Charlie Watts, the rock who held the Rolling Stones together, writes ...

Charlie Watts, the rock who held the Rolling Stones together, writes ...
Charlie Watts, the rock who held the Rolling Stones together, writes ...

Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts died yesterday at the age of 80. His publicist Bernard Doherty said the 'beloved' musician 'passed away peacefully in a London hospital surrounded by his family'. Watts, who in 2004 was successfully treated for throat cancer, said this month he would miss the Stones' US tour as he recovered from an unspecified medical procedure. Last night tributes poured in from the music world and beyond. 

This is the eternal image of the Rolling Stones – Keith Richards grinding out the dirty guitar riffs, Mick Jagger prancing as he taunts the stadium crowd: 'I know it's only rock'n'roll but I like it, yes I do.'

Except Charlie Watts didn't. The backbone of the band, the man whose driving rhythm was the tireless heartbeat of the greatest rock'n'roll group in the world, never had much affection for the music he played for 60 years.

His self-effacing patter and genial dismissal of everything he achieved has tempted some observers to take him at his word. Charlie Watts was estimated to be worth £165million – despite writing none of the Stones' hits. He described himself as 'just very lucky'.

But the rest of the band knew better. He was the keel that kept them from capsizing, the creative energy that stopped them getting stale and the talent that kept their music grooving.

If you've ever danced to a Rolling Stones song, you've danced to Charlie Watts.

His jazz-tinged beat was the magic that made them swing while other bands just stomped.

Though no cause has been stated, his death comes two weeks after he revealed that an emergency operation meant he would be unable to join the Stones on the rescheduled dates for the US leg of the band's No Filter tour, which is due to open in St Louis, Missouri, on September 26.

Announcing the news, he joked: 'For once, my timing's a bit off.'

Pictured: The Rolling Stones, L-R: Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood

 Pictured: The Rolling Stones, L-R: Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood

Pictured: The Rolling Stones onstage in 1989

Pictured: The Rolling Stones onstage in 1989

Pictured: Watts at the drum kit in 1968

Pictured: Watts at the drum kit in 1968

Pictured: Charlie Watts with his wife Shirley in 1964

Pictured: The couple in 2020

Charlie Watts was married to his wife Shirley for 57 years. Pictured left: The couple in 1964 and right, in 2020 

He adored playing the drums. He lived for that. But it wasn't the type of music that he aspired to make, nor that he listened to, given a choice.

The best reason for recording new albums, over the past 30 years or so, was that 'it gives us something different to play on stage,' he said. 'It's not Brown Sugar again.' The implication was that he was sick to death of the classic Stones catalogue. Asked to rate the best years of the band's career across six decades, he would say – without hesitation – it was the brief period from 1969 to 1974 with Mick Taylor as lead guitarist, following the death of Brian Jones.

Those were the years that saw them record Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street. But asked to pick a few favourite tracks, Charlie would just shake his head.

'I don't listen to those LPs much,' he always said.

His disdain for the traditions of rock included a hatred for festival crowds and stadiums. 'I don't want to do it,' he shrugged, as the band prepared for a headline appearance at Glastonbury in 2015. 'I don't like playing outdoors and I certainly don't like festivals. Glastonbury, it's old hat really. It's not what I'd like to do for a weekend, I can tell you.' What he wanted to do was play jazz.

'In jazz you're closer. In a football stadium, you can't say you're closely knit together. It's difficult to know what Mick's up to when you can't even see him. He's half a mile away.' He moaned just as much about going on tour. 'I play drums,' he said wearily.

'The only way to play drums is to be away from home. It's the blight of my life.

'When I get a call from Mick or Keith, it's a call to arms – five months on the road.'

Pictured: Charlie Watts (centre) with his parents in London circa 1943

Pictured: Charlie Watts (centre) with his parents in London circa 1943

Pictured:  Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones at Park Aveny Hotel in Goteborg in 1965

Pictured: Charlie Watts at Park Aveny Hotel in Goteborg in 1965

Pictured: The Rolling Stones looking especially clean cut in 1963

Pictured: The Rolling Stones looking especially clean cut in 1963

He hated the spotlight too, rarely giving interviews or hanging out with celebrities. 'The only time I love attention is when I walk onstage,' he said. 'When I walk off, I don't want it.' That contempt for rock's shallow rewards extended to his love life. While the rest of the band enjoyed notorious and very public affairs with supermodels and actresses, Charlie married his wife Shirley in 1964 and was unshakeably faithful to her.

Bassist Bill Wyman recalled in his memoirs a band meeting in 1965 when all the Stones, then surfing their first tidal wave of fame, compared how many groupies they'd slept with in the past two years: 'I'd had 278 girls, Brian [Jones] 130, Mick about 30, Keith 6, and Charlie none.'

The rock life bored him. He and Shirley shunned the bright lights of London and New York, instead opting for life at Halsdon Manor, near Dolton, a rural village in north Devon, where they owned an Arabian horse stud farm.

In the late Eighties, Watts summed up his career as 'five years of playing, 20 years of hanging around'. By the Noughties, he had another way to describe it: 'Four decades of seeing Mick's bum running around in front of me.' And then there was the way he looked and dressed. Even when the rest of the band were in tie-dye and kaftans, Charlie wore his suit and tie.

All in all, he was the most unlikely rocker in music history. Yet he was also the mainstay, the man who kept the group together – both on and off stage.

No matter how wrecked Keith was, or if a backstage row meant none of the band were talking to each other, Charlie was always rock solid and imperturbable.

Asked how he kept Jagger and Richards from strangling each other, he shrugged and replied: 'Oh, that. Brothers, innit. Brothers in arms. You just let it take its course, really.' 

Alongside frontman Sir Mick and guitarist Keith Richards, Watts (pictured centre) was among the longest-standing members of the Stones, which has seen a shifting line-up of musicians including Mick Taylor, Ronnie Wood and Bill Wyman

Alongside frontman Sir Mick and guitarist Keith Richards, Watts (pictured centre) was among the longest-standing members of the Stones, which has seen a shifting line-up of musicians including Mick Taylor, Ronnie Wood and Bill Wyman

Pictured: Watts (centre) with his wife Shirley (left) and daughter Seraphina (right) at Mick Jagger's 50th birthday party in 1993

Pictured: Watts (centre) with his wife Shirley (left) and daughter Seraphina (right) at Mick Jagger's 50th birthday party in 1993

Pictured: The Rolling Stones in 1968

Pictured: The Rolling Stones in 1968

Born on June 2, 1941, Watts grew up in a prefab house in Kingsbury, north-west London, after his family's neighbourhood was razed during the Blitz. As a boy he was a gifted artist and earned a place at Harrow Art School before taking a job as a graphic designer.

That passion for drawing never left him, and he produced cartoons and comic strips for some of the band's album covers – as well as making a sketch, he claimed, of practically every hotel room he ever stayed in.

But despite his artistic talent, it was jazz that obsessed him. He listened incessantly to the New Orleans ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton and big band leader Duke Ellington, before discovering modern jazz through bebop stylist Charlie Parker.

His father, a lorry driver, bought him his first drum kit and Charlie began to play at coffee shops and local clubs with bands such as the Jo Jones All Stars (who, despite their name, were all complete unknowns). His break came when the broadcaster Alexis Korner asked him to sit in with his band, Blues Incorporated. Watts claimed that he'd never heard of 'rhythm and blues', and assumed it meant slow jazz.

Instead, he found himself in Britain's first electric blues band, playing at the Ealing Club to an ecstatic audience that included a teenage Rod Stewart, Jimmy Page and Paul Jones.

Pictured: Watts (right) with Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger in 2014

Pictured: Watts (right) with Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger in 2014

Pictured: Watts meets Princess Diana after a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1983

Pictured: Watts meets Princess Diana after a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1983

Pictured: The Rolling Stones perform together for the last time over Zoom during the One World: Together at Home concert in 2020

Pictured: The Rolling Stones perform together for the last time over Zoom during the One World: Together at Home concert in 2020

Through those gigs, Charlie started playing for laughs with a bunch of young blues aficionados, including a grammar school boy called Mick and his mates Keith and Brian, as well as piano player Ian Stewart. Joined a year later by Wyman on bass, they played their first gig at the Marquee Club in July 1962.

He had already met his wife, who used to come to the Blues Inc rehearsals. Shirley shared Charlie's indomitable streak, but while he showed it by quietly doing his own thing, she was never afraid of a confrontation.

When Jagger decided to ban girlfriends from Stones recording sessions Shirley simply ignored him.

Touching Farewell from the Legends 

Ringo Starr

 

'God bless Charlie Watts, we're going to miss you man, peace and love to the family.' 

 

Paul McCartney

 

'So sad to hear about Charlie Watts... He was a lovely guy. Charlie was a fantastic drummer, steady as a rock. Love you Charlie, I've always loved you, beautiful man.'

 

Elton John 

 

 

'A very sad day. Charlie Watts was the ultimate drummer. The most stylish of men, and such brilliant company. My deepest condolences to Shirley, Seraphina, and, of course, the Rolling Stones.'

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She and Chrissie Shrimpton, who was Mick's girlfriend in the mid-Sixties, turned up at the studio and refused to leave.

'We sat there,'

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