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Charlie Watts and the Rolling Stones

By Marc Zisman |

The Rolling Stones' drummer puts away his sticks for good at the age of 80...

He was the alien of the band but without him the Rolling Stones would have never have been the Rolling Stones. A perfect example is the mythical cover of the 1970 live album, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, where Watts is alone, guitars in hand, wearing Uncle Sam's hat, alongside a donkey carrying his drums... It is hard to believe that Charlie Watts, who passed away on 24 August 2021, was a casting error... or rather the saving grace, even the light touch, of the most famous rock'n'roll band in the world. His visceral passion for jazz, his claimed dandyism, his total discretion, his legendary calm, his deadpan humour, his impeccable swing and his fine and fair approach to the drums went against all the clichés of debauchery and excess conveyed by the Jagger/Richards tandem. As their guitarist Ron Wood said, "Charlie is the engine. And without the engine, we're not going anywhere.""

Unflappable behind his drums, he was not only the heartbeat of the Stones but also the one everyone kept turning to during the concerts, as if to check that the heart of the nuclear power plant was ticking at the right speed. The calm in the middle of the storm, so to speak. And above all, the exact opposite of the great flamboyant performers of his generation, like Keith Moon of The Who or John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, agitated behind their XXL drums whilst Watts would remain faithful to simple kits of reduced scale.

Jazz. It is impossible to write the name Charlie Watts without adding these four letters. Born on June 2nd 1941 in Wembley, Middlesex, he fell in love with jazz at a very young age, to the point of hardly listening to rock music. At the end of the fifties, everyone dreamed of being Elvis. Charlie saw himself as the new Kenny Clarke, his idol, the mythical drummer of the pianist Bud Powell. He bought everything that came out, religiously reads the American monthly Downbeats and only went to jazz concerts. However, aware, as he will admit, of his technical limits and his modest virtuosity, he turned to more binary music. At first he played rhythm'n'blues in London clubs. Then, from 1962 and for almost six decades, he moved towards the rock'n'roll of the Rolling Stones. Regularly, Charlie Watts will recall jazz as his first passion. We see this in 1965 when he penned a small book on Charlie Parker (Ode to a High Flying Bird) and especially from the 1980s until 2017, when Watts released a dozen solo albums, mainly in big band or quintet, and obviously exclusively jazz...

We sometimes forgot to listen to Charlie Watts's contributions, too focused on deconstructing Mick's lyrics or Keith's riffs. Yet he was essential everywhere! On Jigsaw Puzzle, on Rocks Off or on any other Rolling Stones song. Legend has it that one day, when Jagger got tired of hearing him say that he was "his drummer", Charlie slapped him in the face and replied, "no, you're my singer."