In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
“Charlie’s good tonight, inn’ee?”
That classic line from Mick Jagger, as heard and lifted from the early Rolling Stones live opus Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!, is a phrase that has always lasted and lingered, not least because it was unmistakably so true. Charlie was always good tonight, his sense of swing a failsafe metronome over the fifty-plus years of the band. A jazz man by preference, his kit dwarfed by the kits of most of his contemporaries, he was forever the lynchpin at the back, always making sure his band was the greatest rock and roll band in the world.
His band? Well, you must have heard the story. Picture it: Amsterdam, 1984. A drunk Jagger calls out: “Where’s my drummer?” It being after midnight, the drummer wakes, gets up and shaves, puts on one of his exquisitely tailored suits. He walks up the corridor to Jagger’s room and knocks. The door opens. Charlie lamps Jagger, foursquare on the chin: “Never call me your drummer again–you’re my singer!” A choice adjective or two may well have been used. And with that, he walks back to his room. Wonderful, even if apocryphal and/or embellished by the passage of time. We all want it to be true.
Watts was one of the group of art school graduates who flickered around the flame of Alexis Korner, the godfather of British blues, as he morphed jazz and blues into a nascent R’n’B. After joining first Korner’s band, Blues Incorporated, in around 1961, he fell into the crowd that included Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and Ian “Stu” Stewart. After much coercion, he agreed to join their fledgling band, the Rolling Stones, with their first gig on 2/2/63. The rest is history, and not for here. I am sure there will be ample opportunities to revisit the unfolding history of the Stones in the coming weeks, as we discover whether this moment does, or not, finally spell the end of the band. This is the opportunity to recall the shy and self-effacing presence, keeping his band in time, whilst simultaneously gaining entry to, in 2006, the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame and the Vanity Fair International Best Dressed List.
Seeming perpetually bemused and bewildered by the ascent and longevity of the Stones, Watts famously described his career as “five years working and twenty years hanging around.” Given that was less than halfway into their career, by now, as the rate of touring has stepped back, it would be more like ten years working and forty-eight years hanging around. Luckily for us, not all that time could be spent with his Arabian horses and vintage cars, back at home with his wife, his dogs and his family. He was also able to indulge his love for jazz, playing with a run of his own bands, and making rare but to be cherished appearances, guesting within other projects.
Here is a selection of some of his finest moments, as we explore, in true Cover Me tradition, his life in cover versions.
Howlin’ Wolf – Highway 49 (Big Joe Williams cover) from The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions (1971)
It could be said that it was down to the Rolling Stones, and the other groups of the UK blues boom of the 1960s, that Howlin’ Wolf and the other giants of the original 50’s Chicago blues boom could put down the tools of their day jobs and return to music. But those young white boys never lost their respect for the master, and this 1971 recording brings a whole host of them to back him in London. Bill Wyman and Watts from the Stones, along with omnipresent sixth member Ian “Stu” Stewart, Eric Clapton, and Steve Winwood gave as good a supergroup as you could have then found, if not forgetting the presence also of Hubert Sumlin, Lafayette Leaks and Jeff Carp from Wolf’s own band. Straightforward blues boogie “Highway 49” requires a precise hand on the rudder, exactly what Watts provided here.
Willie & the Poor Boys – Can You Hear Me (Allen Toussaint cover) from Willie & the Poor Boys (1985)
From a project put together by Wyman, as a fundraiser for ARMS (Action Research for Multiple Sclerosis), a charity set up by Ronnie Lane, erstwhile Small Faces and Faces bass player, who was himself stricken with that disease. An astonishing cast of musicians flocked to take part, including Jimmy Page, Paul Rodgers, Chris Rea, and Gary Brooker. Plus, of course, Charlie Watts, who gives sufficient sway to the Allen Toussaint song “Can You Hear Me” to make it dance. Andy Fairweather Low is the guitarist and vocalist on this song. If you can find a copy of the album, look it out, it’s a hoot.
Rocket 88 – Rocket 88 (Jackie Brenston cover) from Rocket 88 (1981)
Something possibly closer to Watts’ heart, this big-band instrumental version of this 1951 staple, sometimes called the first rock and roll record, is all horns and boogie-woogie pianos, with that precise rhythm sashaying at the back. A veritable who’s who of the rock world and of jazz mainstays, they share their roots in this undoubtedly good-time band. This live album, their only release, was recorded in 1979 and featured the killer rhythm section of Watts with Jack Bruce, who had also shared the stage in Blues Incorporated, whose guv’nor, Alexis Korner, also gets to appear in this recording. And your ears don’t deceive, there are indeed two pianos, one, inevitably, being Stu’s. Oh, and you may be interested to know the record sleeve, as in the video, was designed and made by Watts, a trained draughtsman following his time at Harrow Arts School, working for a while as such, playing the jazz clubs at nights and weekends.
Watching the River Flow – Ben Waters & Guests (Bob Dylan cover) from Boogie 4 Stu (2011)
Ian Stewart’s untimely death left a hole in the Stones, and there was much interest when a Ben Waters convened a(nother) superstar band to celebrate his life. I confess, this record aside, Ben Waters isn’t someone whose name has entered my mind to any great stretch. However, this interview gives his backstory, as well as casting yet more light on the all-around decent geezer-dom of Charlie Watts, given this, after all, is his post. It was Charlie who corralled his chums to guarantee the excellence of Boogie 4 Stu, an excellent tribute to his old mucker. The song is obviously the Dylan cover, and even Mick is on hand this time, too. By now, avid listeners to the drums will be getting the flavor of Watts, that beat always a tight nanosecond just behind the beat, unmistakable when you spot it. BTW, that’s Jools Holland on Hammond organ.
Charlie Watts Quintet – Bluebird (Charlie Parker cover) from With Strings – A Tribute to Charlie Parker (1992)
Given all the fuss about jazz, isn’t all this so far just dabbling on the edges? Possibly, so let’s hit paydirt with some Charlie Parker, the idol of the young Watts, that adulation continuing throughout his career. And, yes, that is him toting a sax on the cover, an affectation as, clearly, he sticks to what he knows, behind the kit, leading, from the back, that nanosecond behind. And if Charlie Parker seems some distant ghost from before the dawn of time, the engineer/originator of bebop, dead by 1955, aged 35, this composition, written in 1949, was from when Miles Davis was in his band, that at the beginning of his career. The Charlie Watts Quintet, even the name a direct nod to the Charlie Parker Quintet, included his childhood friend, and equally avid jazz fan, Dave Green on bass. The idea of a recorded tribute to both their idol came initially from a children’s book that Watts had written and illustrated about Parker, Ode to a High Flying Bird, showing yet again that there was more to Watts than his sticks, his suits and his sense of rhythm.
Hal Willner – Tonight At Noon (Charles Mingus cover) from Weird Nightmare (Meditations on Mingus) (1992)
More fairly hardcore stuff, this time coming via the late covers project king, Hal Willner, who produced tributes as varied as to vintage Disney songs, to Kurt Weill, and his forthcoming, posthumous Velvet Underground set. Who better to enroll on a couple of tracks than Charlie? This track opens with something almost unique: the sound of a Charlie Watts drum solo. Short, sweet, and succinct, it kicks off the track with aplomb. Even if you don’t make the whole five-plus minutes, I think you’ll agree the first few bars are worth it.
The Danish Radio Big Band feat. Charlie Watts – You Can’t Always Get What You Want (The Rolling Stones cover) from Charlie Watts Meets the Danish Radio Big Band (2017)
Apologies for you having to scroll down this far for anything that smacks of the Stones. This piece could have easily included any number of the many cover versions performed by Charlie’s band, but you can, and will, hear them aplenty, across other pieces that will concentrate almost fully on that side of him. When Watts had the opportunity to guest with this Danish institution, as well as featuring some of the original music from an earlier duet project with fellow drumming legend Jim Keltner, the imaginatively entitled Charlie Watts Jim Keltner Project, he had the business sense to throw in a brace of Stones tracks as well. Just about erring on the right side of the middle of the road, there is little doubt who has his hands on the sticks. (Anyone rushing back to compare Watts’ drums here with his drums in the original, don’t bother; it was Jimmy Miller, the producer, who played drums on that particular Stones song.) Old buddy Dave Green is here again on bass.
(Although not included anywhere here, if you get the chance, do check out the Watts Keltner project, especially if you cannot abide jazz. Against any expectation from either drummer, it is a fusion of drums, programming and electronica, each track dedicated to and entitled after a different drummer, that each of them might see as integral influences. Hell, there is even a remix second disc, with Coldcut amongst those contributing!)
The Rolling Stones – Shake Your Hips (Slim Harpo cover) from Exile on Main Street (1972)
Finally, this had to be included, the sense of anticipation at fever pitch throughout the song, with merely some percussive skittering throughout the body of the song, give or take an occasional and seemingly accidental thump. You keep on expecting Charlie to come in with a clatter, but he keeps you guessing, holding back, holding back. Then, just as you have given up, ba-doom, he’s in, the relief enormous. Now that is a masterclass in how to hold attention and yet still keep the beat.
Charlie, we won’t see your kind again. Thank you for the pleasure of your company these past 58 years. Stu and Brian have been waiting for you, and I’m sure they have your kit all set up and ready to go.