The death of an 80 year old man surrounded by his family doesn’t sound that a big a deal but the loss of Charlie Watts is on every bit as significant as the death of Louis Armstrong or Howling Wolf, he’s a link to a past that has now gone forever.
Much is made of Watts as a thwarted Jazz drummer but in the early Stones he effortlessly made the transition from R&B to pop. He was good enough not to be replaced in the studio and flexible enough to cope with whatever the Brian Jones incarnation of the band were able to come up with.
The styling of the Watts sound really began around the time of Exile on Main Street when, along with Keith Richards he began to develop what we have come to think of as the Stones sound.
By the 80’s his playing had become increasing stylised, he developed his habit of not playing the high hat when he hit the snare which looked ungainly but gave a certain loping quality to the beat. He also kept the habit of using the traditional grip where the left hand holds the stick in a different way. It’s good for Jazz but most rock players want more power and hold both sticks the same. It wasn’t a problem for Charlie though, his drums always cut through the mix. He tended to play behind the beat sometimes scarily so but that was the Stones sound and even their older pop songs began to sound like loose jams when the band played them live.
For the archetypical Charlie Watts experience look no further than ‘Rough Justice’ recorded when he was a mere 65 years old
Watts pulls it all together with a drum fill that’s somehow incredibly enthusiastic for the owner of a buss pass. There’s the strange high hatless snare beat, the wash of cymbals in the chorus and plenty more similar fills. There’s something in his playing that suggests he’s having the best time of his life while still not breaking a sweat.
Its impossible to conceive of the likes of Charlie Watts being able to exist in the same way ever again, there are more technically skilled players aged three strutting their skills on You Tube. Professional Musicians today have to be skilled and flexible, they will only play like Watts if it’s a job in a Stones cover band and even then they wont come close. The concept of someone doing one thing really well is too limiting for modern music. Not only have we lost an absolutely uniqueplayer we are losing the link to the time when people got together to make music and basically do the best they can. When that happens, the music had to adapt to the players which is when you get the Stones or the Beatles or the Who or the Sex Pistols.