“Charlie Watts is amazing. The hardest job in a band is drumming, the sheer power and subtlety of the man,” Keith Richards told the Radio Times in a recent interview. “I go up there just to be able to play with Charlie Watts, he’s an amazing man. My aim is to get as cool as Charlie.”
As tributes from the world of rock 'n' roll continue to pour in for the Rolling Stones drummer, who died at the age of 80 this week, stories began emerging and recirculating about the man generally agreed to have been the backbone of one of the greatest blues and rock bands in the world.
Some tales about Watts are already legendary among fans, such as that infamous 5am altercation with Mick Jagger in Amsterdam. Other stories are less well known, and that’s exactly how the spotlight-avoiding, enigmatic drummer liked it.
Here are seven things to know about one of rock’s greats …
1. He had to be persuaded to join the Stones
Watts was already an accomplished and in-demand drummer before he joined the rock 'n' roll band, having been drumming on the London club circuit since he was 16.
Already the drummer for a group called Blues Incorporated, it was through this band that Watts met Mick Jagger, who would occasionally provide vocals.
With his own group, which already included Keith Richards and the late Brian Jones, it took six months for Jagger to convince Watts to be their drummer.
“When we got Charlie, that really made it for us,” Richards wrote in his autobiography.
2. He once punched Mick Jagger
We have Richards to thank for this rock 'n' roll bon mot. Back in 1984, the Stones were in Amsterdam. After a night out with Richards, Jagger called Watts’s hotel room at 5am to demand: “Where’s my drummer?”
As recounted by Richards, Watts got out of bed, shaved then dressed in a tailored suit, went to Richards’s hotel room, and punched Jagger in the face, saying: “Don’t ever call me your drummer again. You’re my singer!”
3. He was a jazz man at heart
“Charlie swings very nicely, but can’t rock,” wrote Richards in a 1963 diary entry, before adding: “Fabulous guy, though.”
Watts’s love of jazz was well-known. And his passion for the skittering musical genre also affected how he viewed the huge stadium-filled world tours the Stones would embark on every few years.
“In jazz you’re closer,” he said. “In a football stadium, you can’t say you're closely knit together. It’s difficult to know what Mick’s up to when you can't even see him. He’s half a mile away.”
4. He was married to the same woman his whole life
While other members of The Rolling Stones have worked their way through several marriages and relationships, Watts was married just once. He wed sculpture student Shirley Ann Shepherd back in 1964, and is survived by her, their daughter Seraphina and granddaughter, Charlotte.
Calling Shepherd an “incredible woman”, Watts told the NME the secret of his successful marriage.
“It’s because I’m not really a rock star. I don’t have all the trappings of that. Having said that, I do have four vintage cars and can’t drive the things. I’ve never been interested in doing interviews or being seen.”
5. He was an artist, and specialised in drawing hotel beds
With the Stones on tour so often, and not given to the kinds of distractions the other members of the band were, Watts had to find other ways to fill the time between gigs. He did so by sketching his hotel rooms.
“I keep a diary of drawings. I’ve drawn every bed I’ve slept in on tour since 1967,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1996. “It’s a fantastic non-book. I used to take a lot of things that keep you awake, and I’d have nothing to do. So I have all these hotel rooms recorded.
“What’s nice about it is, it’s visual, and it just goes on and on, and you think, ‘Is this ever gonna end?’”
He also illustrated the back cover of the Stones’ 1967 LP Between the Buttons.
6. He wouldn't do drum solos
Critics are rarely divided over Watts’s talent, but are agreed that on some songs, his drumming prowess is more evident than in others. Standout tracks include 1965’s (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, one of the Stones' most famous songs, as well as 1967’s Let’s Spend The Night Together and 1969’s Gimme Shelter.
Shunning anything approaching a drum solo, Watts told Spinner.com of the practice: “I can’t do them, really. I get fed up halfway through attempting to do one, so I don’t really do it. But I love hearing other people doing them, certain other people. I’m more interested in drums as an accompaniment thing. I’ve always been like that.”
7. He had a signature pre-gig shuffle (much to Richards's amusement)
While singers warm up their vocal cords and guitarists tune their instruments, Watts had a whole different pre-gig ritual – a hip shuffle before he takes his place behind his drum kit.
“I always do that, it’s just like warming up,” he says of his pre-concert movements. “That wriggling thing is my version of seeing those Cotton Club-type dancers. It was a club in Harlem. I saw some dancers there doing it years ago, showgirl dancers, and I started to do it. And now it’s become a featured thing with Keith.”