Charlie Watts, secretly the most important member of the Rolling Stones, passed away on August 24 at age 80. It is only right and natural that millions are grieving and that many distinguished musicians are paying profuse respects to the man who provided a panoply of impeccable rhythms for one of the greatest rock groups ever—especially from 1965 (Out of Our Heads) to 1981 (Tattoo You).
Part of what made the Stones so great was their stylistic promiscuity and their ability to stamp their compelling personalities on a wide range of genres. They couldn't do that with the panache they showed without a master musician behind the drum kit. Like fellow late, great English drummer Ginger Baker, Watts had deep roots in and love for jazz and blues; both played in Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated before achieving rock-and-roll fame with Cream and the Stones, respectively. Those passions would translate smoothly to the Rolling Stones, whose proclivities for Black American music were rampant. Name a British rock group who loved Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry more.
In a nice bit of symmetry, several Stones songs were sampled by Black American hip-hop producers, including the fantastically funky break from “Honky Tonk Women,” which Ultramagnetic MCs, Public Enemy, and LL Cool J, among others, used to devastating effect. In addition, “I Am Star Wars” by Bill Callahan's lo-fi project Smog evidenced indie rock acknowledging the power of that 1969 single's cowbell-laced rhythmic magic. Similarly, Big Audio Dynamite, the electronic-dance-music unit headed by the Clash's Mick Jones, lifted Watts's deep-in-the-pocket “Honky Tonk” slaps for “Union Jack.” Chas had the funk, and then some.
Read a dozen or two Watts obituaries and you'll see a recurring theme about his sartorial sophistication and gentlemanly demeanor. Portland writer Nathaniel Friedman nailed the oddity of the drummer's situation with this tweet: “Charlie Watts was the first, and is still the greatest, guy in the band who seems like he belongs in a different band.” In a group famous for their debauchery, Watts was so not the rock-and-roll animal. While bandmates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards kept the tabloids aflutter with their drug busts, divorces, and flashy paramours, Bill Wyman kept meticulous records of how many sexual conquests he had (somewhere in the four-figure range, he claimed, and who would doubt him?), and Brian Jones tragically flamed out at age 27, Watts unfashionably stayed married to his wife, Shirley Ann Shepherd, for 57 years and on the side indulged his love of jazz with his own ensembles. And speaking of non-Stones work, the 2000 album Charlie Watts Jim Keltner Project, which no obit or tribute I've seen has mentioned, paid homage to several jazz drummers in an unconventional manner, incorporating global influences into its roiling rhythmic stew.
Nonetheless, the normally moderate Watts had a rough spell in the mid '80s when his drinking and drug intake got out of control. During this period, according to Keith Richards's autobiography, Life, Charlie donned one of his spiffy Savile Row suits, put on some cologne, and walked down the hall to his bandmate's hotel room and punched Jagger after the singer taunted him by calling Watts “my drummer.” The force of the blow knocked Mick into a platter of smoked fish and almost sent him tumbling out of the window. It was Charlie's way of reminding Jagger that he was Watts's vocalist.
But thankfully, Watts mostly used his hands (and feet) to help steer the Stones through their many fruitful permutations, all with unparalleled nonchalance and the best poker face in music. Maybe he made it look too easy. And that impression, combined with his distaste for solos and preference for a minimalist setup, caused those who preferred drum-kit excess and showboating in their timekeepers to underestimate Watts. Mike Edison, who wrote the brilliant book Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters, addressed this topic: “Charlie's style was seemingly uncomplicated, but it was impossible to duplicate. He was an enlightened savant, unchained. His unique, old-world sense of syncopation and newfound futurist frenzy pushed the Rolling Stones over the top into an unparalleled stratum of audacity, courage, and revolt... [H]e never overplayed his hand, never chased flashy fills, never competed with the rest of the band for air space, never played anything just because he could. He found nuance in a music that often had little room for it, and along with his greatest conspirator, Keith Richards, he gave the Stones their swaggering beat.”
Of course, the Stones are renowned as paragons of Classic Rock™, but they flitted among genres with imperial magnificence, filtering elements of blues, soul, psychedelia, country, funk, reggae, new wave, disco, and dub into their savvy songwriting. Even their passing fancies with psych rock (“2000 Light Years from Home,” “We Love You”) and disco (“Miss You,” “If I Was a Dancer”) yielded fantastic artifacts. My partial Charlie Watts highlight reel would include the following: the elegant stampede of “Paint It, Black”; the skipping-through-the-flowers jauntiness of “She's a Rainbow”; the libidinous funkitude of “Hot Stuff” and “Monkey Man”; the head-nodding, martial groove of "Can You Hear the Music”; the sly Latin shuffle that animates the coda of “Can't You Hear Me Knocking”; the nimble blues lope of “Jigsaw Puzzle”; the pugilistic snares of “Loving Cup (Alternate Take)”; the dusty motorik chug of “Edward's Thrump Up”; and the swift, crisp rimshots of “Heaven.” I could go on for days, but the common threads here are an unmatched cool, uncanny precision, and distinctive tones. Watts was the Jaki Liebezeit of British Invasion drummers; both of their beats are instantly identifiable and indispensable.
Watts had the hauteur of a jazz snob behind the drums, as if he were slumming it in the multi-million-dollar enterprise that is the Rolling Stones. Yet he was the linchpin of their world-dominating sound. Charlie was a unique musician, and it's hard to fathom that the Rolling Stones can continue to rock as supremely without him.