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Charlie Watts, R.I.P.

Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts during a concert on the band’s “Latin America Ole Tour” in Santiago, Chile, Chile, in 2016. (Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters)

Charlie Watts, the drummer for the Rolling Stones, died today at age 80. Watts had been performing with the band up to the pandemic (he appeared, drumming without drums, on last April’s televised “Together at Home” concert) and had been planning to resume touring until an illness announced earlier this month.

Watts, like his contemporary Ringo Starr, was a drummer’s drummer, content to lay down the foundation of the band’s music rather than jump into the limelight with drum solos or flashy displays. There were a very few big Stones songs such as “Get Off of My Cloud” where Watts took the foreground, but more typically, in songs such as “Paint it Black,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” or “Street Fighting Man,” he would be front and center only for a few seconds of the song, then slide underneath. Unlike Ringo, he never stepped out from behind the drum kit to sing, act, or write songs. Yet he was essential to the sound and longstanding continuity of what Mick Jagger immodestly often described as “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.” He laid down the powerful beats of “Street Fighting Man” on an antique toy drum kit.

Strong, wiry, serious, reserved, and nattily dressed, Watts was in many ways the most quintessential Englishman in the band. A classic Watts story:

One night in Amsterdam in the 1980s, when Richards was celebrating his marriage, he and Jagger stayed up most of the night drinking. At 5 a.m., Jagger called Mr. Watts’s hotel room, according to Richards’s autobiography, and said, “Where’s my drummer?” “About twenty minutes later,” Richards went on, “there was a knock at the door. There was Charlie Watts, Savile Row suit, perfectly dressed, tie, shaved. . . . I opened the door and he didn’t even look at me, he walked straight past me, got hold of Mick and said, ‘Never call me your drummer again.’ Then he hauled him up by the lapels . . . and gave him a right hook. Mick fell back onto a silver platter of smoked salmon on the table and began to slide towards the open window and the canal below it. . . . [I] caught Mick just before he slid into the Amsterdam canal.”

One of the small tragedies of the pandemic’s timing is that a whole generation of aging rockers may be leaving the stage in the next few years having been sidelined when they might have had the chance to take a final curtain call. But after six decades keeping the Rolling Stones rolling, the musical legacy of Charlie Watts is more than secure. R.I.P.

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