It is with great sadness that I am passing along the news that Charlie Watts, the drummer for The Rolling Stones, has passed away at the age of 80 yrs. old.
Watts was always a personal favorite of mine, playing straight-ahead beats on a small, jazz-style drum set, never playing a single bit more than what was right for the song. This “unassuming” approach made him the perfect rock drummer: making the beat (rather than his own playing) the point of his career. He also had a unique way of playing: using the traditional grip favoured by jazz musicians (in the left hand), and skipping part of the beat on his (right hand) hi-hats, leaving more physical space for his left hand to hit the snare while also opening up the sound for a lighter, bouncier kind of beat. Though he did not use it all the time, this signature style of playing was often ridiculed by untrained musicians who thought he couldn’t play an ordinary rock beat with the hi-hat playing continuous eighth notes. But Watts proved his point: his style was perfectly fantastic and truly unimitible when it came to creating the flowing effervescence he added to the Stones bluesy rock.
He was also known (amongst drummers with good ears) for his taste; for the things he could have but chose not to play in the interests of the song. As songs like “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?”, “Emotional Rescue”, “Moonlight Mile”, “Dance (Part 1)”, “MIss You”, and “Mixed Emotions” progress, Watts opens up his drumming and practically disappears in the tapestry of sound. He is so expertly woven into the mix his drumming almost seems like an afterthought. “Emotional Rescue” as well demonstrates Watts’ penchant for this economic artfulness, playing a hi-hat ‘hiss’ on the “and” of beat 3 rather than the usual “and” of beat 4 one hears in disco music. Clever little touches such as these make Watts the giant that he was and will always be: thoughtful, tasteful, economic, buoyant, and wonderfully musical.
Charlie really got out of the way of the music, which was as turbulent and raw as the times in which it emerged: the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the assassination of people like JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Rolling Stones own disastrous free concert at the Altamont Speedway (in Tracy, California), which many consider to be the place and time where the hippy spirit of 1960s faded away. It is no surprise that bands like The Rolling Stones and AC/DC have lived as long as they have. The sound of straight-up blues-influenced rock and roll has been the grounding soundtrack both figuratively and literally of successive generations: what humans have listened to to make it through such times as teens became parents, and parents became grandparents. When the world seemed upside down, you can always throw on a Stones album to deal with and escape your situation. This is the power of the blues influence and/or blues base of the Stones music, the base of Watts’ effectively simple approach. Feeling sad never felt so good when Charlie kicked “Satisfaction” into gear…
Nothing is permanent but change itself, so as the inevitable arrives, we mourn and celebrate this towering icon. R.I.P. Charlie… and thank you so, so much for a lifetime of great rock n’ roll. In Art less is more, but now that Charlie has passed, less is REALLY less, and we drummers will miss him forever.