Charles Robert Watts was an English musician who achieved international fame as the drummer of the Rolling Stones from 1963 until his death in 2021.
Originally trained as a graphic artist, Watts developed an interest in jazz at a young age and joined the band Blues Incorporated. He also started playing drums in London's rhythm and blues clubs, where he met future bandmates Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. In January 1963, he left Blues Incorporated and joined the Rolling Stones as drummer, while doubling as designer of their record sleeves and tour stages. Watts's first public appearance as a permanent member was in February 1963, and he remained with the group for 58 years.
Nicknamed "The Wembley Whammer" by Jagger, Watts cited jazz as a major influence on his drumming style. At the time of Watts's death, Watts, Jagger and Richards were the only members of the band to have performed on every one of the band's studio albums. Aside from his career with the Rolling Stones, Watts toured with his own group, the Charlie Watts Quintet, and appeared in London at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club with the Charlie Watts Tentet.
In 1989, Watts was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2004, he was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame with the Rolling Stones. He is often regarded as one of the greatest drummers of all time.
Charles Robert Watts was born at University College Hospital in Bloomsbury, London, to Charles Richard Watts, a lorry driver for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, and wife Lillian Charlotte (née Eaves), who had been a factory worker. He had a sister, Linda.
As a child, Watts lived in Wembley, at 23 Pilgrims Way. Many of Wembley's houses had been destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs during World War II; Watts and his family lived in a prefab, as did many in the community. Watts's neighbour Dave Green, who lived opposite at 22 Pilgrims Way, was a childhood friend, and they remained friends until Watts's death. Green became a jazz bass player, and recalls that as boys, "we discovered 78rpm records. Charlie had more records than I did ... We used to go to Charlie's bedroom and just get these records out." Watts's earliest records were jazz recordings; he remembered owning 78 RPM records of Jelly Roll Morton and Charlie Parker. Green recalls that Watts also "had the one with Monk and the Johnny Dodge Trio. Charlie was ahead of me in listening and acquisitions."
Watts and his family subsequently moved to Kingsbury, where he attended Tylers Croft Secondary Modern School from 1952 to 1956; as a schoolboy, he displayed a talent for art, music, cricket and football. When he and Green were both about thirteen, Watts became interested in drumming:
I bought a banjo, and I didn't like the dots on the neck. So I took the neck off, and at the same time I heard a drummer called Chico Hamilton, who played with Gerry Mulligan, and I wanted to play like that, with brushes. I didn't have a snare drum, so I put the banjo head on a stand.
Watts's parents gave him his first drum kit in 1955, and he practised drumming along to jazz records he collected. After completing secondary school, Watts enrolled at Harrow Art School (now the Harrow campus of the University of Westminster), which he attended until 1960.
Jazz bands and Blues Incorporated
After leaving art school, he worked as a graphic designer for an advertising company called Charlie Daniels Studios, and also played drums occasionally with local bands in coffee shops and clubs. He and Green began their musical careers together from 1958 to 1959, playing in a jazz band in Middlesex called the Jo Jones All Stars. Watts initially found his transition to rhythm and blues puzzling: "I went into rhythm and blues. When they asked me to play, I didn't know what it was. I thought it meant Charlie Parker, played slow."
In 1961, Watts met Alexis Korner, who invited him to join his band Blues Incorporated. At that time, Watts was on his way to a sojourn working as a graphic designer in Denmark, but he accepted Korner's offer when he returned to London in February 1962. Watts played regularly with Blues Incorporated and maintained a job with the advertising firm Charles, Hobson and Gray.
Career with the Rolling Stones
In mid-1962, Watts first met Brian Jones, Ian "Stu" Stewart, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who also frequented the London rhythm and blues clubs, but it was not until January 1963 that Watts finally agreed to join the Rolling Stones. Initially, the band could not afford to pay Watts, who had been earning a regular salary from his gigs. His first public appearance as a permanent member was at the Ealing Jazz Club on 2 February 1963. Watts was often introduced as "The Wembley Whammer" by Jagger during live concerts.
Besides his work as a musician, Watts contributed graphic art and comic strips to early Rolling Stones records such as the Between the Buttons record sleeve and was responsible for the 1975 tour announcement press conference in New York City. The band surprised the throng of waiting reporters by driving and playing "Brown Sugar" on the back of a flatbed truck in the middle of Manhattan traffic. Watts remembered this was a common way for New Orleans jazz bands to promote upcoming dates. Moreover, with Jagger, he designed the elaborate stages for tours, first contributing to the lotus-shaped design of the Tour of the Americas, as well as the Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle Tour, the Bridges to Babylon Tour, the Licks Tour, and the A Bigger Bang Tour.
Watts' last live concert with the band was 30 August 2019 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida. He had never missed a single concert throughout his career with the band. Besides Jagger and Richards, he is the only member to have appeared on every album in the Rolling Stones discography.
Activities outside the Stones
Watts was involved in many activities outside his life as a member of the Rolling Stones. In December 1964, he published a cartoon tribute to Charlie Parker titled Ode to a High Flying Bird. Although he made his name in rock, his personal tastes lay principally in jazz.
In the late 1970s, he joined Ian Stewart in the back-to-the-roots boogie-woogie band Rocket 88, which featured many of the UK's top jazz, rock and R&B musicians. In the 1980s, he toured worldwide with a big band – the Charlie Watts Orchestra – that included such names as Evan Parker, Courtney Pine and Jack Bruce, who was also a member of Rocket 88.
In 1991, he organised a jazz quintet as another tribute to Charlie Parker. The year 1993 saw the release of Warm and Tender by the Charlie Watts Quintet, which included vocalist Bernard Fowler. This same group released Long Ago and Far Away in 1996. Both records included a collection of Great American Songbook standards. Following their collaboration on the Rolling Stones' 1997 album Bridges to Babylon, he and drummer Jim Keltner released a techno/instrumental album titled Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner Project. Watts stated that even though the tracks bore such names as the "Elvin Suite" in honour of the late Elvin Jones, Max Roach and Roy Haynes, they were not copying their style of drumming, but rather capturing a feeling by those artists. Watts at Scott's was recorded with his group, "the Charlie Watts Tentet", at the Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London.
In April 2009, he began performing with the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie. When asked to join by pianist Ben Waters, he quickly agreed; his only demand being that Dave Green play bass, stating, "If Dave does it, I'll do it."