In Remembrance: Rolling Stones Drummer Charlie Watts, 1941-2021

Photo by: Michael Conen

Michael Conen

Photo by: Michael Conen

Cody Wagner, Staff Writer

Tragedy struck the world of rock and roll on Aug. 24 as Rolling Stone’s drummer Charlie Watts died from throat cancer at the age of 80. Watts was one of the biggest names in drumming as both his inspiration and influence paved the way for the Rolling Stones’ long-term success. Guitarist Brian May of Queen posted on Instagram saying, “He was the nicest gent you could ever meet. And such a pillar of strength for the Rolling Stones – to whom he brought a touch of Jazz and a mountain of pure Class.” 

Despite being in one of the biggest rock bands of all time, Watts had little interest in the genre of rock ‘n roll. Instead, Watts found solace and passion for Jazz from listening to Chico Hamilton play brushes on walking shoes. He admired the soft yet intricate sounds that were blended to create a unified and moderately tempoed beat. This admiration and respect for the genre motivated Watts to start playing the drums. Throughout London in the mid 50s, Watts formed his first band named “Blues Incorporated,” which also dove into elements of Blues, Jazz and R&B. “I went into rhythm and blues,” Watts recalled in a 2012 interview in The New Yorker. “When they asked me to play, I didn’t know what it was. I thought it meant Charlie Parker, played slow.”

His lack of interest for rock ‘n’ roll would soon change when he met three fellow musicians who were on their way to forming one of rock’s biggest acts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. Watts eventually joined the band in 1963 as the birth of The Rolling Stones started with a single recorded in July of that year called “Come On” by rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry.   

Soon after Watts joined the band, they shook the world of rock, earning status  as the co-kings of the British rock invasion, alongside The Beatles. Watt’s sound evolved with his improvisation on the cowbell for the song “Honky Tonk Women,” and correlated-yet-intricate groove for “Gimme Shelter,” provided key ingredients that improved the band’s sound and style. Watts also helped in recording even bigger tracks such as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Get Off My Cloud” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” Alongside the Stones, Watts developed other acts such as  the “Charlie Watts Orchestra,” “Two with Green,” “The Charlie Watts Quintet” and “The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie.”

Unlike his contemporaries, who engaged in every form of superstar excess, Watts was reportedly  one of those people who stuck to the shadows with a quiet and subtle personality. Stanley Booth’s book, “The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones,” described Watts as “the world’s politest man” as they embarked on their 1969 America tour. Nonetheless Watts’s drumming paved the way to musical greatness that would be reflected upon in the years that would come Bill Wyman, the Stones’ longtime bassist, told The New York Times, Watt’s playing  was “a byproduct of the group’s unusual chemistry.” While in most rock bands the guitarist follows the lead of the drummer, the Stones flipped that relationship — Richards, the guitarist, led the attack, with Watts (and all others) following along. Watts was heartbreakingly diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004 and received treatment through that year. Sadly, undisclosed medical complications forced the drummer to drop out of the Stones’ U.S. 2021 tour just weeks before passing. 

Fans and musicians alike have expressed heartfelt messages of appreciation and remembrance on social media, as they mourned for one of their own. Drummer Roger Taylor of Duran Duran tweeted, His simple style was a lesson to us all. When weheard Charlie play we realised there was never a need to over perform. It was all about the groove serving the band and, of course, the song. Most of all despite being in the greatest rock and roll band of all time, his self-effacing manner and humility was a shining light for all of us in the world to follow.

Thank you, Charlie

 Joan Jett tweeted, “He was the most elegant and dignified drummer in rock and roll,” who “played exactly what was needed – no more – no less.” Charlie, you will be forever missed. R.I.P