Drummer’s Review is sad to report the death of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts at the age of eighty. He passed away in hospital following heart surgery, surrounded by his family.
Watts had been receiving hospital treatment for a heart problem, and was already announced as sitting out the next Stones tour of America, with long-term friend and collaborator of the band Steve Jordan filling in.
Charlie Watts was renowned in music circles for a variety of reasons – his famously laconic smile, his calmness and solid presence in the endless madness and maelstrom that has always surrounded The Rolling Stones, his award-winning dress sense, but most of all, first and last, it was his drumming that made Charlie Watts a legend.
Ask any professional drummer who has been influenced, directly or indirectly by the playing of Charlie Watts – which is every single one of them – what made him such a peerless musician, and they will all use the same word to describe his playing – swing.
Swing is a difficult-to-define drumming term, but all drummers know what it means. If they have it, they consider themselves blessed, and if they don’t have it, they deeply envy their peers who do, because they will never get to play with swing. Swing is something you are born with, you can develop it, but you can’t learn it, it’s there, or it’s not.
Charlie Watts’ swing was the beating heart of his playing, and his playing was the beating heart of The Rolling Stones. In Watts’ case, it developed from a lifetime of admiring and playing jazz, his first love above anything, except his family to whom he was devoted.
Beginning his career with The Rolling Stones as the burgeoning R ‘N’ B craze was lifting off in the early 1960’s, the band found his rock-solid beats were the foundation of their sound from first to last. Watts’ style was never complex or flashy, it was always the basis of the sound The Stones created and honed over sixty-plus years. His consistently solid and reliable playing was, as Keith Richards memorably described it, “The bed on which I lie”.
But even the famously grounded and sensible Charlie Watts did not live a life-time in the greatest rock and roll band in the world entirely unscathed – he endured bouts of alcohol and heroin abuse, both now long behind him, thanks to the solid family relationships he cherished throughout his life, his marriage of almost fifty-eight years to Shirley, and his daughter Seraphina and granddaughter Charlotte.
Not only the world of music in general, and the world of drumming in particular, is poorer for the loss of a legend like Charlie Watts, the world at large owes him a huge debt for his calm unfussy but nonetheless essential contribution to the world of art and culture. The Rolling Stones rightly remain acknowledged as one of the greatest bands ever, and The Rolling Stones would never have been the band they are without Charlie Watts.
At the time of writing, the long-term future for The Stones is unclear. Their next tour without Watts was tacitly acknowledged as including Steve Jordan as a temporary replacement while Watts recovered from his recent health issues. Whether or not Jordan will retain his position after the tour’s completion is something to be advised down the road.
Jordan has links with The Stones both in the studio and on stage, going back to the 1980’s, and Keith Richards is a huge admirer of his talents as a drummer.
No-one lives for ever, but their music can, and in the case of Charlie Watts, that will be through his work not only with The Rolling Stones, but also with his parallel jazz projects with various jazz alumni, captured in a series of albums and tours.
One thing is for certain, whether or not The Rolling Stones continue as a recording and touring band, they will never be quite the same again. The unique sound that has run through their music like a vein of gold through rock came from Charlie Watts, and sadly, that sound is now silenced forever.
CHARLES ROBERT (CHARLIE) WATTS –
02 June 1941 – 24 August 2021.