Longtime drummer for the Rolling Stones, Charlie Watts — whose simple, swing style of play helped immortalize the group’s sound — died today in London, according to his spokesperson. He was 80.
Watts had been with the Stones for over 50 years. He is the second regular member of the group to die, following Brian Jones’ death in 1969.
On Aug. 4, the Rolling Stones announced that Watts would not be accompanying them on their Fall 2021 No Filter Tour, citing that he needed time to recover following a successful medical procedure.
“For once my timing was a little off,” Watts wrote in the Aug. 4 Instagram post. “I am working hard to get fully fit but I have today accepted on the advice of the experts that this will take a while.”
Before playing with the band, Watts made his living working as a graphic designer in London. At nights, he would frequent gigs at London’s rhythm and blues clubs as a drummer. It was there where he met a rudimentary version of what would become the Rolling Stones — at the time made up of Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Ian Stewart and Brian Jones. He later joined the band full time in 1963.
His time with the group was not without controversy. In 1969, the group put on a free concert featuring performances from the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Santana and the Flying Burrito Brothers at the Altamont Speedway in Alameda County. While the Stones were performing, audience member Meredith Hunter, 18, attempted to storm the stage with a gun, prompting Alan Passaro, one of the Hells Angels who was acting as security, to fatally stab him.
Watts’ drumming was equal parts rhythmically dynamic and understated according to Dean Suzuki, who has a doctorate in historical musicology and is a professor of music history at SF State, helping to define what would become the Rolling Stones’ sound.
“He was always interested in supporting the band and the music,” Suzuki said. “He was this kind of great counterbalancing in a way to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.”
Watts brought that same kind of counterbalance off stage too. The drummer adopted a more dapper look compared to some of the more eccentric styles of his bandmates. This contrast in style, more recently, even led to a moment of viral fame for the drummer. In his personal life, Watt remained married to his wife, Shirley Ann Shepherd, for 57 years, with whom he had one daughter.
Pat Thomas, a reissue producer, author and drummer based in Los Angeles, said Watts was the dignified side to the Stones’ rock ‘n’ roll edge.
“It’s kind of like, if you’re out with your friends on a Saturday night and you’re all drunk, and one guy is sober and he says, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t throw rocks through the store window,’ that’s the kind of role Charlie played,” Thomas said.
As somebody in the music industry, Thomas emphasized that Watts, while unflashy, was an integral part to the band’s success.
“It’s the side players that make the front men look their best,” Thomas said.
Both Jagger and Richards seemed to be acutely aware of this.
“Charlie Watts has always been the bed that I lie on musically,” Richards said in his 2010 memoir, “Life.”
At a concert he attended in 1972, Suzuki said one of the more memorable moments of the show was the compliments that Jagger would pay to Watts throughout the set.
“There’s good reason why Mick Jagger would say things to the audience like ‘Charlie sounded great tonight,’” Suzuki said. “There’s a reason for that, he understands that understated dynamic that Charlie Watts brings to the music.”