Apparently, the first musical instrument CHARLIE WATTS owned was a banjo.
The boy was fourteen. After playing for a while, he remodelled the banjo into a drum. Once his parents saw how much he loved the drum, they bought him a drum kit for Christmas.
He gave up the banjo.
Was this creative rebellion, resolve, or simple obstinacy? Whatever it was, his musical career was marked with the same steadfast determination, inventive genius, and unwavering reliability. And, thank goodness for rock ‘n’ roll, he gave up the banjo!
Watts, born in Wembley, North London, was a jazz fan from an early age. His best friend, Dave Green (who lived opposite) became a famed jazz double-bassist and performed with Humphrey Lyttelton from 1963 to 1983. But as schoolboys they discovered, together, the sounds of ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton and “yardbird” saxophonist Charlie Parker through a shared collection of 78 r.pm. records.
After being inspired by the jazz-freak boogaloo band-master Chico Hamilton (shown below) and his wild drummery, Watts took the neck from his aforementioned banjo, stuck the head on a stand, and thus produced his own snare drum.
His first engagement as a musician would presumably have been with the Middlesex jazz outfit known as the “Jo Jones All Stars.”
In 1961, Watts met Alexis Korner, who invited him to join his band, Blues Incorporated, which would become the first amplified R&B band to play in Britain. According to Cyril Davies (on his blog) it was an “informal band with a fluid membership” but the lineup also included singers Long John Baldry or in his place when he wasn’t available, Art Wood, with saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, and Jack Bruce on bass, and Cyril Davies on blues-harp and Alexis himself on guitar.
In mid-1962, Watts met Brian Jones, Ian “Stu” Stewart, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and in January ‘63 Watts agreed to join the Rolling Stones. They couldn’t afford to pay him at first (!) but maybe he could see their potential. His first public appearance as a permanent member of the ‘Stones was at the Ealing Jazz Club on February 2, 1963.
Besides his work as a musician in the band, Watts exploited the graphic design skills he’d learned at Harrow Art School by contributing art & comic strips to early Rolling Stones records such as the legendary Between the Buttons sleeve (seen above).
He also handled press announcements and he designed (with Mick Jagger) some elaborate stages for their tours (such as the famed lotus-shape design for the 1975 Tour of the Americas.)
Meanwhile, he continued to be an entrepreneurial jazz devotee, founding several parallel jazz projects including the boogie-woogie band Rocket 88 (named after General Motors Oldsmobile Rocket 88, the world’s first production “muscle car”. ) He organised a jazz quintet in homage to his early influence, Charlie “Bird” Parker and later he created a “bigger band” experience with the “Charlie Watts Tentet”
Watts expressed a love-hate attitude towards touring and would doubtless prefer to stay at home, at his Halsdon Manor, near Dolton, North Devon, where he raised Arabian horses with his wife Shirley of 57 years.
Returning to his rebellious nature and famous resolve, it is worth telling a (perhaps apocryphal) but nonetheless illuminating story about the musician: on tour in the mid-1980s a drunk Mick Jagger phoned Watts’ hotel room in the middle of the night, asking, “Where’s my drummer?” The story goes that Charlie got up calmly (he rarely partied and frolicked, like his band-mates continued to do) he shaved, dressed in a suit, put on a tie and freshly shined his shoes. He went down the stairs and when he saw Jagger, he punched him squarely in the face, saying: “Never call me your drummer again…”
“If anything, you’re my f*** singer!”
Watts died in a London hospital on August 24, 2021, aged 80. He’d recently opted-out of the No Filter Tour because of an “unspecified medical procedure.”
His band-mates Jagger & Richards paid tribute to him and former Beatle Paul McCartney claimed he was “a fantastic drummer.”
Rolling Stone ranked Charlie Watts as the 12th of 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time, in 2016.