From my forthcoming book, Legends of British Blues:
Charlie Watts (Charles Robert Watts)
Main Instrument: Drums
Born: London, England; June 2, 1941
Died: London, England; August 24, 2021
Recommended Cuts: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (The Rolling Stones). Rolling Stones friend Pete Townsend claimed that Charlie’s drums weren’t properly recorded until Exile on Main Street, which showcased five terrific blues songs.
Charlie Watts grew up in Wembley near London, a truck driver’s son. At age ten, Watts discovered jazz. He began playing music on a banjo he had turned into a snare drum. Watts’s parents gave him his first drum kit in 1955. He practiced drumming to jazz records. He studied at the Harrow School of Art until 1960, then worked as a graphic designer for an advertising company while playing drums with local bands in coffee shops and clubs. In 1961 he met Alexis Korner, who invited Watts to join him in Blues Incorporated. In 1962 Charlie met Brian Jones, Ian “Stu” Stewart, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. After they matched his pay rate, in early 1963 Watts agreed to join The Rolling Stones.
Watts has had many non-Stones projects. In the late 70s, he joined Ian Stewart in the rootsie boogie and blues band Rocket 88, which featured many top UK jazz, blues and R&B players. He toured the world in the 1980s with the 32-piece Charlie Watts Orchestra (which included Rocket 88’s Jack Bruce) and released several LPs. Charlie’s previously-moderate use of alcohol and drugs became problematic, especially when he became addicted to heroin: “I became totally another person around 1983”, he confessed, “and came out of it about 1986. I nearly lost my wife and everything over my behavior.” It was Charlie who selected bassist Darryl Jones (ex-Miles Davis and Sting) to replace Bill Wyman after Wyman left the Stones. In 1991, Watts formed the Charlie Watts Quintet, a tribute to Charlie Parker, releasing Warm And Tender (1993) and Long Ago And Far Away (1996), jazz performances of American standards. The Charlie Watts Tentet recorded Watts At Scott’s (2004) at Ronnie Scott’s. In that same year Watts was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent radiotherapy. The cancer went into remission.
In 2006 Modern Drummer voted Watts into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame. In 2009 he performed with The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie. Watts continued to play with the Stones until August 5, 2021 when he announced he would not participate in their 2021 tour due to health reasons.
Trivia: Charlie had a compulsive habit of sketching every new hotel room he occupied immediately upon entering it. He kept every sketch, but didn’t know why he felt the need to do this.
During the mid-1980s, an inebriated Jagger phoned Charlie’s hotel room late at night asking where “my drummer” was. Watts reportedly got up, shaved, put on in a suit, tie and freshly shined shoes, descended the stairs and punched Jagger right in the face, saying, “Don’t ever call me ‘your drummer’ again. You’re my fucking singer!”
The British newspaper The Telegraph named Watts one of the World’s Best Dressed Men. In 2006 Vanity Fair elected Watts into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame where he joined his style icon, Fred Astaire.