Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones’ drummer since the legendary rock group formed, has died at age 80, according to his London publicist, Bernard Doherty.
Doherty announced in a statement Tuesday morning: “It is with immense sadness that we announce the death of our beloved Charlie Watts. He passed away peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family. Charlie was a cherished husband, father and grandfather and also as a member of the Rolling Stones one of the greatest drummers of his generation. We kindly request that the privacy of his family, band members and close friends is respected at this difficult time.” The statement was later shared by the Stones’ official Twitter account.
The news comes after Watts underwent an undisclosed medical procedure earlier this month. At that time, a spokesperson for the band said the procedure had been “completely successful,” but it was unlikely that Watts would participate in the Stones’ rescheduled, 13-date “No Filter” fall U.S. tour because he needed “proper rest and recuperation.”
Charles Robert “Charlie” Watts was born in Bloomsbury, London, on June 2, 1941, and he started drumming around age 13 after he was inspired by a recording of Chico Hamilton playing Gerry Mulligan. His first drum was actually a banjo head that he played with brushes; in 1955, his parents bought him his first real drum kit, and he practiced by playing along to his beloved Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington records, never taking actual lessons. Three years later, Watts began his professional musical career in a jazz band called the Jo Jones All Stars.
In 1961, Watts joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, and a year later he met his future Stones bandmates, Brian Jones, Ian Stewart, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards, in the London blues scene. In January 1963, Watts officially joined the Rolling Stones, and his swinging, deceptively laid-back style became as integral to the Stones’ sound as Jagger’s swagger and or Richards’s riffs.
Rob Wallis of drumming video series Hudson Music once said, “Charlie’s got rock-solid time. His playing swings and his shuffles are great because of his comfort with jazz-ride patterns. Without him, the Stones would be a completely different-sounding band with a very different feel,” while Later … With Jools Holland drummer Steve White said “Like all that generation of great British drummers — Ginger, Ringo, Moonie, Mitch — Charlie’s playing is effortless and swinging, musical and cool. No one else sounds like him.” Lenny Kaye called Watts “the backbone of the Rolling Stones,” while Blondie’s Clem Burke stated, “Charlie Watts lays it down, and the others follow. He is the Law.”
“That’s why the Rolling Stones was a more interesting band than bands like Freddie and the Dreamers, Herman’s Hermits, the Searchers or the Hollies,” Watts himself explained in the book According to the Rolling Stones. “We had a much broader, much deeper, musical background.”
In a 2008 interview with If It Ain’t Got That Swing, Watt discussed his distinctive, unfussy style: “I was brought up on the theory that the drummer is an accompanist. I don’t like drum solos. I admire some people that do them, but generally I prefer drummers playing with the band. The challenge with rock ‘n’ roll is the regularity of it. My thing is to make it a dance sound; it should swing and bounce.”
Declared “rock’s greatest drummer” by esteemed music critic Robert Christgau, Watts was voted into Modern Drummer magazine’s Hall of Fame in 2006 (joining other legends like Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, and Buddy Rich) and was named the 12th greatest drummer of all time by Rolling Stone. The perfect foil to his Glimmer Twins bandmates, he was known as an anti-rock star of sorts, preferring a private, family-man existence aside from a brief dalliance with drugs in the ’80s that he described as a mid-life crisis. He was married to his wife Shirley Ann Shepherd (whom he met at his first Alexis Korner rehearsal in 1961) for 57 years.
Watts also enjoyed a jazz-oriented solo career outside of the Stones, playing alongside longtime Stones pianist Stewart in the band Rocket 88, releasing several albums with his Charlie Watts Quintet and the 32-piece Charlie Watts Orchestra, and performing at London’s famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club with his big band, Charlie Watts & the Tentet. In 2000, he collaborated with another drumming great, Jim Keltner, on the surprisingly electronica-leaning Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner Project.
Watts is survived by his wife, Shirley Ann Sherpherd; his daughter, Seraphina; his granddaughter, Charlotte; and his step-grandson, Dylan. Upon hearing of this tragic news, famous admirers and peers of Watts took to social media to pay tribute:
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