Without stretching the comparison too far, Charlie Watts was the Elvis Presley of rock and roll drumming: There was BC (Before Charlie) and after, and he can’t be compared realistically with anyone who followed because he’s an integral part of the foundation not just of the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band,” but rock and roll itself.
Watts was wry and rock-steady in both his playing and his personality. Never a flashy drummer — he always used a small kit — his whipcrack snare, driving rhythms and preternatural sense of swing powered the band from the day he joined in January of 1963 until his death earlier today at the age of 80. Yet his steadiness and low-key demeanor masks the complexity of his work: A lifelong jazz enthusiast — he led several jazz bands over the years during downtime from the Stones — his playing bears a groove and a subtlety that marks the greatest drummers of that genre, along with a disdain for the clichés that many rock drummers fall prey to. (See the songs below for more on that.)
The Stones have not played a single concert without him since he joined (their first comes on opening night of the rescheduled “No Filter” U.S. tour next month), and released just a handful of songs recorded with a different drummer. The best-known of those, 1974’s “Its Only Rock and Roll,” features Faces/Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones, who played on the jam session that spawned the song (which also featured Mick Jagger and future Stone Ron Wood, along with David Bowie on backing vocals). The group never replaced his part. Jones said in 2015, “I called Charlie up and said, ‘I didn’t mean to play drums on your album.’ He said, ‘That’s okay. It sounds like me anyway.’ He’s a lovely guy, Charlie. A perfect gentleman.”
The core of Watts’ and the Stones’ greatness as a band lies in the primal groove they attained on their best performances, a powerful, larger-than-life swing where the rhythm section and the guitars lock in and the entire sound seems to lift off. On tour, the Stones rarely change their setlists after the first couple of gigs, so the quality of the show depends on the degree to which they attain that groove. You can hear it on the 1971 concert included with the ultra-deluxe edition of “Sticky Fingers”: The group is barely two minutes into the opening “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” before it sets in — the inimitable laid-back tension that is at the heart of the Stones’ magic, which is largely due to the telepathic interplay between Richards’ rhythm guitar and Watts’ loose-but-tight drumming.
Sadly, we won’t be hearing it happen again, but there are thousands of hours of Rolling Stones studio recordings and concerts where you can. It’s impossible to pin down Charlie Watts’ best moments because he rarely missed a beat, let alone played badly, but below are 10 of his greatest and most versatile performances.
“Satisfaction” (1965) Sure, Keith Richards’ riff and the risqué-for-the-time lyrics are most remembered, but Watts’ complex, un-obvious rhythm, punctuated with stabs of tambourine, is what gives this all-time classic rock and roll song its pulse.
“Little Red Rooster” (1964) It was a point of great pride for the Stones that they took their version of this pure Chicago blues song, written by the great Willie Dixon, to the top of the British singles chart in 1964. Watts anchors the song with characteristic subtlety, his busy brushstrokes contrasting with gentle rimshots and unhurried bass drum.
“Under My Thumb” (1966) As the first moments of this song prove, Watts’ style may have sounded simple but rarely was: He counts off the song and then adds rolling flourishes on the snare before easing back when Jagger’s vocal starts. Interestingly, Watts completely changes the tempo of the song in live versions released in 1966 (a much more hard-driving and intense rhythm than the original) and in the 1969 and 1981-82 tours, which has a groove similar to the original but with more prominent guitars.
“Let’s Spend the Night Together” (1967) Again eschewing the obvious, Watts mixes up the time signatures on this risqué (again!) track, shifting from hard downbeats on the chorus before transitioning, after a snare roll, into a smoother rhythm on the verses. That tension livens up the song and provides a subtle but unmistakable cue that the chorus is coming.
“Street Fighting Man” (1968) According to legend, Richards and Watts laid down the basic track for this song at home on cassette, with Watts playing a toy drum kit. They later couldn’t recapture the vibe of the original recording, so they stuck with it, adding overdubs to beef up the sound — proving that a true artist can create greatness with the simplest tools.
“Honky Tonk Women” (1969) The all-percussion intro to this song provides Watts with a rare moment in the spotlight he usually shunned — and ironically, this master of rhythm originally couldn’t get the beat for the song. Producer Jimmy Miller (no mean drummer himself; that’s him covering for Watts on “Happy” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) picked up a cowbell and began clanking out the rhythm that opens the song, and Watts fell in.
“Gimme Shelter” (1969) Here is an example of what happens when the quiet one speaks loudly. This opening track from “Let It Bleed” — arguably the group’s most consistent album — starts off quietly but gradually builds as the instruments join in. Watts begins gently but instantly ramps up the intensity with a couple of snare cracks, shifting the time signature to lead into the vocals. Playing slightly behind the beat, his simple, thudding fills drive home the song’s apocalyptic intensity more than an avalanche of drum rolls could.
“Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” (1971) This classic from “Sticky Fingers” shows off not just Watts’ power but also his versatility: While the song is mainly a guitar showcase — famously, Richards is in the driver’s seat for the first half of the song while Mick Taylor takes over for the second — Watts rides the song’s subtle shifts in rhythm throughout its seven-plus minutes. It’s a stellar example of a musician playing only what the song needs: He plays the Taylor section almost entirely on cymbals.
“Rip This Joint” (1972) A classic from “Exile on Main Street,” this raucous roadhouse romp may be the fastest song in the Watts canon. An unusually animated Watts rolls out nearly every drum fill in his repertoire as the song roars by in less than two-and-a-half minutes.
“Miss You” (1978) “Sacrilege!” some cried when the Stones “went disco” in 1978, but this lead single from the album that revived their career — after Richards’ long drug travails and general ‘70s malaise — proved that the world’s greatest rock and roll band could still dance. Key to it is Watts’ flawless rhythm, which works equally well on dancefloors and arena floors — and shows that a true master can adapt to any musical context.