One of the most musically educated and unique drummers in the history of music has passed away at the age of eighty.
When I was eleven years of age, my Father passed away suddenly. A year later – my Mother was diagnosed with cancer. For a young man discovering the world around him, it was a time when insecurity replaced comfort.
Each day was filled with cooking, cleaning and homework. In between, watching my Mom vomit as chemotherapy raised it’s ugly head became my reality while friends were hanging out. The night ended with a quick visit to Mom’s bedroom and my head to her chest to feel some breath. To feel some life.
A year earlier, my much older sister who was married and had kids of her own – had given me all her old records. At the time of the gift, I never put much thought into music. It was something that was all around yet something which did not require my time. Taking care of my Mom and still saddened by the departure of my Dad – time suddenly was all I had. Time to pass, time to be sad and time to think. Time was my enemy and my friend.
One night as a combination of boredom and depression entered my room, I took out those old records my sister had given me. Most were torn and battered around the edges and many were in Black and White in lieu of the colored albums that were the fabric of my generation . A guy named Dylan peered at me from behind a bunch of guys who apparently loved Beetles enough to name their band after the crawling insects. Record after record – names foreign to me appeared and seemingly (artwork -wise) blended together as one. Then – as if someone from above turned on the light, there was a colored album. A ‘double’ colored disc with a bunch of ‘thugs’dressed in medieval costumes. This album caught my eye. Little did I realize -this album would catch my ear and provide comfort for years to come.
The Rolling Stones became my friends. Within their music on the two albums I discovered in my closet (Hot Rocks and The Rolling Stones Now), I found everything I needed to make me happy. The Blues were there, Rock n Roll was there and soft ballads were there. This was something I never heard before and I wanted to learn all about these ‘people’ and the music they played. My world -in an instant went from black and white to color.
Presumably for being a good son – an allowance of twenty dollars was my reward. It may have been monthly or bi – monthly. 1977 is a long time ago and many recent memories have replaced the old.
Four, five or six Rolling Stones albums came home with me as soon as I could visit the local record store. There was one with goat’s head in the title, one with two figures staring at each on the cover (who looked nothing like the fellas on Hot Rocks) and then there was a cartoon -ish looking cover with a bunch of guys coming down stairs and women bowing down to them as if they were Gods. Musically – I had no idea what I just bought yet the images alone were enough to make the vacant spot in my wallet ‘mentally’ okay.
Anyone reading this may be thinking ‘ya ya – so you became a big fan of The Rolling Stones’. Me too. So what?
The Stones engulfed my world and I surrounded myself with all the music and all the newspaper clippings I could. The articles in Cream magazine, in Rolling Stone magazine and even a publication called Circus became words of Gospel to me. Many fans of many bands ( including The Stones) can relate the exact same tale about falling in love with a sound. I am not special. What was special is one individual within the band. Here is why.
Choose the best drummer from any band. Pick out the best musician in any band. More times than not – that individual’s skills and knowledge remain close to what music their bands play. Need someone to play for Black Sabbath? Here is a list of one thousand drummers. Take your pick. What is that you say? The Dave Mathews Band needs a replacement to pound the skins? Here is another list of one thousand drummers. Good luck ! What’s that? The Rolling Stones need a drummer? Sorry – that man is now dead.
The Rolling Stones collectively and individually were and are a walking talking music encyclopedia. The Great American Songbook. Jazz. Country. Reggae. Soul. R&B. Disco. Ask anyone within The Stones camp what makes the band so special – they will all tell you; their knowledge of music is unmatched. Jagger and his unquenchable thirst for something new and Richards’ stubbornness to maintain the ‘Blues and Country’ core have sent The Stones on many magical journeys. Many musical trips captured (thankfully) on record. Take any drummer and they can sit in and play all the genres in which The Stones have had success. Country, Blues, Rock n Roll, Soul, Gospel, Disco, Reggae, Pop and Punk. Every drummer can play most well or pass through without too much damage to an audience’s ears and the band’s pocket book.
Darryl Jones, The Stones’ current bassist sums it up best.
‘I have seen many Rolling Stones cover bands and they sounded great. Great singer, great guitars and great sound. Great chemistry. Bands that know their stuff. As good as they are – something is always missing. Somehow – they never sound like The Stones. The Beatles’ cover bands sound like The Beatles, The Eagles’cover bands sound like The Eagles -you name the cover band’; chances are someone sounds exactly like the original. One day it hit me. Nobody sounds like The Stones because there is only one Charlie Watts. ‘
Schooled with his love of Charlie Parker and the world of Jazz – Watts was a student of all music. Armed with an artistic ear and artistic touch – Charlie Watts was a fish out of water within a Stones band and their version of The Blues back in 1963. The combination of Watts not knowing Chicago, Delta or whatever Blues The Stones were experimenting with at any given time and his and Jazz’s special timing created a rhythm section unmatched in all genres. No matter where and how Jagger and Richards took the music – Watts’ Jazz mentality never strayed too far. Some tunes it was JazzBlues. Some songs featured JazzCountry.
Disco? Don’t you mean Jazzco?
Watts’sensibility and Richards following that sensibility created the sloppiness and ‘the train wreck that never happened’ which The Stones became known for. The sound which is the engine that made The Stones and their legacy – not feasible without Watts’ love of Jazz and Watts’ very unique personality.
The Rolling Stones were / are The Bad Boys of Rock n Roll. The Beatles wore the white hats and the Stones wore the black ones. Brian Jones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were the three guys you kept away from your daughter. Bill Wyman was more discreet but became known for someone you really kept away from your daughter. Charlie Watts looked like the guy the band kidnapped and wouldn’t let go. His look of indifference and boredom could have been read two ways; ‘help me’ or ‘I am the cat who swallowed the canary.’ Turns out – the world’s canary population thinned immensely while Charlie Watts sat on his stool ( on guard?) for almost sixty years.
Many Stones fans and most music fans never knew the real Charlie. Few did. He never offered many interviews and when he did – his disgust for the stupidity of many journalists cut the chats short. In later years – with the Stones more and more obtaining Regal status as the statesmen of Rock n Roll and rebellion – Watts did parlay his wisdom of Jazz and music to the masses more and more. If Keith Richards is the ultimate pirate – Charlie Watts was the ultimate navigator.
To be the Captain of your own ship in a world of Rock n Roll and Sex and drugs is no easy task. Especially when the group you are in are the poster boys for Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll. If you look up sex, drugs and Rock n Roll in the dictionary -you may find Jagger, Richards, Wyman and Jones’ photos but not Mr. Charlie Watts. Married since 1964 to Shirley – Watts was the ultimate contrast to what his band represented. The ultimate contrast to what his profession and fame represented. Originally a graphic designer – Charlie over the years, instrumental along with Jagger in the design of album covers and stage designs. A lover of horses and a hater of touring – Watts was a walking, talking contradiction who remained loyal to the men who gave him such a wonderful life. Jagger and Richards, Wyman and Wood, Taylor and Jones and Mr. Darryl Jones – all the better as humans and musically for having known and learned from such a stoic man, a true artist and one sharp dressed man.
I am fifty-five years of age and my Father passed away when I was eleven. At the age of twelve – my Mother was diagnosed with cancer. For an older man discovering the world around him in 2021, it is a time when insecurity has once again – replaced comfort.
Charlie was good every-night.
Rest in peace.
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