The shock of white, swept-back and immaculately trimmed hair; the Savile Row suits; the aversion to talking to the media – Charlie Watts isn’t an obvious candidate for the drummer in perhaps the greatest rock ’n’ roll band that there ever was. But he’s been thumping the tubs for The Rolling Stones for 51 years now and he’s had enough. At 72 years of age, could anyone blame him?
Earlier this month, Watts spoke to The Australian and said what we’ve all been thinking for a while now: that these quintessential elder statesmen of rock should probably call it a day. Watts has never made any secret of the fact that he dislikes touring, and his remarks about the 14 On Fire Tour, which has brought them to these dusty shores, were no real surprise.
“We’ve done half of this one already,” Watts was quoted as saying about the tour. “This is short compared to what we’ve done before, but it needs to be, I think, at our tender age. The thought of doing 50 shows, which was normal at one time for us to sign off on, that is quite daunting. Now, we’re doing that in little bits. If we don’t do any more, I’ll be quite happy with that.”
Once his drum kit is packed away after the Abu Dhabi shows, the Stones will head to Tokyo, Macau, Australia and New Zealand, while most men Watts’s age will be making use of their free bus passes. When you consider the constant stresses exerted upon the upper limbs of a rock drummer, it’s a wonder that he didn’t throw down his sticks long ago. But he’s still at it, still maintaining a degree of dignity when all around him are growing more and more old disgracefully. And he’s still moaning about it.
Ask anyone which member of The Rolling Stones had managed to steer clear of drink and drugs and, chances are, they’d immediately mention Charlie Watts. They’d be wrong, because former bassist Bill Wyman was the only one to have kept his, ahem, nose clean, stating that his main requirements when on the road were “Marmite and Branston pickle”. Watts might have been the quiet one at the back, but he’s partied hard with the rest of them and, over the years, that’s taken its toll, by his own admission. But despite the constant living-it-large that has always gone hand-in-hand with being a Rolling Stone, Watts has remained resolutely faithful to the woman that he wed on October 14, 1964: Shirley Ann Shepherd.
He came into the world 23 years earlier, on June 2, 1941, born the son of a lorry driver (also Charles) and his wife Lilian, growing up in Wembley, north London (Mick Jagger has been known to refer to him as “the Wembley Whammer”). His discovery, early on in life, of jazz and blues music meant that he wouldn’t be following his father’s career path and, as a child, he began experimenting with musical instruments. Taking a dislike to the “dots on the neck” of a banjo that he bought when he was a boy, he removed the entire thing and, when he heard the work of a jazz drummer called Chico Hamilton, he turned the banjo into a snare drum so that he could emulate his new hero by playing it with brushes.
When he was 14, his parents bought him a proper drum kit and he began to practise. Miles Davis and John Coltrane had an enormous hold on the young Watts, but he wasn’t a particularly brilliant music student at school, where he was far more interested in sports (cricket and football) and art. Leaving at 16, he enrolled at the Harrow School of Art and, after graduating in 1960, he took a job working as a graphic designer for a London advertising agency. That didn’t last long, and he hopped across to Denmark to work a year later, returning to the UK and another agency in 1962. But his musical interests never went away and he played in various jazz and blues groups in his spare time, performing in clubs, coffee shops – anywhere that he could.
One of those groups was called Blues Incorporated, which soon became an important part of London’s emerging blues scene. The group often featured guest musicians and singers, leading Watts to come into contact with Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and Eric Clapton. Watts quit the band, however, as it became more popular because he did not want to leave his day job and Jones went on to form his own blues covers band, which eventually became The Rolling Stones.
Jones wanted Watts as the band’s drummer, but he initially declined. In 1963, he finally accepted, performing with them for the first time in January that year, and then things really took off. When the Stones released their cover of Bobby and Shirley Womack’s It’s All Over Now in 1964, it reached No 1 in the UK singles chart and suddenly the band were thrust into the media spotlight, from where they would never disappear. But while the other Stones got busy with women and other “substances”, Watts got married.
In 1965, the Stones hit pay dirt when (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction reached the No 1 spot in the US and the rest has entered the annals of rock-music legend. But as the other members of the band (apart from the aforementioned Wyman) went properly off the rails, Watts remained relatively well behaved. As a husband and father (his daughter, Seraphina, was born in 1968), he thought better of it and it wasn’t until the 1980s that he began to dabble with narcotics and alcohol.
“It was very short for me,” he told the Daily Mirror, the British tabloid, in 2012. “I just stopped, it didn’t suit me at all. I never knew whether Ronnie was drunk or not. Keith permanently lived like that, so it was never a problem with either of them. But it didn’t work for me, glad to say. I drank too much and took drugs. I went mad really. But I stopped it all [in 1986]. It was very easy for me. I broke my ankle when I was playing at Ronnie Scott’s, so I had to get straight really, so I did.”
Quite apart from Watts’s broken ankle, his dalliance with the dark side of addiction very nearly cost him his marriage, too. But the 1980s wasn’t all grim and he at last found the time to pursue musical projects outside The Rolling Stones. Predictably returning to his first love, jazz, he formed a number of different groups, including a 32-piece band called the Charlie Watts Orchestra, and he worked with an early Stones member, Ian Stewart, in the band Rocket 88.
This creative flourish continued into the 1990s, when The Rolling Stones were arguably at their lowest ebb musically, and even into the 2000s he was releasing jazz albums under different guises. In 2004, though, one of Watts’s addictions did catch up with him. A long-time smoker, he’d contracted throat cancer despite having given up his habit years previously. A course of radiotherapy soon sent that into remission and he once again picked up his sticks to head back on the road with the Stones.
He certainly doesn’t need to tour for the money. Watts is rumoured to be worth some $160 million (Dh587.7m) and he lives in splendour on his estate in Devon in the UK, where he runs an Arabian horse stud farm. So why does he do it? A love of performing, obviously, along with possibly a sense of duty. “Mick is the show, really,” he told the Daily Telegraph last year, while moaning about the prospect of headlining the Glastonbury Festival. “We back him. But Mick wouldn’t dance well if the sound was bad. It doesn’t come into it with a lot of bands because the lead singer just stands there. We’ve always been about playing it properly.”
Tonight, as his band takes to the stage in Abu Dhabi, Watts will no doubt do his best to play it properly. But he knows that they can’t keep doing this forever and nobody will be surprised if, after this short but far-reaching tour, he throws his drumsticks into the audience for the last time. He has a daughter back home, a granddaughter, and the love of his life, his wife Shirley. If nothing else, Watts should be remembered for that – to have kept his family together while being the drummer (as they say, they always get the girls) in the biggest rock band in history is nothing short of astonishing.
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