The San Diego Union-Tribune
Charlie Watts, the silver-haired drummer who provided the musical heartbeat of the Rolling Stones for more than 50 years, died Tuesday in London hospital at the age of 80.
No cause of death was disclosed for Watts, who on Aug. 4 withdrew from the Stones’ upcoming U.S. fall tour. His need to recover from an unspecified but “successful” recent medical procedure was cited as the reason for his stepping down for the tour.
The tour was originally scheduled to take place in 2020, but was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Watts’ drum seat for the 2021 tour is being filled by Steve Jordan, a veteran of Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards’ band, The X-Pensive Winos.
The band had recently been working on a new album. It is unknown how close to completion it was prior to his death.
A statement released Tuesday by the band and Watts’ spokesman, Bernard Doherty, reads: “It is with immense sadness that we announce the death of our beloved Charlie Watts. He passed away peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family.
“Charlie was a cherished husband, father and grandfather and also a member of the Rolling Stones; (he was) one of the greatest drummers of his generation.
“We kindly request that the privacy of his family, band members and close friends is respected at this difficult time.”
Watts was not a flashy drummer. He played with concision at all times, the better to let the music breathe, even at the most accelerated moments. He performed with consistent taste, on stage and on record, laying just behind the beat to create a propulsive rhythmic pocket. His goal was to support the song, and his fellow musicians, and he was unerring in his quest to do exactly that.
A jazz artist at heart, Watts’ playing made a big impression on San Diego saxophonist Karl Denson, who has been a touring member of the Stones since 2014.
“(Watts’) drumming style is so deep and complex and fragile, all at the same time,” Denson said in a 2015 Union-Tribune interview.
“At rehearsals, he’ll play a perfect (jazz drum great) Billy Higgins’ ‘Sidewinder’ beat (a 1964 soul-jazz classic by trumpeter Lee Morgan that Higgins drummed on), or a ‘Poinciana’ rhythm (an elegant ballad from a 1958 live album by pianist Ahmad Jamal that features wonderfully delicate drumming by Vernel Fournier). And when Charlie plays the Stones’ stuff, he does this extremely naive, beautiful thing. It’s pretty incredible.”
Watts was a Stone alone in the world’s longest-lived English rock band. Eschewing the trappings of fame he kept a low profile, once going 20 years without doing a single interview.
“I don’t know what showbiz is and I’ve never watched MTV,” he told the Union-Tribune in a rare in-depth interview in 1991. “There are people who just play instruments, and I’m pleased to know that I’m one of them.”
Here is that interview in full (published July 14, 1991).
Long before blues and rock propelled him to stardom, Charlie Watts got jazzed about be-bop, the revolutionary musical style created by Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other pioneering musicians. It was the mid-’40s and jazz and the art of improvisation were being turned upside down.
Now, 28 years after he became the drummer and the heartbeat of the Rollin’ Stones (as England’s greatest rock band was then known), Watts has returned to his first musical love.
The result is “From One Charlie,” a seven-song CD featuring two Parker classics, five new Parker-inspired songs and Watts at the helm of a five-man English bop group that swings with exuberance and sophistication.
“From One Charlie” is the musical counterpart to “Ode to a High Flying Bird,” the recently republished 1964 book Watts wrote and illustrated as a tribute to Parker. The CD and book have been released as a boxed set by England’s UFO Records, and is being distributed in the United States by Continuum Records of New Jersey.
Parker and be-bop are so dear to Watts’ heart that the intensely press-shy drummer surprised both his English and American record companies by volunteering to conduct interviews to promote it.
“I never spoke to the press for 20 years until I had my orchestra,” Watts said, referring to the massive big band he led briefly in the mid-’80s.
Even then, Watts was less than forthcoming. One of this reporter’s most nightmarish interviews took place with the silver-maned drummer after his 36-man big band’s performance at the 1987 Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.
An intensely private man, Watts had turned down virtually all requests to talk with the press either by phone or in person during his big band’s coast-to-coast U.S. tour that summer. Unexpectedly, he agreed to meet with me after his Playboy performance. We stood in the middle of a large dressing room filled with his loudly conversing band mates and at least two-dozen boisterous well-wishers.
The soft-spoken drummer vetoed a suggestion to move to a less noisy room and — because the din was so loud — he was almost inaudible when a tape of the abortive interview was played back.
Could this be the same Charlie Watts who recently spoke with tangible enthusiasm during a lengthy phone conversation from New York?
“They’re fine to do now because it’s an area I’m comfortable in — which is talking about myself,” he quipped, speaking the day after his quintet performed two sold-out shows at Manhattan’s Blue Note jazz club.
Watts grew more serious. “It’s nice to talk about things that I love; the only thing is I don’t like talking about myself. I won’t read this (interview); I never do. I’m not being rude about it, I just don’t do that sort of thing.”
He chuckled. “I’m fortunate, in that I have four people (in the Stones) who are very good at that; Mick (Jagger), in particular, is very good at giving interviews.”
So, surprisingly, is Watts, who spoke for 80 minutes about his love of jazz, the Stones and his distaste for the trappings of fame that have been a way of life for nearly as long as he has been a full-time musician.
“I don’t know if I’m the ‘quiet, dignified one,’ ” he said, when asked about his controversy-free position among the otherwise notorious Stones.
“I’ve actually never been interested in all that stuff and still am not; I don’t know what showbiz is and I’ve never watched MTV. There are people who just play instruments, and I’m pleased to know that I’m one of them.”
Reverential, encyclopedic knowledge of music
Since his youth, Watts has been an ardent jazz aficionado whose knowledge of the music falls somewhere between the deeply reverential and the near-encyclopedic.
“I was 12 years of age, and I heard (saxophonist) Earl Bostic play ‘Flamingo,’ and when I was 13 I went out and bought a record by (baritone saxophonist) Gerry Mulligan called ‘Walking Shoes,’ ” said Watts, recalling his first jazz epiphany. “I heard Chico Hamilton play brushes on ‘Walking Shoes,’ and – bingo!– I wanted to play the drums.
“I still love Gerry Mulligan, and to this day I play that record; the same applies to Charlie Parker. When I play ‘Walking Shoes’ now, I’m 13 again, I’m young. It still does that to me. A lot of people will say, ‘I love a record that the Stones did,’ and a lot of it has to do with what they were doing then, when they were young, because now they’re old.”
Parker, who died of drug and alcohol abuse in 1955 at age 35, is still considered the greatest jazz alto saxophonist. For the 13-year-old Watts, Parker’s visionary music was the introduction to a brave new world that beckons him to this day.
“I have no idea why I should be, at the age of 50, talking about Charlie Parker, still, but he’s always been in my life,” said Watts, who lives on a country estate outside of London with his wife and daughter. “He’s the yardstick that I judge all records by, subconsciously.
“I don’t know what it was about him, I really can’t tell you (because) it’s very difficult to explain. I could put a record on and say, ‘There we are, that’s the bit I love, and still do — I’ve loved it for 30 years.’ But other than that, I don’t know.”
Was Watts attracted by the sheer exhilaration that marked Parker’s virtuosic flights of musical fancy?
“Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s what I meant when I said I could point to that bit or this bit on a record,” he said. “You know his music, don’t you? Good. Well, the big-band version of ‘Night and Day’ (on the album) ‘Charlie Parker with the Orchestra,’ the band comes in: (he sings) Bah-boo-bah! and his opening intro bit to that thrilled me when I was 13 and it does now.
“There’s one example, and `Lover Man’ is another one. I can say that (song) sounds sad, but that’s the power of it. It’s timeless, isn’t it? Though one could also say that about ‘Western Blues’ by Louis Armstrong.”
Would Watts add ‘Donna Lee,’ one of Parker’s most galvanizing classics, to this list?
“Wonderful!” he said. “I mean, now you’re talking records and bits of vinyl, or whatever they’re called. We’re talking about a genius.”
Watts, a former graphic artist, originally intended to make “For One Charlie” a spoken recording of his “Ode to a High Flying Bird” book with musical accompaniment. He describes the story as being the tale of a man hellbent on destruction, as Parker sadly was, adding (in possible reference to fellow Stone Keith Richards), “and we’ve known a lot of them over the years.”
The CD features two Parker chestnuts, “Relaxing at Camarillo” and “Bluebird,” and five fetching originals by alto saxophonist Peter King, a veteran of Watts’ defunct big band. Watts’ quintet also features bassist Dave Green (a boyhood chum of the drummer), pianist Brian Lemon and 18-year-old trumpet whiz Gerard Presencer.
A full-scale tour
Buoyed by the enthusiastic response to the CD and to recent performances in London and New York, Watts hopes to launch a full-scale tour with his quintet. It’s an undertaking that should prove easy, he noted, since the Stones won’t begin recording until next year after they sign a new contract with a yet-to-be-determined label. He also hopes to expand his quintet’s repertoire to include more of Parker’s music and more originals by King.
“You know, Parker went to Los Angeles (in the mid-’40s) with Dizzy Gillespie and had a band with Lucky Thompson and Milt Jackson, so it would be obvious to add a tenor player and a vibes player to the quintet,” Watts said. “It’s all there, it’s easy to do; if you think about it, it’s a very comfortable thing to be involved in. It’s easy, thanks to Charlie Parker. It’s all for him and about him.
”… I think we needed a certain confidence to go out there, and I probably didn’t have it a few years ago. I got the confidence to do this through having the big band and playing with a lot of people I’d longed to play with as a boy, Peter King being one.”
“America doesn’t book English jazz musicians, for some reason,” Watts lamented. “They invite lots of little young white boys to play guitars here, but they don’t like saxophone players coming over. I don’t know why that is.”
An obvious labor of love, “For One Charlie” was recorded in just two days, a period the Stones often spend just getting Watts’ bass drum sound to their liking. Was it refreshing to record so quickly after the months-long process that usually goes into making a Stones’ album?
“Well, it’s refreshing if it works,” he said diplomatically. “But don’t forget, to write an original song and play it is more difficult. Interpreting (Parker) was quite a logical, interesting approach. But to actually go cold into a studio to make a solo album, for me, would take a lot more. I see it as a more difficult task than illustrating my book musically.”
Defend the Stones
He paused. “What I’m trying to do is defend the Stones being in the studio for six months,” he said. “I think it’s more difficult to make a new record of music now than to do what I did with the quintet. It doesn’t mean to say that the end product is any better. As has been proved, you can do it in two days, and — in fact — the Rolling Stones can play things just as fast and well.
“But we are in an industry that perpetuates itself and we helped do that. Have I answered you? I think I have.”
Watts spoke enthusiastically about the benefits he feels result from his fellow Stones pursuing solo projects. He also revealed that he has encouraged Jagger to sing with a big band, a suggestion Jagger responded to by laughing.
“The thing is, with the right material he could do that,” Watts said. “I wouldn’t want him to `do a Tony Bennett’ – it would have to be the right song. But it would be very interesting for him to do that, especially as a songwriter, and I think he should. I’m not a songwriter.
“But Mick listens to jazz; Keith likes it. Keith actually likes Louis Armstrong — that’s probably his favorite jazz man – and he loves (saxophonist) Lester Young, as I do. And Ronnie Wood’s brother, Ted, is a drummer and a fan of Louis and (cornetist) Bix Beiderbecke. So, Ronnie was brought up listening to those things. He had to because his brothers wouldn’t let him play anything else!”
Watts plays the same four-piece Gretsch drum set with his jazz quintet as he does with the Stones — a set he bought after seeing Max Roach playing an identical kit in an ad in Downbeat magazine in the late ‘50s. And, whether playing jazz or rock, Watts holds his sticks in the traditional grip long favored by jazz drummers.
Keeping things together
“That’s the way I play,” he said. “You know, the time signatures and the volumes are different, but you strike the drum just the same. I play the same rim-shot behind the Stones that I do behind a saxophonist. I hope I loosely swing with the Stones, just as I do with a jazz group.
“It’s the same thing to me. Your job as a drummer is to do certain things, and you do them the best you can. You’re trying to keep things together, and I try to do that with as much taste as I think it needs.”
Taste is a hallmark of the music on “From One Charlie,” an album Watts hopes will serve as an enticing introduction for rock fans curious about the legacy of jazz he so cherishes.
“I’m pleased that everyone concerned with it produced it the way I wanted it,” he said. “If, after everything we’ve talked about, someone plays this record and then actually wants to go out and buy a copy of Charlie Parker’s ‘Just Friends,’ that will mean everything to me.”
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