Mick Jagger is rock and Keith Richards is roll, but the heartbeat and swing of the Rolling Stones has always been the drummer, Charlie Watts. At 72-years-old, Watts remains the driving force that sits in the shadows of the greatest rock and roll band in the world. While drummers like the Who’s Keith Moon or Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham are usually listed ahead of Charlie Watts when groups of music fans discuss the greatest drummers of all-time, Watts has maintained the solid backbeat behind the band that has swirled like a crossfire hurricane for more than 50 years.
It is a simple fact, and one that most Rolling Stones fans worldwide will not argue—if there is no Charlie Watts, then there simply is no Rolling Stones. He might be the furthest thing from flash, but his stylish suits and colorful socks that can be seen when he pounds the bass drum of his simple, four piece Gretsch drum kit make him one of the most intriguing figures in rock and roll. While Jagger, Richards and Wood work the audience and scream rock and roll excess, Watts is all business in the back and oozes class as he pounds away the steady beat of some of rock’s most memorable tunes.
Charlie Watts is not your typical rock and roll drummer. In fact, he has admitted to not being much of a fan of rock and roll, but instead prefers the music of legendary jazz drummers like Jelly Roll Morton and Charlie Parker. His influences can be heard and felt in his groove and his swing, while his unusual playing style gives Watts a unique sound for the Stones, and something rarely heard in rock and roll. His style of play includes the omission of the hi-hat on the downbeats of two and four. A close look reveals how he holds his right hand, known as his ride hand up on those beats, hitting the snare drum with his left hand that produces a loud pop like a gunshot when the stick hits the snare. It is something that stands out in the Stones sound, and until it is pointed out, it can be heard but it is difficult to figure out how the sound is produced.
Watts has always seemed like the odd-man out in the Rolling Stones, dating back to the early 1960s when he became the band’s drummer. While the other members of the Rolling Stones became infamous for their rollicking parties that included groupies, drugs and booze, Charlie Watts reportedly drew sketches of all of the hotel rooms he visited on tours. He was not the image of rock and roll excess that became synonymous with the Stones touring party of the 1960s and 70s, and instead appeared to be as steady as his backbeat. For more than 50 years Watts has been the driving beat of the Stones, following Keith Richards’ blues infused, Chuck Berry style rhythm guitar. Together they have formed a driving rhythm section that stands out as one of the most enduring in rock and roll history.
When not drumming for the Rolling Stones, Charlie Watts can be found sitting in with swing and jazz bands like the A, B, C & D of Boogie Woogie, or slipping into quiet jazz clubs like he did recently while the Stones were in Perth, Australia. It was reported that Watts entered the Ellington Jazz Club through a side kitchen door, and sat in to play a 45-minute set at the dark and cozy club. It is in this type of setting that the great Stones drummer appears to be most comfortable, and truly at home. It is well-known that Watts has a strong love and hate relationship with the touring life, but he has said that his love and passion is playing drums, and for him to continue his passion, he must go on the road. Each time the Rolling Stones finish a tour, the question always becomes, “Is Charlie Watts finished?” It is something that goes through the mind of every Stones fan as they know and understand the importance of Charlie Watts to the continued existence of the Rolling Stones.
While the Glimmer Twins, Jagger and Richards will forever be the name and face of the Stones, Watts will always be the man who has given the band their groove. He swings like no other in rock music and one of these days when all is said and done with the Rolling Stones, people will look back in astonishment at how a jazz drummer from Kingsbury, London played a simple four piece drum set and became the engine behind one of the most legendary bands in the history of rock and roll. He is simply rock and roll royalty, whether he likes it or not. He may not have the moves and stage presence like Mick Jagger, or have the larger-than-life persona and image of Keith Richards, but there is no doubt that Charlie Watts swings with the best of them and gives a whole new meaning to the word “cool.”
Opinion by Johnny Caito