Charlie Watts obituary: Jazz man who became rock superstar

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Charlie WattsImage source, Reuters

Drummer Charlie Watts, who has died at 80, provided the foundation that underpinned the music of the Rolling Stones.

The band became a by-word for rock 'n' roll excess but for Watts, playing with the Stones did not become the ego trip that drove Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

A jazz aficionado, Watts vied with Bill Wyman for the title of least charismatic member of the band; he eschewed the limelight and rarely gave interviews

And he famously described life with the Stones as five years of playing, 20 years of hanging around.

Charles Robert Watts was born on 2 June 1941 at the University College Hospital in London and was raised in Kingsbury, now part of the London Borough of Brent.

His father was a lorry driver and Watts was brought up in a pre-fabricated house to which the family had moved after German bombs destroyed hundreds of houses in the area.

A childhood friend once described how Watts had an early interest in jazz and recalled listening to 78s in Charlie's bedroom by artists such as Jelly Roll Morton and Charlie Parker.

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He first played with the Jo Jones Seven on the north London pub circuit

At school he developed an interest in and a talent for art, and he went on to study at Harrow Art School before finding a job as a graphic designer with a local advertising agency.

But his love of music continued to be the dominating force in his life. His parents bought him a drum kit when he was 13 and he played along to his collection of jazz records.

He began drumming in local clubs and pubs and, in 1961 was heard by Alexis Korner, who offered him a job in his band, Blues Incorporated, an outfit that became a vital part of the development of British rock music.

Also playing with Blues Incorporated was a guitarist named Brian Jones, who introduced Watts to the fledgling Rolling Stones - whose original drummer, Tony Chapman, had quit the band.

'Mick Jagger's bum'

The result of that meeting, according to Watts, was "four decades of seeing Mick's bum running around in front of me".

Watts' skill and experience were invaluable. Together with Bill Wyman, he provided a counterpoint to the guitars of Richards and Jones and the preening performance of Jagger.

Early Stones concerts often descended into mayhem as eager female fans climbed onto the stage to embrace their heroes. Watts often found himself trying to maintain a beat with a couple of girls hanging on to his arms.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Stones deliberately cultivated an air of unkempt detachment

As well as his musical ability, his graphic design experience also proved useful. He came up with the sleeve for 1967 album Between the Buttons, and helped create the stage sets which became an increasingly important feature of the band's tours.

Watts also came up with the idea of promoting their 1975 tour of the US by having the band play Brown Sugar on the back of a lorry as it drove down the street in Manhattan.

He had remembered New Orleans jazz bands using the same technique and it was later copied by other groups including AC/DC and U2.

His lifestyle while on the road was in direct contrast to that of other band members. He famously rejected the charms of the hordes of groupies that dogged the band on all their tours, remaining faithful to his wife Shirley, who he had married in 1964.

All-time low

However in the mid-1980s, during what he put down to a mid-life crisis, Watts went off the rails with drink and drugs, leading to heroin addiction.

"It got so bad," he later quipped, "that even Keith Richards, bless him, told me to get it together."

At the same time, his wife was battling her own alcoholism. and his daughter Seraphina had became something of a "wild child", being expelled from the prestigious Millfield public school for smoking cannabis.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
He maintained his love of jazz with The Charlie Watts Orchestra

Watts' relations with Jagger, too, had reached an all-time low.

On one famous occasion, in an Amsterdam hotel in 1984, a drunken Jagger reportedly woke Watts up by bellowing down the phone "Where's my drummer?"

Watts responded by going round to the singer's room, hitting him with a left hook, and saying: "Don't ever call me 'your drummer' again, you're my f***ing singer."

The crisis lasted two years and it was Shirley, above all, who helped him get through it.

High Flying Bird

Estimated to have been worth £80m as a result of the enduring popularity of the Stones, Charlie Watts lived with his wife on a farm in Devon, where they bred Arabian horses.

He also became something of an expert on antique silver and collected everything from American Civil War memorabilia to old classic cars. The last was curious since he didn't drive.

Image source, Getty Images

Between his regular Stones tours, Watts indulged his love of jazz. Though he always enjoyed drumming with a rock band and loved his work with the Stones, jazz gave him, as he put it, "more freedom to move around".

Back in art college, he'd completed an illustrated biography of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, titled Ode To A High Flying Bird.

In 1990, he used the book as the basis for a musical tribute to the man they called the Bird on an album by the Charlie Watts Quintet. It featured several of his jazz musician friends, including saxophonist Pete King.

Watts played and recorded with various incarnations of big bands. At one gig, at Ronnie Scott's, he had a 25-piece on stage including three drummers.

Always well turned out - he had featured in several lists of best dressed men - Watts kept his feet firmly on the ground throughout his career with one of the world's most enduring bands.

"It's supposed to be sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll," he once said. "I'm not really like that. I've never really seen the Rolling Stones as anything."