One of the great rock drummers, Charlie Watts, turns 80 this Wednesday, June 2. He spent 59 of them playing with the Rolling Stones. However, his passion is jazz, which “has always been in my life”, confesses this musician, with an elegant appearance of a gentleman, reserved and ingenious, who was able to preserve himself from the inclemency of fame. “I’m glad to know that there are people who only play their instrument; I am one of them ”, he adds.
He confesses that he always felt a little out of place in the rock world. “I have a very traditional way of dressing, Old English, and I never felt close to hippie”. Indeed, Charlie Watts went through the flower power of the sixties in a tie and waistcoat. “For example, photoshoots with the Stones were an especially awkward place. I wore shoes and everyone wore slippers; I hate running shoes. Anyway, I never felt like I was in tune ”.
After a little over 20 years with the Stones, Watts decided to start his career in jazz and he acknowledged that it took him a long time to achieve the necessary confidence to launch himself with his jazz projects, in the mid-1980s. “I grew up wanting to play like Max Roach or Kenny Clarke; I dreamed of playing in New York with Charlie Parker ”, points out this musician who in 1964 launched his Ode To a High Flying Bird (recently reissued), a children’s story written and illustrated by him, about the great saxophonist.
His first project was the Watts Big Band, from 32 musicians (7 trumpeters, 4 trombonists, 10 saxophonists, clarinet, piano, 2 double bassists, 2 vibraphonists, 3 drummers and 2 singers). “We had a repertoire of classics that amused us; We debuted in 1985 at Ronnie Scott’s in London. We played various festivals and in New York. I liked the sound of it because it roared like Count Basie’s big band, ”recalls the drummer. Faced with this type of more sophisticated repertoire, Watts admits: “Much to my regret I never took formal lessons; I read very badly, so I have to memorize the compositions and sometimes I make a mistake when I play an arrangement, but I get ahead because of the trade that I acquired in all these years ”.
The art of elegance. Charlie Watts, a drummer who never had the clichés of rock and roll.
From banjo to drums
Charlie Watts came to jazz in an almost random way. At the age of twelve he bought a banjo and a method of playing it. Seeing the positions and “those black dots” on the pentagram sheets, he was discouraged and disarmed it, keeping the body of the instrument, which was a drum.
Around that time he bought the album Walking Shoes, from the baritone saxophonist quartet Gerry Mulligan, in which drummer Chico Hamilton played with brushes. “I bought some brushes and started playing on top of the record. When I was a kid, jazz was all the rage. It was very modern to know the music of Miles Davis. There was a time when I listened to the music of Duke Ellington as a form of study ”, recalls the drummer who had his first drums, a second-hand Olympic (the budget brand of the Premier firm), at the age of thirteen.
In the mid-1950s, a teenage Watts “went to Ray’s Jazz Shop a lot, a basement on New Oxford Street. Y as he had no money, he carried a cymbal and exchanged it for a record; then he would sell the album and get the cymbal back ”.
At the age of 14 he listened to Charlie Parker “and from that moment he has been in my life; he is the criterion by which I judge all records, although subconsciously ”, acknowledges the drummer who dedicated two of his albums to the memory of the saxophonist, From One Charlie (1991), in quintet, and Tribute To Charlie Parker with Strings (1992).
Charlie Watts shows his love for jazz while continuing to preserve his place as drummer for the Rolling Stones. Photo EFE
Another of his heroes was drummer Tony Williams (1945-1997). “I heard it with Davis’s group, in England, when the drummer was 19 years old. He played as he had never seen anyone do. I remember the next day I ordered a Gretsch (an instrument that Williams played and that Watts plays with) identical to the one Tony used, even with the same measurements ”.
Watts, that was born on June 2, 1941, in the Islington neighborhood, England, admits against all assumptions that he was more impressed to have joined the band of guitarist Alexis Korner, the Blues Incorporated in 1961, than to the Rolling Stones. “I had never played in a group with a harmonica and there was Cyril Davis. I was impressed with how it sounded; there were also Dick Heckstall Smith on sax and Jack Bruce on double bass. It was the first amplified R&B band in Great Britain ”.
Nine albums as the leader of different groups speak of a serious career of Charlie Watts as a jazzman more than as a hobby between recordings and tours with the Stones. His first published record work was Live At Fulham Town Hall (1986), with the Watts Big Band, with Evan Parker and Courtney Pine on tenor saxophones and Jack Bruce on cello, as guests and a repertoire that ranged from Swing to Bop, with the classic Stompín’ At The Savoy to the tense Scrapple From The Apple and a closing with battle of tenors included in Lester Leaps In.
After his recognition in 1991 and 1992 to Charlie Parker, came his fourth album, the delicious Warm & Tender (1993). This work runs through standards with a string accompaniment, brushed Watts and the graceful voice of Bernard Fowler, which puts a romantic tone but without overusing the sweet.
His next job is another kind of good taste with Long Ago and Far Away (1996), in a quintet with the London Metropolitan Orchestra and Fowler’s voice. Compositions by Gershwin, Armstrong, Porter and Ellington make a perfect record; the version of In A Sentimental Mood It is from an anthology.
In 2000, he edited Charlie Watts-Jim Keltner Project, a work that moves away from the mainstream to immerse itself in an eclectic and experimental tribute to different drummers, the songs are named after great drum stars, such as Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Shelly Maine, Elvin Suite (por Elvin Jones), Roy Haynes, Max Roach.
In 2004 he launched Watts At Scott’s, a double album live at Ronnie Scott’s, featuring Watts and his Tentet, featuring tenor saxophonist Evan Parker and an advancing repertoire on themes by Davis, Monk, Strayhorn and Ellington. An excellent album for the strength and creativity of the ensemble on those two nights in June 2001, at the legendary London club.
Towards 2012 he moved gently away from jazz to immerse himself in the world of boogie-woogie, a strongly stylistic genre that Watts evidently enjoys. He released with Axel Zwingenberger and Ben Waters, on pianos and Dave Green, on double bass, under the name The ABCD of Boogie Woogie, Live in Paris. As someone close to the drummer put it, “the boogie woogie is a classy way to keep having fun.”
Charlie Watts, during the presentation of the Rolling Stones in the megaconcert One World. There he surprised by playing without drums and with sticks with various percussion sounds.
In 2017, Watts released an album with the Big Band of Radio Denmark in which they tour a classic like I Sould Care Y Stones themes, You Can’t Always Get What You Want O Pant It Black arranged for orchestra.
Watts also appears on two iconic albums from The Rolling Stones Records, The Howlin’ Wolf London Session (1971), in which they participate Eric Clapton, Stevie Winwood y Bill Wyman, among others and the superb zapada Jamming With Edward (1972), con Ry Cooder, Nicky Hopkins, Bill Wyman y Mick Jagger, a work recorded in the dead hours of the double Exile On Main St, with a powerful break at the end of The Boudoir Stomp and a wonderful version of Jagger in It Hurts Me Too.
56 years of marriage
Maybe for his everlasting rejection of fame and all that implies is that his marriage to Shirley Ann Shepherd (82) turned 56 and is perhaps the oldest in the world of rock.
Watts tells in an interview that he met Shirley at the first rehearsal for Alexis Korner’s band, in 1961 and from that moment they began a courtship that took them to the civil registry on October 14, 1964.
Mick Jagger ,, Charlie Watts and Keith Richards, the hard core of the Rolling Stones. Photo Bob Self / The Florida Times-Union via AP
“She is a woman with a lot of character and a great companion; Every time I come back tired from a tour and he asked me if I’m going to continue playing or not, after a short time, Shirley asks me: When are you going to work again? ”, smiles this drummer who made his family a true refuge that protects avoiding all unnecessary exposure. They have a daughter, Seraphina, born in March 1968, and a granddaughter, Charlotte.
His other hobby, in addition to jazz, is as a collector, but with a strong tendency to objects related to jazz such as, for example, drum sets, of which he is obviously proud. “I have a Kenny Clarke drum set that I bought from his widow and Sonny Greer (Duke Ellington’s historic drummer), I also have Big Sid Carlet’s, among others. What’s more, I collect signed first editions, I have Agatha Christie, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh ”.
Together with his wife, on their farm in Dolton, west Devon, they have a herd of Arabian horses.
The dark side
Watts’ six decades in rock and jazz were not always a bed of roses; between 1983 and 1986 he lived his personal hell. In those years he began to consume heroin and speed with a lot of alcohol. “I was about to lose my marriage, to lose everything,” admits this musician that during one of the recordings with the Stones, he even fainted. “When I came to, Keith was by my side, he said:“ This kind of thing happens to you when you are 60 years old, not at 40 ”, as the drummer was at that time.
The Fantastic Four. Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards and Ron Wood, the Rolling Stones. Photo (AP / Ramon Espinosa
He was able to get out of addiction thanks to an accident; “One night I was drunk out of Ronnie Scott’s, I tripped and broke my ankle; in that forced convalescence I managed to leave everything; in a short time I even stopped smoking ”.
Watts also had to go through a difficult process when in June 2004 he was diagnosed with throat cancer. After six months of radiotherapy treatment, he recovered and managed to arrive in time for the recording of the album. A Bigger Band; Precisely, a year after that worrying diagnosis and a few days after turning 64, he had a car accident, in Nice, France, which could have cost him his life.