Drummer Charlie Watts, whose adept, powerful skin work propelled the Rolling Stones for more than half a century, has died, according to his rep. He was 80.
In August 2021, the drummer abruptly withdrew from the Stones’ pandemic-postponed tour, citing the need to recover from a recent medical procedure; a statement from the band said that Watts had selected Steve Jordan, a longtime member of guitarist Keith Richards’ group the X-Pensive Winos, to replace him.
In a famous ad lib – captured at Madison Square Garden in 1969, and heard on the Stones’ live album “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out” – vocalist Mick Jagger asks the crowd, “Charlie’s good tonight, in’ne?” Fans and observers alike considered Watts more than good – he was held as one of the greatest rock drummers of his era, and of all time.
The wiry, basset-faced musician was a jazz-schooled player who came to the Stones through London’s “trad” scene of the early ‘60s. He was the missing piece in the group’s early lineup, joining in January 1963; with Jagger and Keith Richards, he remained a constant with “the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” on record and on stage for more than 50 years.
He provided nimble, energetic support on the band’s long run of dirty, blues- and R&B-based hits of the early and mid-‘60s. He reached the pinnacle of his prowess on a series of mature recordings, made with producer Jimmy Miller in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, in which his sharp playing caromed off Richards’ serrated guitar riffs.
In the 2003 oral history “According to the Rolling Stones,” Richards said, “To have a drummer from the beginning who could play with the sensibility of Charlie Watts is one of the best hidden assets I’ve had, because I never had to think about the drummer and what he’s going to do. I just say, ‘Charlie, it goes like this,’ and we’ll kick it around a bit and it’s done. I can throw him ideas and I never have to worry about the beat…It’s a blessing.”
A flexible player, Watts displayed his malleable chops on the Stones’ forays into off-brand styles – psychedelia, reggae and (on the 1978 hit single “Miss You”) disco.
Though he grew weary of the band’s touring pace as early as the 1980s, he soldiered on with the Stones for three more decades, in what was arguably the most comfortable and lucrative drumming gig in music. He prevailed through bouts with heroin addiction and a battle with throat cancer, quietly addressing these challenges as the spotlight shined more brightly on his more flamboyant band mates.
Watts remained a picture of domestic bliss and tranquility amid the soap-operatic lives of his fellow Stones: He wed his wife Shirley in 1964, and the couple remained together, even amid rough patches, for the duration.
He maintained a love of jazz throughout his life, and from the ‘80s on would record regularly with various ad hoc lineups of his Charlie Watts Quintet, essaying the hard-swinging instrumental music that fired his early interest in music.