Often at odds with his flamboyant band, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts was the quiet, considered and skilful force that kept his group in time. The drummer was known for his sophisticated and inventive playing on classic tracks including Jumpin' Jack Flash, Honky Tonk Women and Brown Sugar. However, he was also famed for his deadpan wit, love of tailored suits and obsession with jazz music.
Charles Robert Watts was born in 1941 and grew up in Wembley, north-west London. His father, also Charles Watts, was a lorry driver while his mother, Lillian, was a housewife and the couple also had a daughter, Linda. He attended Tyler Croft Secondary Modern School from 1952 to 1956 and as a schoolboy enjoyed art, cricket and football.
His parents gave him his first drum kit in 1955, allowing him to play along to his favourite jazz records, which included those by Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. By the age of 16, he was drumming in jazz groups and was a regular on the London club scene, which was then focused on the parallel worlds of jazz and blues rock.
Alexis Korner, sometimes referred to as "the founding father of British blues", invited Watts to join his band Blues Incorporated, which featured a number of future stars. It was then that he met Mick Jagger, who would guest as a vocalist occasionally.
Jagger had his own group with Keith Richards and Brian Jones but lacked a regular drummer. Watts, ever sensible, initially turned down an invitation to join them in favour of his day job as a graphic designer at an advertising agency.
A six-month campaign eventually convinced him to join and Watts made his first appearance with the Rolling Stones in January 1963 at the Flamingo club in London's Soho. However, even then he refused to give up his day job, only doing so once the band had signed to Decca Records.
His time living in the band's infamously squalid flat in Edith Grove, Chelsea, was short lived. Once the band had recorded their first chart hits – Come On and I Wanna Be Your Man – he moved into a flat overlooking Regent's Park.
He married his girlfriend, Shirley Shepherd, a sculpture student at the Royal College of Art whom he met before finding fame, in 1964.
Watts never seemed entirely comfortable with the praise of being a pop star and was often self-deprecating and down-to-earth. Richards once said: "He's modest and shy and the idea of stardom horrifies him."
After number one hits such as It's All Over Now, Little Red Rooster and The Last Time, he used the proceeds to buy a 16th-century house in Sussex.
Watts' fashion sense was often at odds with that of his bandmates – he preferred finely tailored suits to the bohemian chic of Jagger and Richards. He said once: “To me the 1960s was Miles Davis and three-button suits.” An enduring passion was cricket, which saw him regularly attend Lord's Cricket Ground and other matches, sometimes with his bandmates.
Of all the group, Watts was reportedly the one who struggled most when they went into tax exile in France during the recording of their 1972 album Exile on Main St, so much did he miss England.
In the late 1970s, Watts joined Stones sideman Ian Stewart in the band Rocket 88. Throughout the 1980s he toured worldwide with the likes of Evan Parker, Courtney Pine and Jack Bruce, who was also a member of Rocket 88.
The Charlie Watts Quintet released Warm & Tender in 1993, later producing Long Ago & Far Away three years later.
In 1989 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside the rest of the Stones and in 2006 was voted into the Modern Drummer Hall, joining the likes of Sir Ringo Starr and Keith Moon. In 2016, Watts was ranked 12th in Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 100 greatest drummers of all time.
The Stones would go on to release more albums with Voodoo Lounge (1994), Bridges to Babylon (1997) and A Bigger Bang (2005), as well as embarking on the extensive Zip Code and No Filter tours. In 2016, the band released the highly acclaimed UK number one album Blue & Lonesome.
Watts received The Gold Award at the 2017 Jazz FM Awards in recognition of his lifelong dedication to jazz and blues music. He said: "I am very grateful to be honoured by Jazz FM for my contribution to jazz and blues. I've always loved and been influenced by the music and its players.
"It was one of the reasons I wanted to be a musician myself. It's still important that we continue to support this music to ensure it lives on for the next generations."
Mike Rivers, who now runs the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, Surrey – which gave the Rolling Stones their first residency – said he met Watts at a blue plaque unveiling at the Ealing Club several years ago. He said: “He was very charming, he was a real gentleman and was quite happy to chat away. He was a lovely man. His real love was jazz – he was more of a jazz musician than a rock musician, that was his real love. He was an excellent drummer."
Richard Williams, former deputy editor of the Melody Maker, said: “For almost 60 years in the middle of the madness of the Rolling Stones' world, Charlie took care of the beat. He found the right groove for every song, from Satisfaction through Jumpin' Jack Flash and Honky Tonk Women to Start Me Up. He was a stylish man in every sense – in his playing, in his dress sense and in his perfect manners. He knew how to cope with the egos of his bandmates, and they knew how much they owed to his immaculate sense of time.”
Watts is survived by his wife Shirley, daughter Seraphina and granddaughter Charlotte.
If you would like to submit an obituary, or have a suggestion for a subject, contact [email protected]
A message from the Editor
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers. If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.