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Nick Dent-Robinson pays tribute to Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts who died on August 24th.
Charlie Watts was worth over £165m when he died on 24 August and was acknowledged the world over as an iconic drummer with one of the most iconic rock bands ever, The Rolling Stones. Yet Charlie himself would not have seen anything exceptional about his achievements, always describing himself as “just very lucky”. Always self-effacing and no great lover of the limelight, he was nonetheless held in the highest esteem by his bandmates.
Bill Wyman once told me, “Charlie is a brilliant, jazz-influenced drummer. He was the keel that kept the Rolling Stones boat from capsizing, his creative energy stopped us ever getting stale, his talent kept us grooving. Anybody who ever danced to a Rolling Stones tune was dancing to Charlie Watts. He is genuinely quite exceptional – but he'd hate to hear me saying so!”
Born in 1941, Charlie Watts was raised in a prefab in Kingsbury, North West London, where his family were rehoused after their neighbourhood was bombed by the Germans during the Blitz. As a boy, he was gifted at both written English and Art and gained a place at the esteemed Harrow Art School before taking a job as a graphic designer. The passion for drawing and painting never left him and in later years his artwork found its way on to several Stones album covers. But, despite his artistic talents, by his teens Charlie was also obsessed by both modern classical music and, increasingly, by jazz. He would listen constantly to New Orleans ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton and was a huge fan of Duke Ellington before becoming hooked on the modern jazz sound of Charlie Parker. His father, a lorry driver, encouraged his son's interest and, spotting Charlie's natural sense of rhythm, bought him a drum kit.
Within months, Charlie was playing drums at coffee shops, local clubs and pubs with various little-known bands and groups. One evening, Alexis Korner, the blues guitarist and broadcaster, spotted Charlie and invited him to sit in on drums with his band, Blues Incorporated. Charlie knew nothing about blues music and just assumed it was a form of slow jazz. But his natural technique impressed Korner and soon he was a fixture in Blues Incorporated, Britain's first electric blues band. They played trendy venues like the Ealing Club to ecstatic audiences that included Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Paul Jones, Pete Townshend and a teenage Rod Stewart. A while later Charlie agreed to play at a few sessions with a bunch of young blues aficionados who included a keen grammar school boy called Mick Jagger, along with Keith Richards, Brian Jones and a pianist called Ian Stewart who Charlie believed was by far the best musician of the group. A few months later, they were joined by Bill Wyman - described by Charlie as “a real quality bassist, a true pro”.
From 1962, this group were playing regularly at the Marquee Club as The Rolling Stones and, before long, they'd been spotted (thanks to a recommendation from The Beatles' George Harrison) by Dick Rowe and signed to the Decca label. Watts was by no means sure he wanted to stay with the group, but Rowe was adamant that Charlie's superb sense of rhythm and percussive skill must be part of the deal. So Charlie acquiesced, thinking this might be a temporary arrangement.....before too long he could return to playing jazz or pure blues.
Of course, that never happened. But Charlie Watts never truly aspired to make the kind of music The Rolling Stones were famous for. Neither did he listen to anything The Stones recorded, given a choice. He saw the main reason for recording new albums as “giving us something new to play on stage....so we aren't just doing ‘Brown Sugar’ over and over - forever!”. On the rare occasions he was interviewed (usually under protest), Charlie would often be asked his favourite Stones track or favourite Stones album. His answer never varied. “I don't listen to our LPs much,” he would just say. He also detested playing a big stadium or a festival. “I never want to do that. I prefer the atmosphere of a small, intimate club. I hate playing outdoors and things like Glastonbury are old hat, really. It's just not how I'd like to spend a weekend.” What he always really wanted to do was just play jazz – and over his six decades with The Rolling Stones, that never changed.
His dislike of the rock'n'roll lifestyle extended to mixing with celebrities. From 1964 when they were first married until his death Charlie was quietly loyal to his wife, Shirley. The rock life bored him and he shunned the bright lights of London, New York or Los Angeles, spending all his spare time at Halsdon Manor, near Dolton, a village in the depths of North Devon where he and Shirley ran an Arabian horse stud farm.
However, despite all Charlie's very genuine modesty, he was hugely rated across the music industry. As Keith Richards once said, “Make no mistake about it, without Charlie, the Stones would have been a very ordinary band. We all know how much we owe to him. When the last note has died away, I'd like to be buried next to Charlie Watts.”
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