Charlie Watts (1941-2021). A Tribute.

The passing of Charlie Watts has provoked many tributes in the UK. And yet his reputation and influence go way beyond these shores. T Bruce Wittet, a Canadian musician and writer, pays tribute to “the drummer who listened and allowed the music to move him”:

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Charlie Watts in 2008. Photo credit: Siebbi/ Creative Commons

From the beginning of his long tenure with the Rolling Stones in 1963, Charlie got it right – to his way of thinking. And he stuck to his guns, to his way of thinking, through decades of fashion and folly, never even casting a wayward eye at the trends parading by.

The expression “cut from a different cloth” seemed tailor-made, pun intended, for Charlie Watts. He loathed casual sneakers, trainers, T-shirts, jeans, and off-the-rack suits in favour of the Saville Row offerings. When he was young, he’d get out of his home turf in Wembley with his dad on a journey to east London where his dad’s tailor worked. It’s a scene that may provide context for the Rolling Stone album cover for Between the Buttons. Charlie’s essential conservatism guided him through rough waters in his career just as the well-worn jazz 32-bar chorus steered him to destinations unknown to the GPS.

Indeed, if you visited Charlie Watts in New York City, you’d take a yellow cab to midtown and a hotel with a hidden (to the public) tower and you’d be allowed through doors unknown to civilians and buzzed up by security – if Charlie validated your visit. He’d answer the door of his room dressed in a suit that’d pass editorial approval for the cover of GQ, yet which was standard fare for him lounging, maybe pruning the roses. His hotel room was strategically placed, offering a view of 52nd Street, the jazz mecca in previous decades. The Stones would play the Gardens and he’d have access, of a weekend, to, say, Oscar Pettiford, JC Heard, Sonny Stitt, and when they audaciously reshaped the jazz world, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. From his lofty perch, he could swoop down and catch Philly Joe with Miles, or maybe Tony Williams, whom he appreciated less but understood. He’d sooner get a table and see, in the flesh, Chico Hamilton or Jimmy Cobb, to name two drummers who influenced him in his approach to ride cymbal. In that regard, Charlie would lament not managing to catch Davie Tough, another master of the ride. The ride cymbal defines jazz and if they steal your gear on the load-in, providing they spare the ride you can cover the gig.

Jim Keltner (left) and Charlie Watts. Photo courtesy of T Bruce Wittet

With the Charlie Watts Orchestra or Quintet, the leader – no surprise here – would take a back seat to the vocalist, or to the horn soloist. He was quite capable, says his close friend Jim Keltner, the American session drummer, of “skipping around on the ride, varying the phrasing, although with the Stones it’d be straight up & down eighths”.

In his jazz groups, Charlie enjoyed playing the brushes – “stirring the soup”. He loved the architecture, the materials, the fine wires fanned-out, all assembled in optimum proportions.

Interestingly, Charlie did more than carry the spirit of jazz over to the Rolling Stones. His kit components were selected for their efficacy in jazz. A longtime friend of the Zildjian Company in Norwell, near Boston, Charlie nevertheless, employed, for the longest time, a cymbal made in Italy, and in fact one that he and roadie, the late Cheuch McGee, had found in a Paris trash bin. The significance is that Charlie Watts was able to work that cymbal into the Rolling Stones. It was a cymbal without a cup and thus without extraneous overtones – perfect for jazz. Charlie surprised all those paying attention when he began using the old UFIP flat ride cymbal continuously with the Stones. Until the crack began to emerge. Zildjian fashioned a replica that did the trick.

It had it coming: a thin, quiet cymbal struck with Charlie’s signature stick with its considerable girth. Some older fellows, accustomed to sticks like knitting needles, would depict Charlie’s stick as a tree trunk.

Similarly, the extent of Charlie’s fascination with jazz lore extended to drums. The archetypical jazz drum bore the distinctive Gretsch logo on the front skin of the bass drum, easily visible in legions of photos by Claxton et al. While in his jazz orchestra and quintet, Charlie often went with basic black Gretsch drums; with the Stones, it was always bigger drums. In the early days they might be Ludwig but Gretsch took over.

When the American magazine Modern Drummer interviewed Charlie and his long time friend Jim Keltner, on the occasion of the release of The Watts-Keltner Project, a bizarre outing with each track dedicated to a heritage jazz drummer, the writer managed a provocative question: “Charlie, for a guy who, let’s face it, can afford any drumset, I was wondering why you’d go with a tatty, scuffed up old Gretsch yellowed maple kit.” Charlie feigned anger but defused the blow with a smile. The answer, he explained, was obvious: he fancied the tone.

“Charlie was such a jazz guy,” Jim Keltner says. “It’s all we ever talked about. And we’d make a point of seeing who was playing in town. That’s what bonded us: starting out in jazz”.

Charlie Watts played in pretty much the same manner with the Stones as he played on jazz gigs. He liked to pop a mid-to-high tuned snare drum with a rimshot, harkening to a rich tradition that extended from Krupa style jazz to Stax and Motown soul tracks.

The man affectionately nicknamed “Charlie Boy” originally trained in design, took his place among rock heroes Mick, Keith, and originally Brian Jones and later Ron Wood, with considerable reluctance if not outright shyness. Never, except for a relatively short portion of his life, was he inclined to hang out with peers making toasts to the gods. Instead he played time that was steady, if not metronomic, and that floated. It was an accommodating time sense that carried his colleagues in a warm embrace. One doesn’t hear a lot of rushing or dragging on any Rolling Stones album. The answer was not in the machine, or fixing it in the mix, but in his hands and his concept.

Again, atypically, Charlie did not seek to lock-in with the bass player note for note. He admits, in fact, sometimes giving short shrift to bass and following Keith Richards, much the way jazz drummers did when comping. It was a lighter approach and while firm it allowed for a less ponderous, rock and roll rhythm section.

Charlie Watts died surrounded by family and passed on quietly as he lived. And will continue to live as the drummer who listened and allowed the music to move him and not the converse.

Charlie Watts (2 June 1941 – 24 August 2021)

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