Charlie Watts Is a Jazz Drummer: The Lost 'Rolling Stone' Interview

In 2013, I interviewed the Rolling Stones for this magazine as the band prepared for the next leg of their 50th anniversary tour. I’d talked to Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Ron Wood before, but never Charlie Watts. I was excited by the prospect: For more years than I could count, I had wanted to be able to sit in a room and talk with him about jazz. I got to do that, but the section I wrote about him didn’t make the final story.

After I learned Watts would not be joining the Stones on tour this fall due to a health issue, I went back and reread the section, expanded it with some more passages from the interview. Now, on the heels of Watts’ death at age 80, I offer it in full. The piece raises a question: Are the Rolling Stones still the Rolling Stones without Charlie Watts? There can be no doubt that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards feel this demise immensely, since they have loved the man and have appreciated — for well over half a century — what he meant to their sound and history. They have carried indelible ghosts before, but Watts’ passing is a crushing loss. He was absolutely central to the Rolling Stones’ history, sound, and identity. — Mikal Gilmore

Charlie Watts is a jazz drummer. When he joined the Rolling Stones in 1963, in his early twenties, he had doubts about casting his lot with an outfit that — though a self-described blues ensemble — would quickly be identified as a teen-adored rock band, like the Beatles. He had drummed with bandleader Alexis Korner in London’s blues scene — which the Stones emerged from — but he always saw himself playing jazz. In 1965, he would publish an illustrated children’s book about bebop alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker, Ode to a High Flying Bird. (Much later, in 1992, he would record an album devoted to the late alto saxophonist, A Tribute to Charlie Parker With Strings.) Keith Richards has said he considers the Stones a jazz band — at least onstage — because of Watts.

It was Richards, Watts tells me, who taught him new ways to hear rock & roll: “While they were all going on about John Lee Hooker and all these other marvelous people [like] Muddy Waters, I’d be putting Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins in. That’s what I was into when I joined the Rolling Stones, that’s what I used to listen to. Keith taught me to listen to Elvis Presley, because Elvis was someone I never bloody liked or listened to. Obviously, I’d heard ‘Hound Dog’ and all that, but to listen to him properly, Keith was the one who taught me.”

Watts also began listening to New Orleans musicians who played rock & roll and R&B as well as jazz. “Like Earl Phillips, Jimmy Reed’s drummer. Earl Phillips kind of played like a jazz drummer,” he says. “Another New Orleans drummer, Earl Palmer [who played with Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and Little Richard, among others], always thought of himself as a jazz player — and, in fact, he was; he played for King Pleasure.”

Watts came to see how jazz and rock & roll emerged from similar backgrounds, sometimes played by the same players: “It’s quite a normal mixture in New Orleans for the drummers — somebody like Zigaboo [Joseph Modeliste, drummer for the Meters]. He could play bebop but also could play second-line rhythms. Ed Blackwell was a revolutionary drummer with Ornette Coleman’s quartet, and he was what we would call a jazz player, that’s what he did, that’s what he was. But he could play a New Orleans second line because he was from New Orleans.”

Watts has recorded 10 jazz albums on his own, in a wide variety of styles, starting in 1986 with Live at Fulham Town Hall, by the Charlie Watts Orchestra — an oversized orchestra that included seven trumpeters, four trombones, three altoists, six tenors, a baritonist, a clarinetist, two vibraphonists, piano, two basses, Jack Bruce on cello, and three drummers. It was abundantly arranged, and some of it — “Lester Leaps In,” with a massive tenor conflagration — was played at breakneck clips. In addition, he has issued recordings with a tentet, a quintet, plus a big band (which played versions of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Paint It, Black”); has recorded two Charlie Parker tributes; and has released two luxuriantly scored sets of American Songbook standards — Warm & Tender and Long Ago & Far Away, both featuring longtime Rolling Stones backing vocalist Bernard Fowler. On the vocal albums, Watts muted his rhythms into a faded heartbeat, guiding songs of longing and loss. His most adventurous work, though, was a sweeping tribute to jazz drummers, in collaboration with drummer Jim Keltner — who has played with Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Delaney & Bonnie, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Gábor Szabó, among numerous others.

When I meet Watts in a Beverly Hills hotel’s small, comfortable conference room, he is dressed in a fine gray suit, a couple shades darker than his swept back hair. He sits with his legs crossed, and his hands crossed at his wrists above them. I tell him I especially like the sprawling and ambitious Charlie Watts-Jim Keltner Project, on which the two played a series of nine tributes with such titles as “Kenny Clarke,” “Roy Haynes,” “Max Roach,” and “The Elvin Suite.” They didn’t attempt to emulate the drummers they were recognizing — though in the case of “Airto,” they fairly reconstructed the sound that the Brazilian percussionist evoked in Miles Davis’ 1970s ensembles.

For the most part, though, Watts and Keltner’s dedications were impressionistic constructions that caught something of the essence of the nine drummers they paid homage to, utilizing unusual instrumentation as well as occasional loops and electronics, plus West African-sounding rhythmic undertows. I tell Watts I especially liked the tracks named after Art Blakey and Tony Williams, and he seems surprised and grateful that an interviewer knows the album.

For me, Watts’ jazz recordings stand on their own yet also deepen an understanding of his place in the Rolling Stones. When you hear Watts drum with his stunning tentet on Watts at Scott’s, it’s as if all the beats withheld over the years from his work in an electric-blues and pop band have suddenly fallen into place. You can imagine superimposing one perspective over the other, and there you have it: A full picture of the history of drumming emerges in these recordings, as it developed in the blues-based formations of Blakey, Max Roach, and — a major touchstone for Watts — Elvin Jones, and finally informed the razor-edged swing that Watts instilled in the Rolling Stones, then winds up some place altogether different in his epic with Keltner.

Watts talks about seeing Tony Williams in the young drummer’s early years with Miles Davis. “He was so unlike anybody else,” he says. I mention that during an interview with Williams he once told me that the single influence who opened him to drumming so wide was Keith Moon. Watts’ eyes grow wide, and he leans his head rearward as if taken aback: “Blimey.”

When I thought about it, I say, it made sense. “Not to me,” says Watts. “Keith Moon, there was a character. Loved him. There’s only one of him. I miss him a lot. He was a very charming bloke, a lovely guy, really, but quite…”

Watts pauses to make a “whew” sound. “But he could be a difficult guy, really. Actually, there wasn’t only one of him. He was more like three people in one. He used to live here in Los Angeles for a while, in some of his madder days. God, I remember being here once with him when he tried to turn me on to chocolate ants; he was walking about with tins of chocolate ants. That’s what I mean. He was not your regular guy, in that way, but he was, in his heart, a nice guy. I always got on well with him.”

“Keith Moon, there was a character. Loved him. There’s only one of him. I miss him a lot. He was a very charming bloke, a lovely guy, really, but quite…”

Watts shakes his head and smiles at the memory. “He was an amazing drummer with Pete [Townshend]. I don’t know if he was a very good drummer outside of Pete,” he adds, laughing. “A lot of guys, I don’t think, would have liked playing with him. He didn’t play real time or anything. He wasn’t funky or anything. He was a whole other thing. He was on top of everything, and maybe that’s what Tony liked, but you’d never think that Tony was like … I would have thought Roy Haynes was his big influence.

“Tony Williams was a lovely man, too, and he was writing some great stuff at the time he died. He was getting out, writing more than just playing. Brilliantly, he was writing brilliantly. He was very young when he joined Miles and became this iconic figure. I saw him when he was 18, I think, in London, the first time, when he had the black kit, and nobody played like that. Years later, when he died, I saw the brilliant Roy Haynes do his gig at Catalina’s, and I suddenly thought of Tony as an extension of Roy, which I never realized before. When Tony came to London in the Sixties with Miles, like I said before, he completely blew everybody away, because nobody played like that. They didn’t ride that way or do things like that. Then I saw his band Lifetime, of course, with Larry Young and John McLaughlin. I went with Mick Taylor to see that. It was fantastic. The three of them were incredible.”

Mainly what Watts talks about that afternoon is durability. I tell him that I’m not aware of any other drummer — at least not a well-known one — who has played with a musical unit for 50 years. For that matter, the only other band I can think of that ran that long was the Duke Ellington Band, from 1924 to 1974. Watts seems a little surprised as he pores over the thought of being the single longest-lasting band drummer in history. “Many guys have drummed 50 years,” he says, “but I guess it’s true, what you say. When we were going along through the years and people would say, ‘God, you’ve been going for 20 years,’ or something, my stock answer in those days was, ‘Yeah, but Duke Ellington has been going 40-something years.’ Of course, he never had the same band, really. He had a lot of the same guys in and out. The wonderful Sonny Greer was with him for, blimey, from when he was in his twenties; he must have been 30 years with him, easy, up to the 1950s. Then Ellington swapped a lot of drummers around. So, no, there haven’t been … I don’t know what that means, actually, 50 years with one band.”

It must mean that you really like it.

“Well, yeah. Also, I prefer bands to … I’m not Buddy Rich, I’ve never been a jazz musician that’s in a book that you ring up to do a gig. That would worry the life out of me, turning up and playing with people for the first time. I’ve never had that virtuosity. It takes about three or four gigs before I feel comfortable. Most of the drummers I love, really, are band guys, like Sonny. They’ve been in units for a while. It doesn’t happen so much nowadays. Roy Haynes, he’s been in so many great, great bands. Or the bands have been great with him in them, under great leaders — Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Gary Burton. Stan Getz had one of the great bands with him. There’s also a great record with Monk that he did, I think it’s one of the Five Spots. It’s amazing, really. There’s a great album he did with Coltrane called To the Beat of a Different Drum. Roy is an amazing guy who plays now as well as he’s ever played. If any young person asked me who they should follow in one’s life, I’d say Roy Haynes. He’s eternally young — there’s absolutely nothing wayward about him. He’s at an age where most guys are not even bothering with it, really. But you put your arm around him, he’s solid. He’s a fantastic man, and a very, very charming guy, beautiful man.

“When the Rolling Stones started, all those other bands were obviously going — they were big — and now we’ve gone past them in years, in longevity. This is nothing to do with fame and fortune or greatness. It’s just longevity, actually, and suddenly we’ve gone past them.”

I point out that probably nobody has drummed so hard, so relentlessly and fiercely as Watts over a lifetime. “That’s a drummer’s lot,” he says. “When you’d see Otis Redding, that band live, those tempos.… He was entertaining, doing it all, but he could stop during a sax solo or something. That drummer, though, was going the whole bloody time. It’s what you do. The drummer is the engine. It’s worse when you get tired and have a lot of the show still to do.

“There’s nothing worse than being out of breath or your hands are killing you, and you still have a quarter of the show to go. That’s the worst one. When you were young, you’d have a drink to get through that, but now I couldn’t do that. I like to be over-ready for things. That’s really one of the reasons why I started to play jazz — the love of it was another — but it was to do other things while we weren’t on the road, because we’d work for two years, and you’d be great at the end of it, and you wouldn’t work for another year or so. I like to do something to keep my hands going, really.”

“The Beatles were fabulous in a studio, getting their songs together, but we were much better at entertaining — we were more raucous.”

There had been reports about tensions between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Were there any doubts about the 50th-anniversary tour happening?

“Not to me, but to many people there was a doubt. The two big offenders of that virtually lived together when they were kids, didn’t they? They lived down the road from each other. It comes from all that. They’re like brothers, arguing about the rent, and then if you get between it, forget it. They leave you high and dry. I think it’s part of being together for 50 years. Keith couldn’t say things in his book without knowing Mick that well. I haven’t read it, actually. I just heard things he’d said, and it’s what he felt.

“I always thought we should do something for the 50th year, which Bill Wyman informed me actually is this year — it wasn’t last year. I was very in favor of doing a show, or a few of them. It’s all right to do three numbers, but by the time you’ve rehearsed, paid for everybody, it’s like a juggernaut, our thing. It’s not just me and Keith turning up and having fun, although that really is what it is, but the whole thing of it turns into a production, so you generally have to do two or three shows to pay for thinking about getting it together.

“The shows in London and New York were good, and sort of spurred this on. I hope this is as comfortable as that was, because that was really comfortable to do. I like it when you can see the end of it. When you have an endless list of dates — 50 shows in America or something — you just look at it and go, ‘Oh, Christ.’ But it’s very tempting to carry on, once you’ve started that. As Keith would say, ‘Why don’t we do more?’ It’s logically the thing to do, because the start-up is the hard thing on your body. So obviously, nonstop is the best thing. We’ll see.”

Are the Rolling Stones the best at being the Rolling Stones when they’re on tour or onstage?

“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, we are a live band. We always have been, even in the early days. The Beatles were fabulous in a studio, getting their songs together, but we were much better at entertaining — we were more raucous. I think we’re a better live band than a lot. For your ego, there’s nothing nicer than driving down Santa Monica and hearing yourself on the radio, especially if it’s a new record. But the real fun is on the stage.

Keith [Richards] is very much like playing with a jazz guy, very loose. He can go anywhere, and if you follow him and it’s right, it’s something special. It’s very easy to play with him.

“That’s why I like jazz and why I prefer playing in clubs, because it’s more immediate. It’s just what I like. And I think everybody does, probably apart from Mick, who’s more about songwriting, that sort of thing. I’m sure Keith prefers playing live to the other stuff.” Watts laughs. “People would look at us and hear the music and think, ‘God, why do you bother to rehearse for that?’ But we always do, and we always have.”

Every night, I offer, it seems like there’s breathing room, there’s a chance for something a little different.

“A lot of that comes from Keith, really. Keith’s very much like playing with a jazz guy, very loose. He can go anywhere, and if you follow him and it’s right, it’s something special, which is kind of what happens with jazz in its moments, really. He’s very much like that. It’s very easy to play with him. You can go anywhere, really, sometimes. Roy Haynes told me you had to be quick with Bird [Charlie Parker], because he was so quick thinking, his little inflections and that. Keith’s kind of like that. I don’t mean Keith’s like Charlie Parker, but it’s the same feeling. It can go somewhere quick, and if you go with it where he thinks it should go, it’s a lot of fun. That’s why it’s loose. Sometimes we don’t go with it, and it falls apart.”

Is “going with it” more difficult on large stages in arenas?

“You can hear better, obviously, in a smaller room, except now the stage equipment is so advanced. In the early days, Keith used to have his Vox amplifier on a chair, tilted up so I could hear him. He still does, actually — he has it right by my hi-hat, so I can hear him. In the early days, when it was what I call the Beatle period, which was all screaming girls, you couldn’t hear a bloody thing, but I had to really hear him to know where the song is, because in those days, you didn’t have very good PA. I couldn’t hear what Mick was singing, really. Now, it’s quite sophisticated, but also it’s incredibly loud. When a band like ours goes into a small club, it carries half of that with it, and it’s miles too loud for me in a club. We never used to be like that. It’s very difficult to suddenly jump from that huge stage down to that. It’s pretty hard.”

Keith Richards tells me, more than once, that Watts is essentially the reason that he still plays with Mick Jagger, and the reason the Rolling Stones endure so well and renew so effectively. Jagger, too, has said he can’t imagine the band continuing without Watts. The Rolling Stones could survive the loss of guitarists Brian Jones and Mick Taylor, and the departure of bassist Bill Wyman. They can withstand years of a world’s distance apart from one another. But they can’t imagine truly being the Rolling Stones without Charlie Watts. Watts is similar-minded: “They are the only people I want to play rock & roll with.”

Much of this is to say that when the Rolling Stones play music together, when they walk onstage together, they are an interesting coalition of history, musicianship, personality, pain, loss, joy, daring, change, and — most important — roughhewn fellowship.

By this time, the longevity of the Rolling Stones has become as distinguishing a characteristic of the band’s history as their blues-indebtedness and all the notoriety and rebelliousness that put them on the map in the first place. That longevity, of course, has taken its toll — at moments their union seemed strained beyond any hope of repair. Yet they know there’s an alchemy at work between them, a collective mystery that is beyond their individual talents or reputations.

Past that, none of the three original members — Watts, Jagger, Richards — is at ease offering insight into why their legend and appeal survive so potently, but they realize that it endures when they are together, especially in the presence of an audience.

“We’re very, very fortunate,” says Watts. “I’ve always felt that folks have liked this combination of people. Mick, Keith, Brian, and Bill: People turned up to see them. First it was 100 attending, then it was 200, then it’s a lot. People love looking at Mick Jagger and watching what Keith’s doing. I don’t know why, but they do. I mean, I do know, I know how good Keith is, and I know Mick is the best frontman going now that James Brown and Michael Jackson have gone. Being out there, he’s the best. He takes it deadly seriously, as well; he keeps himself together. He looks great — everything you could want. You wouldn’t expect them to turn up to see me — it’s, like, 200 people — but the Rolling Stones say they’re doing something, and we get more people standing outside, listening to our rehearsals, than I do in a club listening to me do a set. It’s something that I’ve got no idea why.”

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