Charlie Watts: The Gracious Subtle Gas in Jumpin’ Jack Flash for More Than 50 Years

When you think of epic rock ‘n roll drummers, you likely conjure images of Neil Pert, with his penchant for the technical aspects of percussion, such as intricate time signatures, or Keith Moon, with his unique open drumming stance and flair for stylistic fills. You probably don’t think of Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones’ drummer for nearly six decades, who passed away peacefully in a London hospital on Tuesday, surrounded by his family. Yet, if you are in the know, you might recognize the percussive genius that was Charlie Watts. 
Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones, passed away August 24, 2021 Source:

Watts started, and arguably finished his career, as a jazz drummer. As Mikal Gilmore, Contributing Editor to the magazine Rolling Stone, writes, Watts early on “. . . recorded 10 jazz albums on his own, in a wide variety of styles, starting in 1986 with Live at Fulham Town Hall, by the Charlie Watts Orchestra — an oversized orchestra that included seven trumpeters, four trombones, three altoists, six tenors, a baritonist, a clarinetist, two vibraphonists, piano, two basses, Jack Bruce on cello, and three drummers.” 

But it was Watts’ ability to seamlessly blend the genres of blues, rock, and even country that made him a dynamic and invaluable component of the Rolling Stones. And this adaptability emerged from Watts’ capacity to be broadminded about music in general, and how to use that musical flexibility to add depth and flavor to the Stones, specifically.

As Watts stated, “While they were all going on about John Lee Hooker and all these other marvelous people [like] Muddy Waters, I’d be putting Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins in. That’s what I was into when I joined the Rolling Stones, that’s what I used to listen to. Keith taught me to listen to Elvis Presley, because Elvis was someone I never bloody liked or listened to. Obviously, I’d heard ‘Hound Dog’ and all that, but to listen to him properly, Keith was the one who taught me.”

This was, of course, a two-way creative street. As Watts puts it, “But Mick listens to jazz; Keith likes it. Keith actually likes Louis Armstrong — that’s probably his favorite jazz man – and he loves (saxophonist) Lester Young, as I do. And Ronnie Wood’s brother, Ted, is a drummer and a fan of Louis and (cornetist) Bix Beiderbecke. So, Ronnie was brought up listening to those things. He had to because his brothers wouldn’t let him play anything else!”

In his quiet and unreserved manner, Watts was the literal and metaphorical heartbeat of the Rolling Stones for more than 50 years, simultaneously anchoring and propelling numerous hits. Take, for example, the iconic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” released in 1965. Though most people acknowledge the catchy, almost hypnotic nature of Keith Richards’ guitar riff, it was Watts’ drumming that gave the song its compelling nature, created by Watt’s tension and release approach to drumming 

Caryn Rose, a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer who documents New York City, rock and roll, and Major League Baseball aptly observes, “There are three of these moments in the song, each consisting of only ten beats, but it is integral to the song’s greatness: the combined anticipation that it is approaching, like pulling the spring back on a flying toy, and then the release as it soars into the air. Charlie’s beats are that moment between takeoff and crash landing. Your fists punctuate the air, your fingers drum on the steering wheel, your hips rock back and forth, for each of those ten beats.” 

Another song in which Watts’ role is simultaneously subdued, yet powerfully impactful, is the 1968 smash hit “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Along with the jumpy bassline, Watts’ fine sense of the power of sonics transports this number to new heights. The American music journalist and author Gary Graff frames it this way: “There’s a lot of dynamic sweep in this one, from the chiming opening to charging verses and choruses, then back to the trippy shimmer of the break. Holding down the fort, Watts alternates between muscular pump and delicate, detailed accents to give the song a variety of sonic dimensions.” 

In fact, his unassuming, yet steady and significant presence may have been the key to the Rolling Stones’ success. As Keith Richards said in a 1979 interview, “Everybody thinks Mick and Keith are the Rolling Stones. If Charlie wasn’t doing what he’s doing on drums, that wouldn’t be true at all. You’d find out Charlie Watts is the Stones.” Richards even went as far as writing that “Charlie Watts has always been the bed that I lie on musically” in his 2010 memoir, “Life.”

Yet Watts was never one to call attention to himself, or to be publicly flashy with his percussive chops, saying, “I don’t like drum solos. I never take them. I admire some people who do them, but generally, I don’t like them. It’s not something I sit and listen to. I prefer drummers in the band playing with the band.”

But as the old saying goes, still rivers run deep, and Watts was no exception. Watts, by all accounts, was a complex, nuanced man, and his steadiness and solidity were belied by his sometimes impulsive inner nature. Although Watts was never into the party scene and preferred solitude, he nonetheless struggled with addiction to alcohol and heroin. “I was lucky that I never got that hooked, but I went through a period of taking heroin,” Watts admitted. 

Grunge Magazine article noted of Watts, “The drummer’s health declined and he was described as looking like Dracula by his daughter.” Ironically, it was Keith Richards that pulled Watts out of his drug-induced semi-coma. Watts recalls, “I fell asleep on the floor during [the recording of] ‘Some Girls’ and Keith woke me up and said: ‘You should do this when you’re older.’ Keith telling me this! But it stuck and I just stopped along with everything else”.

In many ways, Watts redefined what a rock n’ roll drummer is. For Watts, laying back in the pocket and providing the metronomic scaffolding to lay down memorable melodies and haunting guitar riffs was his ongoing gift to the Rolling Stones and all of their fans. Wherever you are on the other side of the musical plane, Charlie, we Miss You.

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