In an era when rock drummers were larger than life showmen with big kits and egos to match, Charlie Watts remained the quiet man behind modest drums. But Watts was not your typical rock drummer.
Part of the Rolling Stones’ setup from 1963 until his death on August 24, Watts provided the backbeat to their greatest hits by injecting jazz – and swing – sensibilities into the sound of The Stones.
As a musicologist and co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to the Rolling Stones – as well as a fan who has seen the Stones live more than 20 times over the past five decades – I see Watts as an integral part of the group’s success.
Like Ringo Starr and other drummers who emerged during the British pop boom of the 1960s, Watts was influenced by the swing and big band sound that was extremely popular in the UK in the 1940s and 1950s.
Modest with sticks
Watts was not formally trained as a jazz drummer, but jazz musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk were early influences.
In a 2012 interview with the New Yorker, he recalled how their records influenced his playing style.
“I bought a banjo and didn’t like the dots on the neck,” Watts said. “So I took off the neck, and at the same time I heard a drummer called Chico Hamilton, who was playing with Gerry Mulligan, and I wanted to play like that, with brushes. I didn’t have a snare drum, so I put the banjo head on a stand.
Watts’ first group, the Jo Jones All Stars, was a jazz band. And elements of jazz remained throughout his career with the Stones, giving Watts a wide stylistic versatility that was essential to the Stones’ forays beyond blues and rock to country, reggae, disco, funk. and even punk.
There was a modesty in his playing that came from learning jazz. There are no big rock drum solos. He made sure the attention was never on him or his drums – his role was to move the songs forward, to give them movement.
He also didn’t use a big kit – no gongs, no scaffolding. He kept a modest one more typical of jazz quartets and quintets.
Likewise, Watts’ occasional use of brushes on sticks – as in 1976’s “Melody” from “Black and Blue” – more explicitly shows his debt to jazz drummers.
But he didn’t come with just one style. Watts was trained to adapt, while retaining elements of jazz. You can hear it in the beat and the blues of (I can’t get no) Satisfaction, to the infernal samba rhythm of Sympathy for the devil – two songs in which Watts’ contribution is central.
And a song like Can’t you hear me hit from 1971 Sticky Fingers develops from one of Keith Richards ‘highest caliber riffs into a long final instrumental section, unique in the Stones’ catalog of songs, from Santana-esque Latin jazz, containing superb syncopated rhythmic shots and a tasteful hi-hat game through which Watts animates the different musical sections.
You hear similar elements in Give me shelter and other classic Rolling Stones songs – it’s perfectly placed drum fills and gestures that make the song and surprise you, always in the background and never dominant.
“Machine room” power supply
Watts to the Stones was so central that when bassist Bill Wyman retired from the band after the 1989 “Steel Wheels” tour, Watts was tasked with choosing his replacement.
He needed a bass player who matched his style. But his choice of Darryl Jones as Wyman’s replacement wasn’t the only key partnership for Watts. He played out of time, complementing Richards’ very syncopated, riff-focused guitar style.
Watts and Richards set the tone for so many Stones songs, such as Honky Tonk Women Where start Me Up. If you watched them live, you would notice Richards watching Watts all the time – his eyes fixed on the drummer, looking for where the musical accents are and matching their rhythmic “hits” and offbeats.
Watts didn’t aspire to be a virtuoso like John Bonham from Led Zeppelin or Keith Moon from The Who – there was no excess drumming. From this initial training in jazz, he keeps his distance from exterior gestures.
But for nearly six decades, he was the main occupant, as Richards puts it, of the legendary Rolling Stones’ “engine room”.
Victor Coelho is professor of music at Boston University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.