“Charlie Watts has always been the bed that I lie on musically.”–Keith Richards[i]
The death of Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones inspired many heartfelt tributes naming him as one of the all-time great drummers. No one was more aware than Watts himself of the giants on whose shoulders he stood. In 2006, when “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, he found it fitting and flattering that so many of his drumming heroes were already there. They included Gene Krupa, heard on the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall Concert recordings of 1938; Max Roach who played with Charlie Parker on “Ko-Ko;” and Joe Morello of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, heard on the 1959 album Take Five. Good company indeed.
Many drummers begin with a pair of homemade sticks. Charlie Watts started with a pair of homemade brushes that he fashioned from banjo strings and played on the now-exposed resonator head of the banjo he’d been trying to learn on. He’d been enchanted by the sound of Chico Hamilton’s brushwork in the Gerry Mulligan Quintet’s 1952 recording of “Walkin’ Shoes.”
Though he rarely used brushes in his 58 years with the Rolling Stones, it is tempting to hear the roots of his style in Hamilton’s performance, a deceptively simple shuffle briefly interrupted by the kind of neatly timed snare shots that became a Charlie Watts trademark, and a few resonant cymbal taps at the end. No solos, no fireworks, but a sensitive part that cannot be separated from the whole. In “Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters,” Mike Edison wrote that “he never overplayed his hand, never chased flashy fills, never competed with the rest of the band for air space, never played anything just because he could. He found nuance in a music that often had little room for it, and along with his greatest conspirator (Keith Richards), he gave the Stones their swaggering beat.”
He taught himself on a secondhand kit he received for Christmas. His design skills were not limited to reimagining banjos, and for a time he pursued a career in the graphic arts, drumming on the side for everything from bar mitzvah groups to the better class of British jazz bands. He rubbed elbows with the shadowy legend Phil Seamen, “the most wonderful drummer in London…the guy we all learned from[iii]” and the young Ginger Baker, several years before stardom in Cream with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton.
The Rolling Stones, a young group of blues devotees long on attitude and short on funds, needed a regular drummer, and Watts was amused when they invited him to join the group: “Honestly, I thought they were mad. I mean they were working a lot of dates without getting paid or even worrying about it. And there was me, earning a pretty comfortable living which obviously was going to nosedive if I got involved with the Stones…but I got to thinking about it. I liked their spirit and I was getting very involved with rhythm ‘n’ blues. I figured it would be a bit of an experiment for me and a bit of a challenge too. So I said okay, yes, I’d join. Lots of my friends thought I had gone stark raving mad.[iv]”
Watts’s first love was jazz, and the Stones were roundly disliked by other English jazz players. “But this bunch of outsiders, what people called ‘lay-abouts,’ struck me has having a pretty good future. I thought the atmosphere they got going simply had to make it big one day…[v]”
That day seemed to come in 1965, when the Stones’ anthem “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” became their first major international hit and firmly established them in the mainstream of pop music, where they’ve been ever since. By this time, he was proficient in blues and rock & roll rhythms. Crucially, three drummers whom Watts’s new bandmates first exposed him to are also on the Registry. They are Fred Below, who accompanied Muddy Waters on “Hoochie Coochie Man” recorded in 1954; Earl Phillips, who drummed behind Howlin’ Wolf on “Smokestack Lightning” in 1956; and Jerry Allison of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, heard on “That’ll Be the Day” from 1957 which he co-wrote with Holly.[vi]
“[T]o keep a slow tempo is one of the hardest things,[vii]” Watts told Rick Mattingly of Modern Drummer in 1990. In “Hoochie Coochie Man,” Below paces the band through Muddy’s stop-time declaration and the ensemble passage of the chorus, never rushing in either tempo, but giving Muddy and the band all they need to build the performance. In “Smokestack Lightning,” Earl Phillips, best known as bluesman Jimmy Reed’s drummer, steadily accelerates the song’s one chord vamp from a slow to a medium tempo, much as Watts would do later on “Honky Tonk Women” and on “Midnight Rambler,” which both accelerates and decelerates.
“I’d heard Chuck Berry, but I never really listened to him until I met Keith,” Watts recalled to Mattingly. “Then I heard a guy called Earl Philips, who was the drummer with Jimmy Reed. And Earl Philips was as tasteful in his genre as Joe Morello was in his. It was very fine drumming, and I loved the sound of it.“
Jerry Allison played drums with Buddy Holly from the age of twelve on, and said that Holly’s guitar playing influenced him more than any other factor. Watts said of him “He’s probably the best ‘song’ player that I know. He doesn’t really play the drums he plays the songs, and that is really more important within the context of the music. If you’re playing to a songwriter, that’s more important than all of the technique in the world. But Jerry’s got an awful lot of technique.[viii]”
A jazz drummer in a rock and roll band may seem like a paradox to some, but for Watts, distinctions between the genres were beside the point: “It’s either very precise or it swings a lot. I don’t see any difference between John Coltrane and Chuck Berry except that one writes lyrics. But, they do the same thing to me.[ix]”
Matthew Barton is the Curator of the Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress
For more about the National Recording Registry, see this link.