2 June 1941 – 24 August 2021
The Rolling Stones drummer’s childhood friend and fellow musician recalls a home-loving connoisseur and collector of ephemera
I first met Charlie Watts in 1946, when I was four and he was five. We moved into new prefabs built after the war in Wembley Park – we were number 22, he was number 23 – and our mums hit it off pretty much straight away. We were very close, Charlie and me, throughout our lives. There was one point after he joined the Stones when we didn’t see each other for years, but when we did eventually reconnect, we picked up where we left off. Our relationship never really changed.
From an early age we were both interested in jazz. It was a mutual thing. I used to listen to records in Charlie’s bedroom, discovering musicians such as Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton. Later, when his dad bought him a drum kit and I got a double bass, we’d only been playing for a few months when we heard that a jazz band was doing auditions for a drummer and bass player. We did the audition and as we were the only ones that turned up we got the gig with the Jo Jones Seven and started doing weekly sessions at the Masons Arms pub in Edgware.
He was always much sharper than me. He had style, Charlie, natural style. I’ve got some pictures of us playing at the Masons Arms, me in a scruffy old cardigan, him impeccably dressed in an Ivy League jacket. He was quiet and studious and very particular about things. One of his hobbies later on was collecting autographed photographs of famous jazz musicians. He also had a complete collection of PG Wodehouse first editions, each book in a little case. He absolutely adored his “stuff”, as he called it.
He loved classic cars as well, though he couldn’t drive. He had a 1937 Lagonda and he used to just sit in it and turn the engine on. He loved it as an artefact. He had somebody who used to take him out for a spin. What a lifestyle! But it wasn’t a question of “look what I’ve got”. Everything he owned – Donald Bradman’s cricket cap, Sonny Greer’s drum set – he owned because he loved it. It’s a pity he didn’t open a museum.
The Jo Jones Seven broke up after about a year and we went our different ways. Five years later, Charlie was touring the States with the Rolling Stones. Although he was terrific with the Stones, his first love was jazz. At the gigs, his room backstage was called the Cotton Club and he’d be playing Duke Ellington before going on stage. Joining this huge rock band was an accident. He was joining bands every other week and breaking up and he thought it would be the same thing with the Stones. When it took off, he was as surprised as anybody.
As a drummer, he was a team player. He didn’t like doing solos. He never regarded himself as a star
He was always quite diffident about the Stones. It never affected him, it was just the thing that he did. He was the clean living one in the band, the family man. He hated going away on the road, he wanted to be home with his wife, Shirley. Although he did have a very shaky period in the mid-80s. I don’t know what sparked it off but he got involved with drugs quite seriously. Which is amazing, after 20 years of not touching anything. But then he just stopped overnight, because he realised he was in danger of losing everything. I really admire that. For a while afterwards, he didn’t do anything at all: he didn’t drink, he basically just lived on nuts. He denied himself everything for a year or two.
We started playing together again in the 80s, when he formed the Charlie Watts Big Band, one of his many jazz projects. The last thing we did together was The ABC & D of Boogie Woogie, from 2009 to 2012. He was a very thoughtful guy and always very polite. At Ronnie Scott’s, people would come to get things signed, books and records and stuff, and he did it without any qualms.
As a drummer, he was a team player. He didn’t like doing solos. He never regarded himself as a star. He was playing for the band. Which is how he approached everything he did. He didn’t want the spotlight. But even though he blended in, he was a very strong presence in the Stones. I always felt like I couldn’t imagine the Stones without Charlie.
He got on with the other members. They just happened to hit on the right chemistry from the beginning and it’s been going on nearly 60 years. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie had really built up this strong relationship and then Ronnie Wood joined and it became what it is. They were completely different characters, all of them, but the chemistry held the band together.
I miss Charlie very much. The last time I spoke to him was when he turned 80 in June. I called him on his birthday and we had a chat and everything was fine. He said: “Hope to see you soon.” And then a few months later I found out that he’d been in hospital for nine weeks. I was really shocked by that.
My abiding memory of Charlie is of his kindness, his generosity, his thoughtfulness as a person. I deeply loved him. What can you say about somebody you’ve known since you were four years old? Growing up together, discovering music together, we became so close.
How will he be remembered? Well, he’s a legend, isn’t he? He would say: “No, I’m not.” But he was a legend of drums, playing with the greatest rock band in the world. He won’t be forgotten.