CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD salutes the most grounded member of the Rolling Stones
There can be few terms in the English language more debased than ‘rock star’. Nowadays, it seems, the press makes a fetish of every halfway plausible such chancer to appear over the horizon, regardless of whether their art will endure, or their generally slim recorded oeuvre instead be among the detritus one eventually takes to the nearest Oxfam shop. But the Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who died on 24 August aged 80, truly merits a place in the pop pantheon. He wasn’t just an original among the standard tub-thumpers of his profession. He was unique. Back in 1963 the Stones’s first manager, Eric Easton, fastened on the essential thing about Watts, which was that he was “totally unpretentious” and “perfect at his job”. Those same two qualities would remain intact for the next 58 years.
It was a curious path that took the impeccably polite, suave young drummer into a group that were to hear themselves described as ‘morons’ by a High Court judge, and to read newspaper accounts citing their UGLY LOOKS! UGLY SPEECH! UGLY MANNERS! among other unattractive characteristics. Watts, born on 2 June 1941, grew up in and around Islington, north London, at a time when the area was still a byword for urban decay rather than the spiritual home of Britain’s left-wing intelligentsia. His father, also called Charles, was a van driver for a precursor of British Rail, and his mother Lilian had been a factory cleaner. “He’s always been a good boy”, Mrs. Watts informed the press in 1967, the year of the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request:
Never had any police knocking on the door or anything like that. And he’s always been terribly kind to old people. He was always a tidy dresser. That’s why I get nonplussed when he’s called ugly and dirty. When he’s home you can’t get him out of the bathroom.
Ten years later, Watts’s father remained equally perplexed by his son’s public image, especially because Charlie (who never learned to drive) still came up on the tube every Friday night he possibly could, “with a lovely fresh cake for me and his Mum”.
Watts himself was later to remark,
Part of my problem was that I was never a teenager. I’d be off in the corner talking about Kierkegaard. I always took myself too seriously, and thought Buddy Holly was a great joke.
And it’s true there was something a bit melancholic about the London lad with the long, Buster Keaton face who only ever wanted to read about cowboys or play the drums. He acquired his first kit at Christmas 1955, after at least a year of practicing nonstop on his mother’s pots and pans. At 18, Watts had only one ambition, which was to somehow find himself at Birdland in New York, wearing a hipster suit and sitting in behind the likes of Stan Getz or Miles Davis. Instead, he drifted in to a smoke-filled suburban London blues club one evening, to be confronted by the embryonic Rolling Stones. They courted him for about a year before he agreed to join, and even then he contained his excitement. The Stones’ roadie and sometime piano player Ian Stewart remembered that he’d simply driven up to the Watts’s front door one night in his van. “I said to Charlie, ‘Look, you’re in the band. That’s it’. And Charlie said, ‘Yeah, all right, then, but I don’t know what my mum’s gonna say.’”
In March 1971, the Rolling Stones began a short tour of Britain prior to their taking up residence in the south of France. To this day there are different views of the primary motivation behind the group’s decision to embark on an extended Somerset Maugham-like exile on the Riviera. Keith Richards would long rue the fact that “the Establishment – a lot of fuckin’ judges and politicians – kicked us out of our country”, while others believe that Keith’s ire might have been better directed at the Stones’ highly paid business managers for allowing the band to run up an unpayable debt to the Inland Revenue and thus necessitating a period of non-residence in the UK. Either way, there was a so-called ‘farewell tour’ to mark the occasion. Everyone’s parents came to the final show at the Roundhouse in London. Mick Jagger was later forced to admit that “It was weird wigglin’ around in front of me mum”, and that the general atmosphere of the night had been “crazy – everyone was out of their brains on dope”. Against this debauched backdrop, Charles and Lilian Watts sat together in the front row, wearing their Sunday-best clothes, and courteously handed round biscuits to their neighbours. You could see again how their boy Charlie might have developed into the personality he did.
Amidst all the surrounding Stones-related tales about Mars Bars, drug busts and Margaret Trudeau, Watts remained the calm eye of the storm. He bought the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s country home in Sussex, raised sheepdogs, and collected American Civil War memorabilia. He was the politest man in rock music. Once, in Detroit, a record executive named Mo Schulman invited the drummer up for a drink in his hotel suite, which was awash in champagne, caviar and an impressive variety of recreational drugs. When Schulman was then urgently called away on business, he affably told his guest to help himself from the display. “Anything you want”, he stressed. Charlie took a bottle of beer, leaving both a five-dollar bill and a polite thank-you note on the counter. A few years later, again on tour, the Stones were living it up one night in the pinball room of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion with its underwater bar and hot and cold running Bunnies. Charlie took one look at the Satyricon-like scene, rolled his eyes, said, “Uh-oh, this is star situation”, and retired alone with a good book.
I saw this same unaffected modesty for myself when Watts once quite unnecessarily wrote to thank me for a small cricket-related gift. His actual handwriting was always a bit of a challenge, but the signature was clear enough. It read “Charlie W”, or possibly “Charlie R” (his middle initial), followed by a pair of brackets, in which he neatly inserted – as if his current occupation might not be generally familiar – “Of the Rolling Stones”.
Watts was always the steadying influence of a band that often seemed to be on the brink of a messy, Beatlesque breakup. For large parts of the 1980s, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were united only in their mutual affection for the dapper, self-effacing man doing the locomotion behind them on stage. Richards called Watts “the secret essence of the whole thing”, and “the perfect drummer for the material”. Watts’s light touch and crisp, jazzy sensibility distinguished some of the band’s most iconic songs. Sitting impassively at his minimalist kit, he lit the fuse to ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Honky Tonk Women’, ‘Brown Sugar’ and many others. Variety once wrote of him on stage, “He looks like the mild-mannered banker who no one in the heist movie realizes is the guy actually blowing up the vault.”
That’s not to say Watts was ever a pushover. He may have been the most genial of all rock musicians, but there was no way he was going to let the buggers tell him what to do. In the winter of 1984, the Rolling Stones and their sundry friends and aides convened for a few days in Amsterdam, not so much to make new music as to take advantage of the Netherlands’ uniquely generous tax provisions for those entities at least notionally based in the country. Following a lengthy presentation by the band’s business advisers, Keith Richards apparently felt the need to take Mick Jagger out on the town and get him drunk. The latter’s usual transition from gregariousness to mindless exuberance was abnormally swift. A blotto Jagger returned to the group’s hotel in the early hours of the following morning. At that stage he made the decision to pick up the phone to dial Charlie’s room, and to then rashly refer to him in the course of the ensuing conversation as “my drummer”.
At that Watts got up, showered, shaved, dressed in a Turnbull and Asser shirt, silk tie and three-piece suit, went downstairs, seized Jagger, and punched his lights out. “It was like a scene in a movie”, Keith Richards later said of a room containing 30 or so well-oiled musicians and their friends. Anyone familiar with The Island of Dr Moreau, with its apes and dogs surgically turned in to semi-human form, has only to think of these same fauna dressed in 1980s pastels to get a bit of the flavour. The band’s ever-present security crew froze in place – nobody seemed quite sure what the protocol was for separating one Rolling Stone from another – leaving Keith himself to grab Mick as he “landed on a plateful of smoked salmon and slid along the table towards the window”. Richards later remarked that he had been moved less by humanitarianism per se than by the fact that Jagger happened to be wearing his own favourite silk jacket at the time. His intervention possibly saved Sir Mick from being defenestrated into the canal below, but its real motivation was to “stop my gear being ruined”.
“Don’t ever call me your drummer again”, Charlie observed on his way out. “You’re my fucking singer.”
On another occasion, in 1992, Watts emerged from a period of seclusion to record his own big-band album, broadly in the style of Cab Calloway, which he promoted by a short American tour. Sitting behind his kit for a show at New York’s Blue Note club in his immaculate zoot suit without removing his jacket or loosening his tie, it was hard to remember that this silver-haired gentleman was the drummer in the world’s most notorious rock and roll band. A night or two later, the ‘silent Stone’, as he was billed, was to have appeared as the musical guest on NBC television’s Late Night with David Letterman. This highly coveted spot would have exposed Charlie and his album to an audience of some six million potential customers, but it came with an important condition. In keeping with NBC policy, the show’s in-house band would have to accompany him. The subsequent discussions had not proceeded far before it became apparent that Charlie would not be open to this arrangement. Minutes before the programme’s scheduled air-time, he left the building with a muttered “Sod it” and wandered off alone into the warm New York night.
In 2014, Watts became the first rock star to celebrate a golden wedding anniversary. He married his childhood sweetheart Shirley Shepherd when they were both in their early twenties, and the couple remained together to the end. In later years the Wattses lived on a sprawling farm in north Devon, which they shared with a stable of 23 Arab horses and several dozen cows, sheep and dogs. ‘The squire’, as he was known locally, could sometimes be seen walking in a waxed jacket and gumboots around the nearby village of Dolton, unmolested by the few residents who associated him with the Rolling Stones.
While Shirley tended to the farm, Charlie was content to sit inside listening to jazz records or watching old cricket videos, a routine he sometimes varied by perching, in motoring cap and goggles, behind the wheel of his stationary 1937 Lagonda Rapide. When compelled to go on tour with the Stones, he typically assumed the air of bemused detachment that was as much a part of the whole spectacle as Mick’s rooster-on-acid gyrations or Keith’s laconic riffing. For years, Charlie enlivened the experience of clocking on and off for group rehearsals by the expedient of hanging an old-fashioned shop’s ‘Open’ or ‘Closed’ sign in front of his kit. Drummers, like goalkeepers, are a bit different.
The Stones’ final public appearance with Watts was a filmed segment for the first We’re-all-in-this-together Covid broadcast in April 2020. Seated on his living room floor, Charlie played along on a spirited version of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, drumsticks in hand, using a trio of musical storage cases and a nearby couch for percussion. It was an effortless, funny, and musically deft performance, and absolutely right for the occasion. Only the drummer in the world’s greatest rock band, it seemed, might not wish to keep a set of drums at home. Somehow that summed up the man.
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD has written biographies of film, music and sports stars. His latest book is The Man Who Conned the World – Victor Lustig (History Press, 2021)