“Charlie’s pretty good tonight,” a fan yelled out after “Rocks Off” two summers ago at FedEx Field outside Washington, D.C. “Get down tonight Charlie!”
It was a line he borrowed from Mick Jagger who coined the phrase “Charlie’s good tonight, ain’t he?” on the band’s live album Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out, the cover featuring a smiling Watts jumping in euphoria with guitars in each hand and a donkey to his side strapped with drums. Delighted all night was drummer Charlie Watts, the stoic gray-haired drummer who always looked ancient but lit up when he was caught occasionally smiling.
When a list of fan requests scrolled on the giant video screen, Jagger professed to not know any of them. At one point he started naming local cities to drummer Charlie Watts’ drum rolls before getting bored by the exercise, turning to the drummer saying, “That’s enough towns Charlie!”
Maybe during all that stadium fanfare that was the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, Watts, who passed away this week, drifted off and imagined he was just a jazz drummer in some small club.
“Well, when I think of it,” he told Max Weinberg in The Big Beat (Conversations With Rock’s Great Drummers) as he sipped tea in a sunny parlor overlooking the Thames. “I would have loved to have been born in an era when jazz was the thing. I wish I could have been around when it was a struggle to get in the door, when jazz musicians were the stars.”
And he did lead his own quintet, putting out five ensemble albums under his name along the way. But for six decades he anchored the Rolling Stones, the stoic drummer who barely made any facial expressions but drove the band with a kinetic force and made them swing.
“Why do you keep playing?” he was once asked.
“Because I like to play drums for the Rolling Stones,” he shot back incredulously, perhaps a reminder of why he thought interviews were a waste of time.
And for all the years that Watts looked older than he really was, there he was in the center of it all, all over the world keeping the beat like he once had in the clubs of swinging London, on Shindig and the Ed Sullivan Show, at Altamont, in Paris, at Madison Square Garden, Tokyo, during the Super Bowl, in Havana, on the beach of Rio and too many places to fit on this page.
Of course It was never better than on the small stage that the band would reveal in the middle of their stadium extravaganzas. As they sauntered down the runway, a small stage would appear like they’d played on in London back in the day. If you were lucky enough to get close, it was like you snuck into a small club. I once had tickets at FedEx Field that had no seats. I felt like I had won the lottery because they were in the exact spot where the stage appeared. (Check out the DVD box set Four Flicks and show at Madison Square Garden to experience what I mean.)
“I wonder if they would say the Rolling Stones are that good if we didn’t have Charlie Watts,” Keith Richards once posited.
With Mick Jagger flying around the stage and gyrating spastically, Keith Richards often had his back turned the audience, invariably gravitating to Watts’ drum stand, sticking his foot on it and cavorting with the drummer, seemingly disinterested in what the world’s greatest frontman was doing. Guitarist Ronnie Wood would drop in and the real action was always by the drum stand. I always watched what Keith was doing and invariably he was hanging by Charlie trying to tap into the rhythm that he and Watts created, driving the Stones. If Richards was the glue of the Stones, he always stuck to Charlie Watts.
It was the inveterate jazz fan and drummer who suggested that the Rolling Stones announce their 1975 tour down Fifth Avenue in New York playing on a flatbed truck, just like the old jazz bands used to do to promote themselves in Harlem. Watts told a fan magazine in 1965 that his goal was to look like a black American jazz drummer. “I always wanted to be a black New Yorker,” he told Weinberg. “You know the sharpest one on the street.”
Watts’ love for jazz came early and when he was twenty, he put out a children’s book based on Charlie “Bird” Parker. It was the story of a little bird. As he shared with Weinberg, the book came about when John Lennon released his book In My Own Write. The publisher of the fan magazines Rolling Stones Monthly and Beatles Monthly published it. “Well this chap saw my book and said, ‘Ah there’s a few bob in this!’ But of course, John Lennon had a far greater appeal than me and Charlie Parker.”
There was the time the band came into Grand Central Station in their own train car to announce the Steel Wheels tour. When the band chose to go up in a helicopter to promote a tour in the new millenium, Watts was game but was noticeably terrified by the time he landed. No doubt he wished he was home. When success meant he could afford a Bentley, it didn’t mean he could drive it. Watts, who didn’t have a driver’s license, would take pleasure leaving his house and opening the car door to sit behind the steering wheel of the driver’s seat.
Watts, who looked like a detective in a noir film on the cover of Black and Blue, was a spiffy and erudite guy who once led his own orchestra and quintet. He was the band’s de facto art director, designing the band’s album covers and aiding Jagger in conceptualizing the band’s elaborate stage designs. There’s that infamous story detailed in Bill German’s book Under Their Thumb of how Watts once was infuriated when Jagger demanded to know where “his drummer” was. Watts reportedly went to the singer’s hotel room and punched the lead singer, who fell back onto a plate of salmon only to hear Watts call him “my singer.”
But Watts’ biggest punch was his signature snare and his booming intro to “Paint It Black” never sounded bigger than when it could be heard richocheting across stadium walls on cool Fall nights. Which makes this Fall particularly forlorn.
“If there’s no Charlie Watts, there’s no Stones,” Keith Richards once said. The guitarist is on record that he couldn’t imagine the Stones without Charlie Watts. But when Watts suddenly took ill, the band quickly pivoted bringing in Steve Jordan from the X-Pensive Winos, Richards’ solo ensemble for the band’s Fall tour that begins in St. Louis September 25. It was the first tour he’d missed since 1963. It might have had Watts’ blessing but it just didn’t feel right.
With the passing of Charlie Watts this week, it suddenly feels so much worse.
Find more by Steve Wosahla here: https://americanahighways.org/category/columns/my-back-pages/