Watts a little more space than many drummers had.

At the same time, there was something to Watts’s relationship with Jagger. All of the Stones were in awe of James Brown, whom they got to watch up close, and both Jagger and Watts appreciated how Brown interacted with his drummers. Watts said he always watched Jagger onstage, trying to anticipate his moves. The flamboyance that both Jagger and Richards used to impressive effect in the Stones was given free rein by the foundation Watts gave them. His chops allowed him to easily accomplish the frenzied rave-ups of, say, one of the band’s early takes on a Chuck Berry number. Soon they were using his sound to propel their most notable songs, like the brutal eight beats that kick off “Paint It Black” and then the cacophony he delivers through the rest of the song, mixed up absurdly high on the right channel of the recording.

In 1964, the band were already stars in England and about to become a sensation in the United States. They were rich and famous, playing tumultuous, violent shows across Great Britain, and at the center of a movement that would shake Western society. Watts, at this point, sneaked off and married his longtime girlfriend, Shirley. He didn’t tell his bandmates about it for weeks.

Watts, who died August 24, 2021 at age 80, was steadfast. As the years, and then the decades, rolled on, the band got bigger and still bigger. He stayed courtly and soft-spoken. The Stones would go out regularly, playing larger and larger shows, bringing in larger and larger paychecks. Watts remained himself, observing life from the drummer’s chair. “To have to live with being some teenybop idol for Charlie is very difficult, because he’s not like that at all,” Richards wrote of Watts. “Charlie Watts to me is the most honest man in the world — to himself, to everybody. He never even wanted to be a pop star. It still makes him cringe.” Bassist Wyman quotes Watts’s mordant encapsulation of the band’s career in one of his memoirs: “Five years of working, 20 years of hanging around.”

Watts didn’t survive the Stones’ famously toxic environment entirely. He is said to have eschewed drugs from the start; but during the 1980s (during the dark years of Jagger’s solo efforts), he began drinking and ended up a heroin addict. (He duly took to 60 Minutes to talk to Ed Bradley about it in 1994.) He dressed well; by the 1990s, he might wear a bespoke double-breasted suit onstage, and ultimately he ended up in Vanity Fair’s International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame. But he didn’t flail the drums or mug for the crowd; the idea of a Charlie Watts drum solo at a Rolling Stones concert was unthinkable. He just did his job; he never missed a show in his entire career drumming for the band.

On records, the band always used Watts to good effect, sometimes delaying his entrance for several bars, as on “Brown Sugar” or “Monkey Man,” and other times leading off the songs with him (“Under My Thumb”). This happened a lot as the decades passed, when the band needed to signal that the their old energy was there, as on Watts’s furious burst at the start of the latter-day single “Mixed Emotion.” Later, he could retreat when he needed to — what, after all, did “Gimme Shelter” need besides that rock-hard backdrop? But again and again, the purest distillations of the sound of the Rolling Stones — which is to say, perhaps the most notable sound of its era — was when Richard and Watts played alone together, as on the opening bars of “Street Fighting Man.”

And if you need Watts’ talents distilled, just listen to “Jumping Jack Flash,” where Watts’ drumming rises up out of the murk and then takes its place pushing the beat almost as a co-lead instrument with Richard’s guitar; as the song winds its way through chorus and verse and expansive instrumental break, Watts’s presence is unyielding. Jagger and Richards preached (and to a great extent lived lives of) hedonism and excess; we forget sometimes that their lifestyle and their fame rested on art that paradoxically exhibited control and taste. Jagger and Richards were of course unstoppable talents; still, one could make the case that the Rolling Stones would have been something significantly less, and certainly a weaker musical force, without the talents of Charlie Watts.

Charlie Watts Held the Rolling Stones Together from Day One