Drummer Charlie Watts, whose adept, powerful skin work propelled the Rolling Stones for more than half a century, died in London on Tuesday morning, according to his spokesperson. No cause of death was cited; he was 80.
A statement from the band and Watts’ spokesperson reads: “It is with immense sadness that we announce the death of our beloved Charlie Watts. He passed away peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family.
“Charlie was a cherished husband, father and grandfather and also a member of the Rolling Stones one of the greatest drummers of his generation.
“We kindly request that the privacy of his family, band members and close friends is respected at this difficult time.”
— The Rolling Stones (@RollingStones) August 24, 2021
On August 4, Watts abruptly withdrew from the Stones’ upcoming pandemic-postponed U.S. tour, citing the need to recover from an unspecified but “successful” recent medical procedure. A spokesperson said, “Charlie has had a procedure which was completely successful, but I gather his doctors this week concluded that he now needs proper rest and recuperation. With rehearsals starting in a couple of weeks it’s very disappointing to say the least, but it’s also fair to say no one saw this coming.” Unconfirmed reports said Watts had undergone heart surgery; drummer Steve Jordan, a longtime associate of Stones guitarist Keith Richards, is filling in for the tour, which launches in St. Louis on Sept. 26.
Watts had generally been healthy throughout his entire career with the Stones. He was stricken with throat cancer in 2004 but successfully recovered, and suffered from substance abuse in the 1970s and ’80s, but beat that as well.
Universally recognized as one of the greatest rock drummers of all time, Watts and Richards always have been the core of the Rolling Stones’ instrumental sound: Richards spends upwards of half the group’s concerts turned around, facing Watts, bobbing his head to the drummer’s rhythm. A 2012 review of a Rolling Stones concert reads in part: “For all of Mick and Keith’s supremacy, there’s no question that the heart of this band is and will always be Watts: At 71, his whipcrack snare and preternatural sense of swing drive the songs with peerless authority, and define the contradictory uptight-laid-back-ness that’s at the heart of the Stones’ rhythm.” Watts was never a flashy drummer, but driving the beat for “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” for a two-hour set — in a stadium, no less — is an act of great physical endurance that Watts performed until he was 78.
His last concert with the group took place in Miami on August 30, 2019, although he did appear with the band during the April 2020 “One World Together” all-star livestream early in the pandemic. Reviewing a show earlier in the 2019 tour, Variety wrote, “Sitting at a minimalist kit and moving even more minimally with his casual jazz grip, [Watts looks] like the mild-mannered banker who no one in the heist movie realizes is the guy actually blowing up the vault.”
The wiry, basset-faced musician was a jazz-schooled player who came to the Stones through London’s “trad” scene of the early ‘60s. He was the missing piece in the group’s early lineup, joining in January 1963; with Jagger and Keith Richards, he remained a constant with “the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” on record and on stage for more than 50 years.
He provided nimble, energetic support on the band’s long run of dirty, blues- and R&B-based hits of the early and mid-‘60s. He reached the pinnacle of his prowess on a series of mature recordings, made with producer Jimmy Miller in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, in which his sharp playing caromed off Richards’ serrated guitar riffs.
In the 2003 oral history “According to the Rolling Stones,” Richards said, “To have a drummer from the beginning who could play with the sensibility of Charlie Watts is one of the best hidden assets I’ve had, because I never had to think about the drummer and what he’s going to do. I just say, ‘Charlie, it goes like this,’ and we’ll kick it around a bit and it’s done. I can throw him ideas and I never have to worry about the beat…It’s a blessing.”
A flexible player, Watts displayed his malleable chops on the Stones’ forays into off-brand styles – psychedelia, reggae and (on the 1978 hit single “Miss You”) disco.
Though he grew weary of the band’s touring pace as early as the 1980s, he soldiered on with the Stones for three more decades, in what was arguably the most comfortable and lucrative drumming gig in music. He prevailed through bouts with heroin addiction and a battle with throat cancer, quietly addressing these challenges as the spotlight shined more brightly on his more flamboyant band mates.
Watts remained a picture of domestic bliss and tranquility amid the soap-operatic lives of his fellow Stones: He wed his wife Shirley in 1964, and the couple remained together, even amid rough patches, for the duration.
He maintained a love of jazz throughout his life, and from the ‘80s on would record regularly with various ad hoc lineups of his Charlie Watts Quintet, essaying the hard-swinging instrumental music that fired his early interest in music.
Watts was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Stones in 1989.
He was born June 2, 1941, in London; his father was a truck driver for the English rail system. Raised in Wembley, he gravitated as a youth to the music of early jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton and bop saxophonist Charlie Parker. He was an indifferent music student in school, but began playing at 14 or 15.
In “The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones,” Watts told Stanley Booth, “Fortunately my parents were perceptive enough to buy me a drum kit. I’d bought a banjo myself and taken the neck off and started playing it as a drum…[I] played newspaper with wire brushes. My parents bought me one of those first drum kits every drummer knows too well.”
He emblazoned the bass drum head of his early kit with the name “Chico,” after saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s drummer Chico Hamilton. In his teens, he worked in various regional jazz groups.
He was schooled as a graphic designer at Harrow Art School, and worked for a London ad firm. In 1961, he illustrated and wrote a fanciful tribute to Charlie Parker; it was subsequently published in 1964, after the Rolling Stones’ rise to fame, as “Ode to a High Flying Bird.”
In 1962, Watts first encountered some of his future band mates at London’s Ealing Club, a subterranean venue where first-generation trad-to-blues players like Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies took early stabs at replicating American R&B and blues.
After a stint doing design work in Copenhagen, Watts returned to London and accepted an offer from Korner to drum in his group Blues Incorporated, which for a time had featured Jagger as its singer.
Jagger was in the process of establishing his own blues-based band, originally called the Rollin’ Stones, with Richards, guitarist Brian Jones, bassist Bill Wyman and pianist Ian Stewart. The weak link in the unit was drummer Tony Chapman, and, after pleas from Richards and Jones, Watts replaced Chapman in the nascent group; he was replaced in Korner’s band by Ginger Baker, later of Cream.
Watts later admitted, “It was from Brian, Mick and Keith that I first seriously learned about R&B. I knew nothing about it. The blues to me was Charlie Parker or [New Orleans jazz clarinetist] Johnny Dodds playing slow.” He schooled himself by listening to recorded performances such drummers by Earl Phillips, Jimmy Reed’s accompanist, and Fred Below, who powered many of Chess Records’ major blues hits of the ‘50s.
He proved an apt pupil, and he forcefully completed the sound of the Stones (who soon subtracted Stewart from the permanent lineup and employed him as a sideman and road manager). From the band’s debut 1963 single, a cranked-up cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On,” he pushed the unit with seemingly effortless power and swing.
Watts lent potent support to the R&B- and blues-derived material recorded in the era when the purist Jones enjoyed parity in the Stones with Richards and Jagger. However, he was much more than a four-on-the-floor timekeeper, and flourished as Jagger-Richards originals pushed the band to the top of the U.S. and U.K. charts.
He stood out on the Stones’ first U.S. No. 1, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965) and on latter-day exotica like “Paint It Black” (1966) and “Ruby Tuesday,” “Dandelion,” “We Love You” and “She’s a Rainbow” (all 1967).
He came into his own with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting Man” (1968) and “Honky Tonk Women” (1969), convulsive singles produced by Miller that marked the end of Jones’ tenure with the group (he died in 1969) and the arrival of guitarist Mick Taylor.
Those numbers and the subsequent “Brown Sugar” (No. 1, 1969) and “Tumbling Dice” (1972) – respectively drawn from the Stones’ landmark albums “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile on Main St” – all exhibited the trademark sound of the Stones at their apex, with Watts bouncing hard off a lacerating Richards guitar intro.
From 1971-81, Watts appeared on eight consecutive No. 1 studio albums by the Stones, and appeared on three of the biggest-grossing tours of the era. From 1975 on, he brought his design skills to bear and worked with Jagger on configuring the elaborate stage sets that became a hallmark of the act’s later tours.
In the late ‘70s, he began using heroin, and his addiction became so acute that he nodded out in the studio during the recording of “Some Girls” (1978). He later said in an interview with the BBC that Richards – an enthusiastic abuser of the drug – shook him awake at the session and counseled him, “You should do this when you’re older.” Watts said he took the guitarist’s advice and stopped using the drug.
Despite his difficulties during that era, Watts smoothly navigated the dancefloor backbeat that propelled “Miss You,” the Stones’ last No. 1 single, released in ’78. During the ‘80s, he brought his whipcracking skills to the band’s top-10 hits of the period, the perennial show-opener “Start Me Up” (1981) and the dark fusillade “Undercover of the Night” (1983).
He again grappled with alcohol and drug issues in the mid-‘80s, but once again discreetly and successfully shook off his addictions, cleaning up for good in 1986.
In his 2002 book “Rolling With the Stones,” bassist Wyman (who exited the Stones in 1993) claims that Watts’ enthusiasm for working with the band waned in the late ‘80s, when conflict between Jagger and Richards over direction of the group threatened to run it aground permanently.
He increasingly recorded and toured on his own as a jazz band leader. He cut a big band album for Columbia in 1986; four sets with his own quintet from 1991-96; and worked on a collaborative project with fellow drummer Jim Keltner in 2000. In 2004, an album featuring his tentet was recorded at Ronnie Scott’s famous jazz venue in London.
Watts still dutifully clocked in with the Stones after Jagger and Richards reconciled: Their four studio albums between 1989-2005 were succeeded by mammoth tours that broke records internationally. His tour duty was not broken by a siege of throat cancer, diagnosed in 2004 and treated successfully.
At the half-century mark, the group made successful treks in the new millennium without any new product in stores, hitting the road for arenas in 2012-16.
In October 2016, the act filled the Empire Polo Field in Indio, Calif., site of the annual Coachella music festival on a double bill with Bob Dylan, as part of the three-day “Desert Trip” festival featuring ‘60s classic rock acts.
The Rolling Stones last toured in 2019, including an August 22 show at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, of which Variety noted in a review, “The faces have changed, while the bodies, cocky postures and enviable stamina levels have not, in some kind of laughably wonderful cosmic disconnect. … Charlie Watts is still our darling, sitting at a minimalist kit and moving even more minimally with his casual jazz grip, looking like the mild-mannered banker who no one in the heist movie realizes is the guy actually blowing up the vault.”
The group played what turned out to be its final show with Watts just a few nights later, at Florida’s Hard Rock Stadium on August 30, 2019.
The group’s final public appearance with Watts on drums was a filmed appearance for the “One World: Together at Home” broadcast in April 2020, for which a typically contented-looking Watts played “air drums” to a pre-recorded track on a fresh version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Watts is survived by his wife and daughter Serafina.