Charlie Watts in 1964
Photo: Jeremy Fletcher/Redferns via Getty Images
Remembering The Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts: 5 Essential Performances By The Drum Legend
In the announcement of his death on August 24th at 80 years old, his band deemed Watts to be "one of the greatest drummers of his generation." Paul McCartney said he was "steady as a rock." And Elton John called Watts "the ultimate drummer."
Watts leaves behind an acclaimed career with the Stones, including 12 GRAMMY nominations and three wins, their most recent GRAMMY being for Best Traditional Blues Album for Blue and Lonesome in 2017.
In the span of 30 albums, the band evolved throughout the generations, from its early-60s debut as young, scrappy rockers known for their bluesy covers, which then gave way to a brief experimental period sound before a transition to arena rock anthems like "Start Me Up."
As the decades went on, Watts and his bandmates reflected the sounds of modern music without sacrificing the sharp rock signature the Stones became famous for. Here are five essential songs that paint a musical portrait of Charlie Watts.
"Not Fade Away" (1964)
The year was 1964, and a ragtag bunch of musicians who were rapt fans of early American blues and rock were just beginning to break into the mainstream. One year after their first performance at London's Ealing Jazz Club, The Rolling Stones released their first American single: "Not Fade Away," a cover of the 1957 Buddy Holly classic made all their own.
American audiences' heads turned, and it became their first single on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 48 , birthing a fervent fanbase. Not that it did anything for Watts, a consummate professional immune to such wiles.
"Girls chasing you down the street, screaming... horrible! I hated it," he once said in a 2000 interview of the early Stones hysteria. "It was quite flattering, I suppose. It's fantastic to play to audiences like that. For me, that was the whole point of being chased down the street... Playing the drums was all I was ever interested in."
"Honky Tonk Women" (1969)
One of the most iconic rock songs of all time, "Honky Tonk Women" kicks off solely with percussion. First, we hear Stones producer Jimmy Miller on cowbell, followed by Watts on his trusty Gertsch drum kit; the two continuing to propel the song forward.
The Hank Williams-inspired tune is a testament to the versatility of the Stones. In the span of the 1960s, they seamlessly transitioned from their blues-influenced roots to country climes.
"Honky Tonk Women" was the No. 1 song in the country during the tumultuous summer of 1969 and its stature has only built since, with Rolling Stone calling it one of the greatest songs of all time. To boot, the hit was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame in 2014.
"Miss You" (1978)
Smack in the middle of the disco craze, the Rolling Stones expertly melded the club rhythms of the time with their trademark style. While 1978's "Miss You" has a dancefloor feel, the heart of it is a steady beat provided by Watts.
It also has qualities of jazz, whether from frontman Mick Jagger's frenetic, spastic vocals to its smooth sax and riffing guitar. The result was a confluence of styles that perfectly fit Watts's musical voice.
"My thing, whenever I play, is to make it a dance sound," he said in 2008. "It doesn't matter whether it's a blues or whatever; it should swing and bounce."
Despite becoming a global stadium icon with the Stones, Watts began his career enamored by jazz, an interest he never left behind. He explored it via side projects like the Charlie Watts Quintet, which was relaxed and understated—the antithesis of what The Rolling Stones became in their later years.
Launched in the early 90s, the Charlie Watts Quintet covered standards from the Great American Songbook, from the Cole Porter classic "You Go To My Head" to Rodgers and Hart's 1941 standard "Bewitched," with Bernard Fowler handling vocals.
"I just love [jazz]," he once said in an interview, citing Charlie Parker as an inspiration. "It was like kids hearing Jimi Hendrix: 'What the hell is he playing?' I heard [Parker] and thought, I want to be that. I want to do that in a club in New York."
"Living in a Ghost Town" (2020)
It’s a song that exemplifies the rare and stunning run Watts and his cohorts enjoyed. In the heat of the COVID-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020, their single "Living in a Ghost Town" spoke to the global upheaval.
Sadly, the rollicking track turned out to be Watts's last release as a Stone following a recording career which lasted nearly 60 years. It was a duration Watts himself had never imagined.
"I thought they'd last three months, then a year, then three years," he once mused of that improbable, almost six-decade run. "Then I stopped counting."