My favorite rock’n’roll star is Charlie Watts, who has been the drummer for the Rolling Stones since 1963.
In Europe, the crowds go berserk every time Charlie is introduced. But when Barb and I saw the Stones in Houston in ‘03, the people around us looked at me as though I’d farted in church when I stood up and bellowed for Mr. Watts.
Drummers get no respect here in the States. (I blame Tommy Lee.)
It’s a different story with Charlie’s bandmates. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have both said that if Charlie quits the Stones, the band is finished.
Of course, Keith has also said that the only way anybody (after Bill Wyman) is getting out of the Stones is in a box.
That actually could have happened for Charlie in 2004, when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. But he fought it, beat it, and then embarked on the Bigger Bang Tour with the rest of the band.
The Bigger Bang Tour may well be Charlie’s last, though, and perhaps the band’s as well. Charlie even said as much in an early press conference for the tour — although Mick interrupted him with “No, no, we never say that!”
Mr. Watts is the most atypical of rock stars. When not in his onstage working clothes, he dresses in the finest tailored suits. When not with the Stones, he indulges in his first love, jazz. (Once, he was quoted as snarling that rock’n’roll was “a load of rubbish” – although he has since modified that by saying that the Stones are the only band with whom he has ever wanted to play rock’n’roll.) His musical idol is Charlie Parker. He plays Gretsch drums because that’s the brand Max Roach endorsed.
With Jim Keltner, he recorded an album that’s almost entirely percussion. Each track on the album is named after a different jazz drummer.
Married since 1964, Mr. Watts has never had anything to do with groupies. And unlike the other Stones, he supposedly didn’t do any drugs in the 60s or 70s — but then (like so many of his jazz idols) became a heroin addict in the 1980s. It was a habit he had kicked by the 90s.
He eschews the spotlight, exploiting his fame and fortune in the public arena only to the extent that it enables him to provide well-paying gigs for jazz musicians in his quintets, tentets, and orchestras.
When asked for his thoughts on being the drummer for the Rolling Stones for over forty years, he simply says, “I don’t play the drums for me. I play them for Mick and Keith.”
He has also pooh-poohed the notion that the Stones couldn’t continue without him, insisting that any number of people in the road crew could get behind the kit and do what he does every night.
Yet guitarist Ronnie Wood genuflects before him, as do Mick and Keith, as do all the other musicians and singers who play with the band.
Anonymous sources within the Stones organization go so far as to claim that Charlie is the one band member that all of the others – all of them – wish they could be like.
He’s the one who’s least concerned with what the rest of the world thinks.
He’s the one who’s kept the Glimmer Twins from murdering each other.
He’s the one whose life has been the most about musicianship.
In short: He’s the one whose life has been the most about backing up everyone else.
And whether or not you respect drummers in general . . . man, you’ve gotta respect that.
Charlie Watts — A Partial Jazz Discography:
The Charlie Watts Orchestra, Live at Fulham Town Hall, 1986
Charlie Watts Quintet, From One Charlie . . ., 1991
Charlie Watts Quintet, A Tribute to Charlie Parker (with Strings), 1992
Charlie Watts Quintet (featuring vocalist Bernard Fowler, with the Metropolitan Orchestra), Warm & Tender, 1994
Charlie Watts Quintet (introducing Bernard Fowler), Long Ago & Far Away, 1996
Charlie Watts and Jim Keltner, Charlie Watts Jim Keltner Project, 2000
Charlie Watts and the Tentet, Watts at Scott’s, 2004
Bland Lemon Denton, “Charlie Watts“*
*a country song by a blues lover in which the central metaphor involves a rock’n’roll drummer who prefers jazz
(Bland Lemon thanks Rory “Bulky Jones” Harper and Caroline “Bad Cat” Spector for their helpful comments on the mix. We’ll add bass later.)
(April 6 Update: Bulky Jones has graciously remixed Bland Lemon’s “Charlie Watts” mp3, punching up the clarity, volume, and sample rate. So as of this evening, that’s the version we’ve linked. Bland Lemon says “Thanks again, Bulky!”)