Charlie Watts (1941-2021)

The drummer for the Rolling Stones has died at the age of 80. He had played with them for 60 years. This great rock band has stayed together a phenomenally long time, continuing to perform live, and were planning yet another tour.

Always using a straightforward four-drum setup – positively minimalist compared with the multi-instrument setups favoured by many rock groups – he gave the Rolling Stones propulsive, unfussy backbeats on every one of their studio albums, beginning with their self-titled 1964 debut. “I don’t like drum solos,” he once said. “I admire some people that do them, but generally I prefer drummers playing with the band. The challenge with rock’n’roll is the regularity of it. My thing is to make it a dance sound – it should swing and bounce.”

Unlike the colourful romantic histories of his Rolling Stones bandmates, Watts was stable in his personal life: he married his wife Shirley Ann Shepherd in 1964, and they remained together until his death. He is also survived by their daughter, Seraphina, and granddaughter Charlotte.

Although known as a more temperate rock star compared with the rest of the Stones, Watts struggled with alcohol, amphetamines and heroin use for a period in the 1980s. “I think it was a midlife crisis,” he told the Observer in 2000. “All I know is that I became totally another person around 1983 and came out of it about 1986. I nearly lost my wife and everything over my behaviour … I wasn’t that badly affected, I wasn’t a junkie, but giving up [drugs] was very, very hard.” He said that falling down the steps of his cellar drunk while fetching another bottle of wine “really brought it home to me how far down I’d gone. I just stopped everything – drinking, smoking, taking drugs, everything, all at once.”

It is impossible to pick a song that represents him and the band, there are so many to choose from. Furthermore, music videos of rock performances rarely give much screen time to the drummer. This is even more so in the case of the Rolling Stones which has such a flashy frontman in Mick Jagger. But I found this performance of Jumping Jack Flash where the camera stays on Watts and you get to see his skill close up.


  1. dean56 says

    I saw this earlier today. You always got the impression that Watts rather enjoyed being the least flamboyant of the Stones. Years ago I read a story about him in which he was described as the “proper British gentleman” of the group.

    Two comments: I agree Jagger is flashy, but take a few minutes and try to count the number of great opening guitar riffs Keith Richards is responsible for. He’s the one that comes to my mind first when I hear or think about them.

    Second: Watts was a boogie woogie music fan too.

  2. mnb0 says

    Charlie Watts was one of the first (if not the) Brittish drummers who correctly thought rock’n’roll would kick more ass when build upon jazzy drum patterns. From about 1975 on drumming became simpler and simpler alas; a good example is Roger Taylor from Queen. Compare Liar from the debut album with any 1980’s hit.

    Fun fact: James McDonnell was even more minimalistic.

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