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Charlie Watts played with the band


Cover of East-West Bild & Text

There's a roll and a snap. It could never be copied or more perfectly executed. And it was all so natural as it flowed through his wrists to his fingers and the drums.

If you're looking for an example of what makes Charlie Watts' playing so special, it's as simple as pulling out the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers and dropping the needle on "Wild Horses."

Midway through the second verse, there's a subtle fill and a thwack as Mick Jagger curls into the vocal. It's just behind the beat, and in lesser hands, it would have come off as a competent, mechanical example of timekeeping — likely fine, hardly memorable. Instead, what we get is appropriately understated, and the most fitting audible example of the man's approach behind the kit in the nearly 60 years he provided the backbone to the Rolling Stones.

Charlie didn't seem to have any interest in being a wild virtuoso, or to being just anyone's drummer. He had groove and instincts, fitting right into the pocket and melding perfectly behind the distinct rhythm of Keith Richards. He was a marvel, as distinguished as he was graceful.

Charlie Watts didn't seem to mind going unnoticed.

The caveat there, however, is that of course he wanted his recognition. It's just that Watts wasn't bothered with slipping past those who didn't matter. When it came to musicians, producers, engineers and the other Stones, he was immediately and constantly recognized as an indispensable force.

Otherwise, fame was no concern. As Keith once said so eloquently, “Charlie’s perfect world is: you’re in the Rolling Stones except nobody gives a shit who you are.”

Charlie's place within the dynamic of the Stones was as fascinating as anything. As much as any band could be, the Rolling Stones are a study in contrasts. Typically, that's illustrated in the dynamic of Mick vs. Keith, flamboyant and flash vs. dark and gritty. But it extends beyond them and their drama and infighting, to the backline where, more often than not, Charlie was sitting stoic, upright posture on the drum seat, steely expression somewhere south of a sly grin across his face while he waits and reacts. As he often said, he followed Keith's rhythm guitar rather than setting the pace himself, creating the distinct push-and-pull that became the Stones' signature. Keith sets the tone, just ahead of the beat, Charlie reinforces it laying just behind it, and in between exists the infectious rhythm that a million bar bands have attempted and failed to replicate. Bill Wyman called it "the wobble," and it's inimitable.

In the myriad discussions of great drummers and best drummers and the like, it's become a point of pride for Stones fans to remind the rest of the world that Watts belongs there with any of them. If he's underrated, it's not by anyone who has paid any attention.

He took pride in his work, defending himself when he felt necessary, more often than not content to let the music speak for him.

"I was always brought up under the theory that the drummer is an accompanist," Watts once said. "I mean I don't like drum solos, I don't take them. I admire some people that do them, but generally I don't like them. It's not something I sit and listen to. I prefer drummers in the band, playing with the band."

As a duo, Keith and Charlie were just as pivotal to the success of the Stones as Mick and Keith. Flip through Keith Richards' autobiography Life, and for every story where Keith is off working through the wee hours of the night, layering guitars and bass to create the guts of another standout track, it's Charlie with him in the studio, the bedrock on which all that music stood. Keith was never shy about saying it, writing that, "We're damn lucky we got to work with Charlie Watts. ... He has that touch."

That touch is evident throughout the band's vast catalog. The herky-jerk push of "Get Off of My Cloud," the fills on "Monkey Man," the drive of "Bitch," the easy shuffle of "Waiting on a Friend," all down the line, pick a song and there's a groove that gives each tune the idiosyncratic feel of the Rolling Stones. Even if it's magic, it has to come from somewhere. And it came from the man in the Savile Row suit, with tie, cufflinks and shoes to match, perched in attention and open for business.

When the news broke that Charlie was gone after 80 years, the first bit of video I thought to seek out comes from the Gimme Shelter documentary, where the band is sitting in Muscle Shoals Sound listening to the playback of "Wild Horses" for the first time. Mick is studious and listening intently. Keith is kicked back on the couch, eyes closed, mouthing along to the words and tapping his foot. Charlie's interesting, though, just looking down and listening, not moving much until he notices the camera has moved onto him. And he then stares straight into the lense for what feels like an eternity, as if its presence was interrupting a sacred moment, before summarily casting it aside and resuming his previous state.

Around the 2:30 mark, his own drum fill into the last chorus pops in, and his face changes — a bemused half-grin, an acknowledgement of his own proficiency. He didn't seem to care for the camera, or the spotlight so often held by the Glimmer Twins up front, or even the trappings of the cliché rock and roll lifestyle. But he found satisfaction in his work. He was too good slip by unnoticed for long.

Aug. 25, 2021

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