Watts, Charlie

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Charlie Watts


Charlie Watts is a drummer best known for his many years behind the kit as a member of the Rolling Stones. His passion for music stems from his love for jazz, and Watts has frequently pursued this love during various hiatus periods, resulting in many excellent albums of jazz standards.

Born in Neasden, London, England, Charles Robert Watts was raised in Islington. His father was a parcel deliveryman for British Railways. Watts shared a love of jazz with his childhood friend and neighbor Dave Green, who played bass in his various combos. He was inspired to begin playing drums after listening to Chico Hamilton play on a Gerry Mulligan recording. His first drum was actually a banjo head—he had originally wanted to play banjo—that Watts played with brushes. His father relented and bought his son a kit a couple of years later.

It was through listening to recordings that Watts learned and honed his skills, and he never took a lesson. His treasured jazz records by Johnny Dodds, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington were among the first in what would become an extensive collection. Watts eventually began playing in skiffle and Dixieland jazz groups. As a youth he would frequently venture to London clubs to see Georgie Fame and other jazz artists.

He studied graphic design at Harrow Art College and worked for a West End advertising agency. At the age of 21, Watts established himself in the advertising profession, while playing drums part time. He was reluctant to overdo his playing for fear of injuring the steady hand he needed for lettering and drawing on his day job.

Watts played with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated in 1960 or 1962, for about nine months. He did not officially join the Rolling Stones until January of 1963 at the prompting of Korner, who told Watts he was likely to get regular work with them. Watts is frequently touted as the Rolling Stones' first drummer, but he was, more accurately, the band's first permanent drummer. The group had gone through drummers in rapid succession until Watts agreed to join them.

The Rolling Stones had some of their first hits with songs written by others. Their first hit single in 1963 was "I Wanna Be Your Man," written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon of the Beatles. But the band quickly began recording original material, most often the product of a Mick Jagger-Keith Richard collaboration. The group quickly became popular, and Jagger attributed their success in large part to the different style of drumming—more jazz than blues—that Watts contributed. "That's why the Rolling Stones was a more interesting band than bands like Freddie and the Dreamers, Herman's Hermits, the Searchers or the Hollies," Watts said, in the book According to theRolling Stones. "We had a much broader, much deeper, musical background."

Watts was never enamored of the rock world. He told London's Guardian that he was accustomed to playing with many different bands, "and the Stones were just another one. I thought they'd last three months, then a year, then three years, then I stopped counting." Watts was painfully shy, and the attention he garnered during the early years of rock wasn't his style. "Girls chasing you down the street, screaming … horrible! … I hated it," he said, in an interview in the Guardian. "Playing the drums was all I was ever interested in."

Watts met Shirley Ann Shepherd, an art student and sculptor, while he was playing with Korner's group, and the two were married in a private ceremony held in Bradford in 1964. Their daughter, Seraphina, was born in 1968. The band was none too pleased—marriage might tarnish their image as the bad boys of rock—and they temporarily shunned Watts in protest.

"It amuses Mick especially that Charlie … cannot believe his ill luck at finding himself in the World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band," noted author Philip Norman in Symphony for the Devil: The Rolling Stones Story. "Wherever he is with the Stones, he lives in constant hope of being allowed to catch the next plane home." Watts also remained absent when the Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in January of 1989.

The decades-long career of the Rolling Stones and its various members have been well documented, but little has been written about Watts, thanks to his own desire to keep his private life private. A 2004 cover story in Mojo pictured Jagger, Richards, and the late Brian Jones on the front. Watts got no mention in two feature articles, and is seen sulking in the background of the interior photos.

"You'd be hard pressed to find anybody with a bad word to say about Charlie Watts," noted Barbara Ellen in an in-depth interview with Watts that appeared in the Guardian in July of 2000. She added that he is a drummer's drummer—"the stick-wielding colossus by whom all others should be judged. … Charlie's the Stone who is so universally well liked that he commands instant respect without even trying."

"It all seems to boil down to a certain quality which is as rare as hen's teeth in the music business, but which Charlie Watts is perceived to have in abundance. In a word, decency," Ellen wrote. "You've got to hand it to a … man who's played with the world's most infamous rock 'n' roll band … and stayed happily married to his wife, Shirley. … A man who, moreover, remains resolutely determined not to take his elevated position too seriously."

After Richards, Jagger, and other bandmates were well over their years of indulging in narcotics and bad behavior, Watts began drinking to excess and using amphetamines and heroin, but credited his solid relationship with his wife for putting him back on track Watts commented in a Rolling Stone interview that "I was warring with myself at that time." He reportedly has remained sober since that time.

For the Record . . .

Born Charles Robert Watts on June 2, 1941, in Neasden, London, England; married Shirley Ann Shepherd, 1964; children: Serafina. Education: Studied graphic design, Harrow Art College.

Member of Blues Incorporated, c. 1960 or 1962; member of the Rolling Stones, 1963–; performed with Ian Stewart in Rocket 88; founded Charlie Watts Orchestra, 1986; founded Charlie Watts Quintet, recorded and released Charlie Parker tribute, 1991; Long Ago & Far Away released, 1996; Watts and Jim Keltner recorded material, 1997-98; Charlie Watts / Jim Keltner Project released on Cyberoctave, 2000; assembled ten-piece all-star band known as Charlie Watts and the Tentet, recorded live Watts at Scott's, released, 2004.

Awards: Named to Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame as member of the Rolling Stones, 1989.

Addresses: Booking—Rosebud Agency, P.O. Box 170420, San Francisco, CA 94117, website: http://www.rosebudus.com. Record company—Black Box/Sanctuary Classics, Sanctuary House, 45-53 Sinclair Rd., London W14 0NS, website: http://www.sanctuaryclassics.com.

Watts has played jazz independently as often as possible, in public and in the studio. He has also occasionally performed with Ian Stewart, the keyboard player and "fifth" Stone, in a group called Rocket 88, and with various Stones for charitable causes. In 1986 Watts assembled a 32-piece jazz orchestra that bore his name. The group performed chestnuts from the swing era, and also ventured into the early be-bop of Lester Young and Charlie Parker. A live recording from Fulham Town Hall captured one of the band's performances. "Despite its potentially cumbersome size, Watts's orchestra turns out bright ensemble work, even when all 33 pieces are going full tilt," wrote Mary Shaughnessy in a People review of the live CD.

Horses are one of the Watts's interests, and he and his wife own and operate a stud farm in Devon. The Watts menagerie has also consisted of numerous dogs, including rescued greyhounds. Watts has had a lifelong interest in American history, particularly the Civil War and Wild West eras, and has been an avid collector of toy soldiers and antique silver as well as jazz records. He also is fond of cricket.

Watts assembled a quintet of musicians in 1991 for a tribute to accompany the reissue of his book Ode To A High Flying Bird, which he wrote, illustrated, and published in 1964. The group included Peter King and David Green, both of whom had played previously with the Watts big band, and Brian Lemon and Gerard Presencer. The quintet then released Long Ago & Far Away, an album of lush vocal standards. Bernard Fowler, long-time backing vocalist for the Stones on tour and in the studio, contributed vocals on tunes by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.

Watts also worked with drummer Jim Keltner on the Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner Project, released in 2000, and an interesting departure for Watts. Billboard called it "an excursion into studio technology, electronica, and ambient world beats that serves as a tribute to nine of their favorite jazz drummers," including Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Tony Williams, and Max Roach.

After the Stones' "Forty Licks" tour, Watts assembled a big band called Charlie Watts and the Tentet, to play his favorite jazz of the late swing and early bop periods. The band featured the best British jazz musicians, including King, Presencer, and Evan Parker. They began touring in 2004 and released a live album that same year. The Guardian 's John Fordham praised the recording, which "celebrates jazz-making without swamping its creativity in nostalgia, or getting in its way."

When the Rolling Stones will disband for good is a question that interviewers love to ask. In 1996 Watts told People that the end would come "when Mick or Keith say that's it. We couldn't go on without them. Maybe as the Keith Richards All Stars, but it would be a different band—which I wouldn't mind playing for." In 2004 Watts was treated for throat cancer, but was expected to have a full recovery. He has no fear of aging. "It'd be nice to be rich and grow old," he told Rolling Stone. "I'd hate to be shuffling 'round Brixton Market in a pair of slippers. Then again, I'll probably be shuffling 'round the garden."

Selected discography

With Charlie Watts Quintet

Long Age And Far Away, Virgin, 1996.

Warm & Tender, Continuum, 1993.

Tribute to Charlie Parker With Strings, Continuum, 1991.

From One Charlie, Continuum, 1991.

With Charlie Watts Orchestra

Live at Fulham Town Hall, Columbia, 1986.

With Charlie Watts and the Tentet

Watts at Scott's, Sanctuary Classics, 2004.

With Jim Keltner

Charlie Watts / Jim Keltner Project, Cyberoctave, 2000.



Almanac of Famous People, 8th ed., Gale Group, 2003.

Loewenstein, Dora, and Philip Dodd, editors, According toThe Rolling Stones, Chronicle Books.

Norman, Philip, Symphony for the Devil: The Rolling StonesStory, Dell, 1984.

Phelge, James, Nankering with the Rolling Stones: The Untold Story of the Early Days, A Cappella Books, 1998.


Billboard, May 20, 2000; June 10, 2000.

Down Beat, February 1987.

Entertainment Weekly, June 14, 1996.

Fortune, September 30, 2002.

People, January 26, 1987; June 17, 1996.

Rolling Stone, December 11, 1997.

UPI NewsTrack, August 16, 2004.

Vanity Fair, September 1989.


"Charlie Watts," Guardian,http://www.guardian.co.uk/friday_review/story/0,,499122,00.html (October 26, 2004).

"Charlie Watts," Rockmine Encyclopedia,http://www.rockmine.music.co.uk/W_Cyclo/WCyclo5.html (October 26, 2004).

"Charlie Watts and The Tentet," Rosebud Agency, http://www.rosebudus.com/watts/index.html (October 26, 2004).

"Charlie Watts: Ronnie Scott's, London," Guardian,http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/reviews/story/0,,1191193,00.html (October 26, 2004).

"Charlie Watts Tentet, Watts at Scott's," Guardian,http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/fridayreview/story/0,,1251387,00.html (October 26, 2004).

"Proper Charlie," Guardian,http://observer.guardian.co.uk/life/story/0,6903,341308,00.html (October 26, 2004).

"Rolling Stones," BBC Top of the Pops, http://www.bbc.co.uk/totp (October 26, 2004).

"Stones' Watts Tips High Hat To Jazz Drumming Greats," VH-1, http://www.vh1.com/artists/news/873099/05252000/watts_charlie.jhtml (October 26, 2004).

—Linda Dailey Paulson