On August 24, 2021, the world lost a musical icon, when Charlie Watts, long-time drummer with The Rolling Stones, passed away.
Below is a collection of tributes, memories and photos from some fellow drummers and music industry friends. We hope you enjoy this tribute to one of the all-time greats, Charlie Watts.
Losing Charlie was like losing my older, wiser, much better dressed, more well-mannered and certainly more disciplined drummer, brother from another mother!
50 years of tremendously great memories, though!
Always and forever in my heart, my one of a kind…
Jim Keltner | Los Angeles, CA
“They tell me you’re a drummer?”
“Yes, yes I am.”
“hmm, well what kind of music do you like to play on those drums then?”
“It really depends on who I’m playing with I guess but you know blues, soul, some rock n roll.”
“Well I don’t like rock and roll. Maybe if Earl Palmer was the drummer then I might like it, maybe, or if someone like Keltner or whomever was on it I might consider it, but anyway, do you like Jamiroquai?”
Ok at this point I’m floored after meeting my future boss who just happens to be the drummer in the greatest rock and roll band of all time. My humble opinion. But I’ve read how this guy was never a rocker and that he was really a jazzer, and I had admired that fact all my life. But to hear these statements come from the man himself is just surreal. I’m thinking on day one after arriving in Paris to start rehearsals for the 50 & Counting shows, “Am I way over my head here and how long can I really last in a musical conversation with this iconic cat?”
That was the beginning of a wonderful 9 year friendship and really a mentorship that just happens to be the job of keeping his drums sounding the best I possibly could, maintain their integrity throughout the tours or studio dates, and to make sure he was able to have his best show each and every night.. That was the job, but the friendship of a fellow drum enthusiast was the real treat that we both enjoyed while being away from home.
Finding cool things to do on days off in these cities became a mission and I was up for the challenge. Whether it was the Motown Museum, Louis Armstrong’s home, the old stage he once played on with Alexis Korner at London’s Troubadour, a good sushi restaurant, shopping for socks, whatever, Team Cotton Club was in town and we, along with his granddaughter, and trusted security, would turn over every stone looking for something cool to get away from the boredom of a hotel room.
He welcomed me into his very private circle of friends and family. A love that is so special it’s bigger than royalty.
I was finally able to turn him on to something that I was more familiar with then he in the jazz world, that’s a huge statement I know. But I brought him to meet and play with my friends at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. Amazing experience! Talk about a drummer’s town. We saw 7 funky drummers in 3 days and it became something fresh for the musical pallet m,to obsess about.
As the friendship grew Charlie would ask me to restore all of his drum items that were used over his career as a drummer for this little rock and roll outfit he was hired to play with since February of 1963. Never missing a single show, he’d quit after each tour and would need to be rehired each and every time they wanted to work. “It’s a job” He loved that little fact.
So, the band wanted to put on a worldwide traveling exhibition.
“I’d be honored to help Charlie, but I’d rather preserve them. Restoring vintage drums and building furniture is something I do, but these items really need to be preserved and not altered given their historical significance.”
“Are you being a sarcastic American again Don?” I’d gotten used to the dry English humor by then and came back with something very American like, “No, I’m not from Hollywood thank you.” I was starting to catch on.
He then trusted in me to set up and help design the themed rooms throughout Exhibitionism and to be the steward who would look over all of the band’s iconic instruments. A big part of that trust was to also get the story right. So, so much history that needed to be described accurately so the critics wouldn’t moan about the little details. Being the meticulous Virgo that I am, I helped the band and the curator present these items with fairly accurate provenance.
“It’s a museum after all” he said. We would have long conversations about the drums and his influences, and maybe what kind of suite he’d just had made to match the decor in his flat, but he really didn’t want to talk about the band. ”Let’s take a break and walk into town for lunch.” Every step he took in his neighborhood was so methodically calculated. It was his routine. I’d swear he’d worn a path in the cobblestones. Since we both had the passion for vintage anything, he’d ask me to help find items owned by some of his jazz hero’s and catalog them all into his collection. Another mission I was more than glad to help with. Each piece we’d find was another lesson in jazz history for me. But it was also a journey for him and one that made him smile each time. And that is what I’ll miss the most. The smile. It’s gonna take a lifetime to fully understand everything Charlie Watts has taught me. On how to be an absolute gentleman, a real band drummer without losing your own identity, and of course how to be a good friend.
Love ya Charlie.
Don McAulay (Charlie’s drumtech 2012-present)
When I was a kid, Uncle Miles (Davis) would send me records to check out. I was playing drums, and he liked to guide some of my listening. He’d send things like Buddy Miles with Hendrix- Band of Gypsies, Sly Stone with Andy Newmark, Al Jackson with Otis, and one day he sent a ’45 of Satisfaction. That was my introduction to the great Charlie Watts.
Fast forward to 1994 when I first met Charlie during the Voodoo Lounge Tour. My brother Darryl Jones invited me. The first thing he said was, “It’s such a joy to play with Darryl.” When I told him that Uncle Miles dug Stones records, he was shocked, and that began a long and very special friendship. Whenever we were together it wasn’t Charlie Watts the rock star that I was with. He was just Charlie Watts, my friend, just like you and your friends. It was always easy, and there was a special energy that surrounded us.
One time at a show, they sat me next to his drum riser. The next day Charlie called and asked in his unique voice and accent, “Vince, were you laughing at me or with me?” I told him that his playing and his grooves were so perfect that it was pure joy.
In Los Angeles once, I was going to the Zildjian West office, which was near where The Stones were rehearsing, and I saw Charlie. I had a cymbal bag over my shoulder, and he asked what was in it. I had a cracked Oriental Crash of Doom that I was replacing. He saw it and asked if he could check it out. I gave it to him and from then on, he started using those cymbals on his left over his hi-hat.
Another time, we were just about to release the Birth of Cool film, and I was in Chicago with my cousin Erin (Miles’ son). We found out The Stones were also in Chicago, so we asked Darryl and Don McAully, Charlie’s tech, if the two of them and Charlie would be interested in a private screening of the film. Word got out among The Stones camp, and we ended up hosting everyone in the band (except Mick who had a prior engagement) and most of their entourage for a screening at Soho House. We had a beautiful afternoon. No press, no one outside the band’s circle. That was the next to last time I saw Charlie. The last time was at The Stones’ show in Santa Clara, CA in August of 2019. I had mentioned to Charlie that Tony Williams’ wife Coleen was interested in seeing the show, and he graciously arranged for tickets and backstage passes for the two of us.
In closing, I’d like to say that Charlie was the consummate gentleman both on and off the stage. With The Stones, he played exactly what was needed for the song, and that’s what my Uncle Miles loved – his groove. I cried when I heard he had passed. Charlie Watts forever…..I will always love you.
Vince Wilburn Jr. | Los Angeles, CA
When people ask me who my drumming influences were growing up, it’s impossible to name them all. But when people ask me who my all-time favorite drummer is, that’s easy: Charlie Watts. Seeing Ringo on TV made me want to be a drummer, but hearing Charlie on “Exile On Main Street” in 1972 made me want to play the drums. I was instantly captivated by both his style and his sound. As a teenager, my dream was to meet Charlie and tell him how much his drumming meant to me. I came somewhat close in 1981, but that’s another story.
Fast forward to 1997. I had been working at Zildjian for about 10 years, and sent Charlie a set of vintage 1940s A. Zildjian cymbals as a gift, no strings attached and No Expectations. He used some of them on the “Bridges To Babylon” album. I stayed in touch with Charlie’s tech, the late Chuch Magee, and through Chuch, Charlie invited me to their show in New Jersey, since I was going to be in New York at the time.
I remember meeting Charlie that first time like it was yesterday. We had a lovely chat after sound check. I saw him again just before the show, and he asked if I was coming to the Boston show, to which I said, “Yes, both shows.” He said, “Great, then I’ll see you there.” Afterward I thought, “I’ve met my hero and he couldn’t have been nicer, and that’s that.”
I didn’t think or expect anything more to come of it, though I hoped it would. What happened to this day still blows my mind: we became friends. Actual friends. Charlie let me into his orbit. Even after leaving Zildjian in 2013, we stayed in regular contact and Charlie always invited me to Rolling Stones shows. We last spoke on June 2nd when I called to wish him a happy 80th birthday. We had a great chat and hoped to see each other on the road.
I’m deeply sad that he’s gone, but thankful for the countless memories with him. Every single moment with Charlie was a treasured gift.
Rest easy, Charlie. And thank you for making my dream come true more times than I can count.
I’ll be paying tribute to Charlie on my show “Live From My Drum Room” in the coming weeks, sharing stories and memories.
What can you say about Charlie Watts? He was a kind, elegant, and unassuming man. Those attributes alone are a marvel, considering his position in life. I first met Charlie in London in the early 70’s when he and Mick used to come to the Santana shows. I grew up listening to both jazz and rock, and had played many times along with Rolling Stones records in my bedroom. Charlie’s feel was completely unique. I had the privilege of recording some simple percussion on a couple of Rolling Stones records, “Emotional Rescue” and “Tattoo You”, and, while playing to the tracks with the headphones on, I couldn’t help but flash back to that kid in my bedroom playing along with Charlie, and now here I was playing along with Charlie Watts on a Rolling Stones record at Electric Lady Studios in NYC. Life is amazing. Charlie knew of my love for jazz, and one time, Jack DeJohnette, had invited Charlie to a performance he was doing in the Village in New York. I forget which club. Anyway, Charlie couldn’t make it, as he was not in town, so he called Mick Jagger and told Mick to call me, and ask me to go with him to see Jack in his place. And Mick did call me, came by my apartment, picked me up, and we went to hear Jack DeJohnette together, representing Charlie Watts!
Charlie always retained his respect for the great jazz drummers. Just yesterday, Graham Haynes, the great Cornet player and musician and son of Jazz Icon Roy Haynes, told me that everytime the Stones played NYC, he would arrange to have a limo pick up Roy and bring him to the concert, best seats, and backstage passes available.
Michael Shrieve | Seattle, WA
A building is only a strong as its foundation.
Charlie Watts was that the foundation for the Rolling Stones. His playing, at times obscure and even wrong was so right for the Rolling Stones. No one played like Charlie Watts. When covering other bands material, Charlie is the hardest to duplicate because there is no space to imply your style of drumming in Charlie’s. You have to stick with what he did. He played off Keith Richards so well that it is impossible to put a more complicated drumbeat or drum rhythm in place of what Charlie played. When people ask me what do you think of Charlie Watts, I say he’s in The Rolling Stones, enough said. Unfortunately I never got to meet the man but admired him and will admire him forever. R.I.P….
Liberty DeVitto | Brooklyn, NY
I will never forget the feeling I had at 10 years old in 1969, when I went down the street to the Woolworth’s store, bought my 45 rpm single of The Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women for 69 cents, and came home and played it on our console stereo in our living room. The great sound of Charlie Watt’s drums, and the tremendous groove, (especially on that intro with the cowbell) made me start dancing all around the house! Every time I hear that song start with that cowbell groove and then Charlie’s drums kick in, I get a big smile on my face, and it takes me back to that awesome place in time. I’ve played tons of Charlie’s grooves in countless bands over the years but nobody could ever get it to feel just like his great feel.
One of my best friends that I met when I was 18 at Interlochen summer music school, and my North Texas State roommate, and Maynard Ferguson bandmate Tim Ries, got the gig on sax with The Rolling Stones years ago ( Tim is still on the tours with them)..
Tim invited me to an LA Rolling Stones show years ago and introduced me to Charlie. Tim and Charlie loved to talk about and play jazz together. Tim is an incredible sax player and fantastic all around musician and composer.
Charlie played drums on Tim’s great Blue Note Jazz LP. Tim had been telling me for weeks before he introduced me to Charlie, that he had been telling Charlie that one of his best friends and drummer pals had the honor of studying with Tony Williams for the past few years. I was super excited to meet Charlie and hang out with him.
As always, he was dressed to the nines in a wonderful suit. And as much as I wanted to talk about him and ask him questions, Charlie kept bringing the conversation back to Tony Williams with questions like, “What was taking lessons with Tony like?”, and “What did he show you?”…
It was evident to me that Charlie was forever a student of jazz drumming. He exuded a classiness that was very unique. He was humble and gracious, with a great respect for others. Charlie really changed the game for drummers in a band and for playing the right parts for the song. I am very grateful to my longtime friend and saxophonist, Tim Ries, for introducing me to Charlie Watts, one of the coolest drummers and humans I’ve ever met. I thank God for Charlie’s groove, it will live on forever.
Gregg Bissonette | Woodland Hills, CA
I grew up in the era of rock & roll and developed my playing through its most important years, the ‘60s. Even though my real interest was in jazz, I had a natural affinity for rock drumming. I hadn’t studied it, but it was in the air, and it was in my DNA. The guys from Journey heard me play and asked me to join them in 1978, and that’s when my real rock & roll education started. I started listening in detail to the way the great rock drummers could bring a rock song to life—and it was in that way that I discovered the beauty of Charlie Watts’s drumming.
He was really different from what I was used to—Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson and Gene Krupa—but in that different way, he was a paradigm of what made a good drummer. He had that deep groove, that very deep sense of swing that is a fundamental part of great rock & roll drumming. (I didn’t know, of course, that Charlie was a jazz drummer; I didn’t do deep-dives into the history and backgrounds of these drummers at the time, though I have since then.) He also had great intuition for creating that very big sound, playing with an inner balance that favored the bass drum and the snare, that was the foundation of everything the Rolling Stones did. That approach made him one of the main people that I patterned my rock drumming after. To me, Charlie Watts was rock royalty.
Then, in 1981, Journey opened three concerts for the Rolling Stones. The first was at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, and there were about 90,000 people—the biggest show we had ever played at that time. We were backstage, and we saw the Rolling Stones arrive at the venue, about two hours after we’d finished playing. You could see giant entourages around Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, but we didn’t see any entourages around Bill Wyman or Charlie; in fact, they came and knocked on the door of our dressing room just to say hi and thank us for being there. That was my first encounter with Charlie, and my first impression was that he was a gentleman, and a very humble one for a guy who was at the pinnacle of rock.
I next saw him 25 years later, when the Rolling Stones were rehearsing for a tour in Boston and I was playing at the Regattabar with my group called Jazz Legacy. A friend of mine who worked for Zildjian at that time, John DeChristopher, brought Charlie to see us play. It was a thrill to know he was in the audience; I was inspired, and the band played great. After the show, we hung out backstage; he again was a great gentleman, and talked to all the members of the band. He seemed to be immune to the idea that he was a big rock star. He didn’t buy into it. He was a musician.
I’m from the Boston area, so my mom and dad, Bruce and Lorraine Smith, were there too, and they met Charlie. They were close in age, and they really hit it off—they were just talking for the longest time. I saw him a number of times after that, but his first question as always “How are your mom and dad?” That was so endearing: He remembered and thought about them.
I left Journey in 1985, and after that my focus really was on jazz. Charlie stayed in the Rolling Stones his entire career, but he played jazz whenever he could. He had his own big band for a while, and he had a group called The ABC & D of Boogie Woogie. I saw him play with that group at the Iridium in New York. He reminded me of Art Blakey when he played with the Boogie Woogie band. He played a
small Gretsch bop kit, kept a solid, swinging pulse throughout the tunes, kept his volume appropriate for the club and complimented the other players on stage.
When we would talk music in our hangouts, we didn’t talk about rock; Charlie loved to talk about the great jazz drummers who he loved growing up. He also loved Charlie Parker and all the greats from the be-bop era. He had a great appreciation for not just the drumming, but the music.
I’ve tried to concentrate here on the good times I had with Charlie, but the truth is that I’m saddened. I have great respect for Charlie in so many ways, as a musician and as a person. He had this incredible talent, this love of the music and this intuitive approach to the music. And he had that great humility: Here he was, at the absolute pinnacle of rock music and of success, and he maintained that graciousness all throughout his life. That influenced me: I tried hard to follow that example when it was my turn to be at the pinnacle of success.
He touched me, and he influenced me deeply, and I’m very sad at his passing.
This article was originally published at TIDAL Magazine: https://tidal.com/magazine/
“So sad to lose a unique, iconic drummer (and dancer). He was a quiet giant.”
I adore Charlie Watts. I could write a book about what he meant to me, but for the purposes of this remembrance I’ll keep it brief.
Long before I ever met him, I was captivated by him and anything he did, said or played. Why did the small grey haired gentleman, sitting “quietly” behind the massive spectacle of the Rolling Stones, command my attention more than the entire rest of the production combined? How could one seemingly random hi-hat bark or China cymbal crash completely define a song, way above and beyond the contributions of the greatest and most flamboyant rock singer and riff-masters of all time.
I had the extreme good fortune to work with Charlie Watts, fairly regularly over the last 20 or so years. Every time I saw him, he managed to raise the already unimaginably high bar he’d set for himself. He’d always do or say something that would blow his previous high water mark out of the water. He left me with dozens of stories that I’m sure I’ll be boring my grandchildren with someday.
Here’s one that gives you a little insight into the person he was.
In 2005 I got a call from Charlie as the Rolling Stones were rehearsing for their upcoming tour. He asked “If I would mind” if he visited my drum shop when the tour came to Seattle”. Are you kidding me?!?! His visit was the absolute highlight of the 17 years I had my shop. He stayed for almost 4 hours. He loved trying out all the drums and cymbals and particularly enjoyed reading the inscriptions on the dozens of signed drumheads hanging on the walls. He had a story for practically every one of them, detailing his own experiences with each drummer or describing his love for their playing. When he heard one of our teachers giving a lesson in our back studio, he asked “if I thought they would mind if he watched?”. Just try to imagine being a drum teacher, or a young drum student, having a make-up lesson on a Sunday afternoon and Charlie Watts knocks on the door and politely asks if he can watch the lesson! Charlie was so interested in the exercise the teacher was showing his student that he asked if the teacher could give him the same lesson when they were done. Charlie was so excited about what he learned that several minutes after they finally left the shop, he turned his entourage around and returned to the shop so he could buy a practice pad and work on the lesson while driving back to his hotel. He also invited our entire staff, teachers, girlfriends and wives to their show and had 40 tickets waiting for us when we arrived.
I hope this gives you a tiny glimpse into the generosity, humility and deep love of music that defined the extraordinary person that Charlie Watts was and will always be in our hearts.
Donn Bennett | Seattle, WA
So much has been written about Charlie Watts. He’s been so much a part of our lives for SO long. Without maybe even realizing it, you only had to say Charlie and everyone knew who you meant. He was a friend, maybe an older Cousin or Uncle. He was the proper British gentleman we all picture when you think of class and elegance.
For me, the older I got, the more I came to appreciate him and what he added to the Stones music. For almost 60 years (yes 60) he helped define the drummers role in a lyric driven Rock N’ Roll band. He showed us what playing for the song meant, much like Ringo, and therein was his brilliance. I realized it was as much about what he didn’t play, the spaces he left, as what he did play. It was his commitment to being the anchor and backbone of his band. Maybe it was his coming out of jazz/big-band music that gave his pulse a certain swing. And thru his love of jazz music and its drummers, provided him a deep understanding of the shuffle.
Unfortunately, I never got to meet Charlie. Thru his drum tech Don McAuly, I was hoping to meet him either during the Stones prep for their upcoming tour or somewhere along the way. We even discussed a possible book for Hudson Music….I did see the Stones three times and they were amazing, with Charlie of course driving the bus – the Steel Wheels Tour –Oct.1989/Shea Stadium and the Bridges to Babylon Tour-Jan.1998/MSG-NYC and The Shine a Light show/movie filming at the Beacon Theater, NYC- 10/29/2006 (thanks to Jim Keltner for getting the tickets from Charlie).
Many, many years ago we got word that Charlie was interested in the jazz documentaries we’d produced for DCI Music Video on Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and a program called The Legends of Jazz Drumming. We shipped them off and not long after, we got a thank you letter that is attached here. I was shocked, but as I’ve come to see over and over these past few years, Sir Charlie was the consummate gentleman. I still laugh at his signature “CR Watts- drummer The Rolling Stones” (I guess he wanted to make sure we knew who he was). Thank you Sir Charlie…..
Rob Wallis | Hudson Music Founder
“Charlie was a legend, laying down the foundation for the greatest rock n roll band in the world, The Rolling Stones. He was one of the very few who started something. Drummers are still learning from him, the true sign of genius. His voice will speak to the drumming community through the ages. That’s real. “
David Garibaldi | Livermore CA
In 1982, my dear friend Jim Keltner vouched for me with his friend Charlie Watts and convinced him to do a rare sit down interview with me for Modern Drummer. The Rolling Stones were on tour and it had to take place in San Francisco so I flew up from Los Angeles to meet him at, I believe I recall, the Fairmont Hotel. It was mid morning and as I walked into the lobby I discovered Charlie at the front desk, which made it very convenient. I thought maybe he was waiting for me. Not so lucky. Charlie actually had forgotten I was coming and when I introduced myself, he proceeded to apologize and tell me that he had been up “drinking all night with Mick and the boys.” He hadn’t yet been to bed. Luckily this was a day off, but still…
Charlie led me into the bar and what did he do? He ordered another drink. And another. I set up my tape recorder and wondered how this was going to go. Well, the first thing he told me was he didn’t do interviews and then the test began: Did I know who Dave Tough was? Did I know who Baby Dodds was? Sid Catlett? Tony Williams? Joe Morello? Max Roach? I’m sure there were more names; I just can’t remember all of them. After about 45 minutes, I finally very nicely, but firmly said, “Charlie, I’m not going to take this test anymore. It’s time to do the interview.”
I was not prepared for the fact that Charlie really would not talk about the Rolling Stones. He pretty much dodged every question I asked about the band, even going as far as to say: “I probably was a typical musician, but I wasn’t, and I am still not, a Rolling
Stone. I mean, I am because that’s what I do, but the other stuff is bullshit. I don’t know what the Rolling Stones are.”
Regarding his sound, he said, “They (The Stones) developed it for me. I play as well as I can with this band and they happen to very popular. But anyone can play like I do, yet that’s what I love about it in a way. Anyone can do it, really. Maybe they can’t do it the way I do it and it is no big deal to do it, but not anyone can play like Max Roach. You can’t play like Joe Morello. Not many people can play like that guy and there aren’t many people who can play like Jake Hanna. There are very few people in the world who can play that good. There are very few people in this world who can play like Louis Bellson. But there are a million kids who can play like me. They’re not me doing it, but they can play like it. I can play like Al Jackson, but I’m not him doing it. But to play like Joe Morello is something else. There aren’t many people who can play 5/8 time and 16/4 and all that, and I mean play it. There are a lot of people who can play like Al Jackson, but they’re not Al Jackson and never will be. They’ll never be as good as he is, but they can actually play those things. I think Al Jackson is as great as all those people I’ve mentioned, but what I’m saying is that he taught people how to play those things. I’ve heard girls play exactly like me and they can play everything. They’re not me, but they can play everything. There are very few people in this world who can do what I’m talking about. You see, the audience doesn’t really want to hear me play ‘Honky Tonk Woman.’ They want to hear the song, primarily, with me doing it, because the song is more important than me.”
Charlie drank throughout the interview. While it was going on, I kept thinking I had gotten nothing with which to write an article. I know he didn’t mean to be impossible, it just happened that way. He actually was very lovely and ended up insisting on taking me to dinner in the hotel restaurant. I wish I could remember what we talked about over our meal.
Re-reading the article now, all these years later, I realize he did talk about some interesting things, even if he wouldn’t address specific iconic Stones songs. He told me he hated touring and at the beginning of that tour he couldn’t believe he was still doing it at age 40.
One of the last things he said to me in the interview was, “I love this band, but it doesn’t mean everything to me. I always think this band is going to fold up all the time – I really do. I never thought it would last five minutes, but I figured I’d live that five minutes to the hilt because I love them. They’re bigger than I am if you really want to know. I admire them, I like them as friends, I argue with them and I love them. They’re part of my life for a lot of years now. I don’t really care if it stops, though, quite honestly. I don’t care if I retire now, but I don’t know what I’d do if stopped doing this,” he pondered. “I’d go mad.”
And just think. That was almost 40 years before he didn’t stop; he was stopped, truly ending an era.
Robyn Flans | Author/Writer