The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

R.I.P., Charlie Watts

Posted on | August 25, 2021 | Comments Off on R.I.P., Charlie Watts

The great rock-and-roll legends of our Baby Boomer youth are now marching like a parade toward the grave, and I ignore most of these routine obituaries, but I’ll make an exception for Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, arguably the most dapper man in rock-and-roll.

Watts was not originally a rocker, but instead was a youthful jazz enthusiast who was recruited in 1962 as the drummer for Alex Korner’s Blues Incorporated, a London group that over the years gave rise to many future stars of Britain’s blues-rock scene. From a working-class background, Watts was actually more bourgeois than Mick Jagger who, as the son of a school teacher, was more of the middle-class rebel. It took about six months for Jagger to persuade Watts to join the Rolling Stones in 1963, because this move required Watts to give up the steady paycheck he’d been earning as Korner’s drummer. While the Stones courted controversy as the “bad boy” alternative to the nice, polite Beatles, Watts was not into the decadent lifestyle that the Stones’ reputation would seem to require. He got married in 1964 and stayed married to the same woman for more than 50 years, and never had a substance abuse problem, except a few years in the mid-1980s when he started drinking more heavily, a phase he later attributed to a “mid-life crisis.”

It was during that mid-80s phase that Watts did something that contradicted his famously low-key personality. Mick and Keith Richards had been partying all night on tour, and Mick called Watts’ hotel room at 5 a.m. to shout, “Where’s my drummer?” About a half-hour later, Watts showed up at Mick’s room, dressed in a Saville Row suit, punched the singer in the face and told him, “Never call me your drummer again.” Keith had to intervene to soothe Watts’ injured pride.

Here is video — from a documentary directed by Martin Scorcese, of all people — showing the Stones playing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in 2006, where the camera focuses on Charlie Watts the entire time:


Something to notice is that, while most rock drummers nowadays play “match grip” (both sticks held overhand), Watts played “traditional grip,” with the left stick held underhand. That can probably be attributed to Watts’ background as a jazz player, although Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, who played match grip, was also influenced by jazz. The vast difference between Watts and Bonham is worth contemplation. Like the Stones, Zeppelin were very blues-influenced, but were much more into a psychedelic style, with extended instrumental solos, and Bonham’s drumming style was idiosyncratic. You noticed Bonham’s beats — listen to the final two minutes of “Stairway to Heaven,” for example, and hear those thundering syncopated tom-tom riffs — in a way that was seldom the case with Charlie Watts. Reliable and yet unobtrusive, the steady beat of the Greatest Rock and Roll Band — quite a career, one that lasted nearly 60 years. Not bad for a truck driver’s son from Wembley. R.I.P.



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