Charlie Watts, the English drummer best known as the backbone of the Rolling Stones for more than half a century, has died. He was 80.
The famed musician “passed away peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family,” Watts’ spokesperson announced in a statement Tuesday.
“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,” publicist Bernard Doherty said.
Widely recognized as one of the greatest rock drummers of all time, Watts’ signature style helped make the Rolling Stones one of the best-selling musical acts of all time.
The band has won three Grammy Awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Watts was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 2006 and was ranked 12th on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” in 2016.
Although he made his name as a rock ‘n’ roll musician, Watts’ drumming style and personal tastes were principally rooted in jazz.
Growing up in London, Watts’ earliest records were jazz albums by Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. When his parents gifted him his first drum kit at the age of 14, he would practise by drumming along with those jazz records. In 1958, he and neighbour Dave Green began their music careers playing in a jazz band in Middlesex called the Jo Jones All Stars. In the early ’60s, Watts was playing in the R&B clubs when he met Brian Jones, Ian Stewart, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. He joined the Rolling Stones in 1963.
Watts’ drumming was largely inspired by jazz, but his love for the genre also shaped the Rolling Stones in other ways. In 1974, the band arrived at a press conference for their tour announcement playing Brown Sugar on the back of a flatbed truck in the middle of New York traffic. The stunt was Watts’ idea, inspired by New Orleans jazz bands.
Watts was highly active even outside of his life with the Rolling Stones. In 1964, he published a cartoon tribute to Charlie Parker titled Ode to a High Flying Bird. In the 1980s, he toured worldwide with a big band that included such names as Evan Parker, Courtney Pine and Jack Bruce. In 1991, he organized a jazz quintet as another tribute to Charlie Parker.
In the ’90s, Watts toured with the Charlie Watts Quintet and released four jazz albums: 1991’s From One Charlie and 1992’s A Tribute to Charlie Parker with Strings both honoured his idol Charlie Parker, while 1993’s Warm and Tender and 1996’s Long Ago and Far Away each featured a collection of tunes from the Great American Songbook.
In 2004, Watts released Watts at Scott’s, a live recording of his jazz tentet at Ronnie Scott’s in London. In 2010, he recorded another live album with the Danish Radio Big Band that was released in 2017 by Impulse Records.
“His love of jazz and his passion for music was palpable,” said Brad Barker, host and musical director at JAZZ.FM91.