The heartbeat of my favorite band, the very essence of British cool and effortless gentility, is gone. I have been, as one does when faced with loss, reminiscing in private about what this man meant to me. And, if you’ll permit me the luxury of airing a little grief, it occurred to me that the best way I can express this is with the music he made. Or to be more precise, the music he refrained from making.
Listen to these songs. Appreciate them for their artistry, particularly Charlie’s percussion. Then listen again to those same songs and imagine those small, perfect drum details changed even slightly. It doesn’t work. None of it works half as well without Charlie. The heavy, omnipresent brushed cymbals in “Thief In The Night.” The quiet drum rolls before the snare hits in the beginning of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Those aren’t rock flourishes. A rock drummer wouldn’t have bothered with those. That’s jazz. And what’s so amazing about Charlie’s jazz is what he left out.
Listen to Charlie’s drums at the 40 second mark of “Gimme Shelter.” His job there is to bring the song into focus, to mark the transition from the intro to the meat of the song. I feel that most of the drummers I really admire – John Bonham, Neil Peart, and Tré Cool come to mind – would have crowded that space with a pounding drum fill. Not Charlie. Just three swings of his sticks – pop, pop, splash – and the entire song is changed, coalescing into one of the greatest rock recordings ever made.
Most of my favorite drummers approach the drums like heavy machine gunners. I’m not cutting them down; I absolutely love that kind of drumming. But Charlie played skins like a sniper. Everything in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. Efficient. Clean. Professional. Perfect.
Excerpt from Life by Keith Richards and James Fox, 2010
Back in 2015 I was listening to the Stones play “Thru And Thru,” and I left the following post on Facebook: “Keith may have written this, but at the 3:47 mark, Charlie fucking OWNS this song.” I’m going to leave you with that recording. And listening to it again now, marveling in his expertise, I’m reminded of something Keith Richards has said for decades. I don’t think I ever really understood it until now. But Keith was right. The rest of The Rolling Stones get a lot of hype and attention thrown their way.
“With Charlie, it was never about chops, it was about style. The Rolling Stones were smart enough to hire a jazz cat who would always put the roll in front of the rock, a guy who didn’t measure his worth by how many notes he played, whose ego was tempered by the primacy of his job: to put the song over, to make the band sound great. While others battled their drums, Charlie finessed his. He knew when to swing, he knew when to stomp. Charlie didn’t play drum solos, not because he wasn’t good enough to play them, but because he was good enough not to have to.”
Charles Robert Watts, 2 June 1941 – 24 August 2021