Despite becoming one of the greats of rock’n’roll, the dapper and deadpan Charlie Watts, who has died aged 80, spent more than 60 years doing his second-favourite job. Watts applied himself diligently to the task of being the rock-steady heartbeat of the Rolling Stones, but what he always yearned to do was play jazz. Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were his musical idols, and his playing was inspired by jazz drummers such as Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones.
Watts’s career with the Stones ran from the cramped clubs of Britain’s early-1960s blues boom to the international stadium tours that became their metier. Through it all, he seemed determined to be as self-effacing as anybody could be as a member of perhaps the world’s most high-profile rock band. Nonetheless, the group fully understood his value to them. Keith Richards, in particular, often acknowledged how fundamental Watts was to the Stones’ sound, perhaps not least because he was prepared to make space for the churning rhythmic drive of his guitar. The crisp economy of Watts’s drumming, both swinging and muscular, was remarkable for its absence of frills or fuss, freeing the rest of the band to express themselves around it.
Watts, who trained in graphic design, also contributed a lot to the Stones’ marketing and presentation, which came to the fore as they evolved into a global brand and their performances grew increasingly spectacular. He created artwork for some early Stones releases and collaborated with Mick Jagger on the design of their elaborate stage sets for such tours as Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle (1989-90), Bridges to Babylon (1997-98), Licks (2002-03) andA Bigger Bang (2005-07).
Any conversation with Watts was likely to rove amiably across topics such as Savile Row suits, cricket – he often attended Test matches at Lord’s or the Oval – and the Arabian horses he reared with his wife, Shirley, at their Halsdon Arabians farm in Devon. But he would invariably come back to jazz.
“The first person whose playing I was aware of was [the baritone saxophonist] Gerry Mulligan, and the track was Walking Shoes, with Chico Hamilton playing drums,” Watts recalled in 2012. “That’s what made me want to play the drums. Before that I wanted to play alto sax because I loved Earl Bostic.”
Charlie was born at University College Hospital, London, to Charles Watts, a lorry driver, and his wife Lillian (nee Eaves). The family (including his sister, Linda) lived in Wembley, north-west London, in a prefabricated home.
He became lifelong friends with his neighbour Dave Green, who would become a jazz bass player. The young Charlie (dubbed “Charlie Boy” by his parents) became fixated on hard bop and cool jazz during the 50s. He bought himself a banjo when he was 14, but rather than learn how to play it he converted it into a snare drum.
He was given his first drum kit as a Christmas present in 1955, and while other kids were shaking a leg to Bill Haley or Elvis Presley, he dreamed of playing drums with Davis, or stepping into Art Blakey’s shoes with the Jazz Messengers.
His first band was the jazz outfit the Jo Jones All Stars, which he and Green both joined in 1958.
After Tyler’s Croft secondary modern school in Kingsbury, Watts studied at Harrow School of Art, where he drew, as part of an assignment, a 36-page children’s book called Ode to a High Flying Bird, depicting the life of the saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. The book was later picked up by a London publisher and printed in 1964.
After art college Watts secured a job as a designer with a London advertising agency, Charlie Daniels Studios, in 1960.
While working at the agency he was lured away from jazz by Alexis Korner, who recruited him for his band Blues Incorporated in 1962.
In the small pool of the nascent British “blues boom”, the future Stones Jagger and Brian Jones (then calling himself Elmo Lewis) made appearances with Korner’s band, before Jones branched off to start his own group that included the Stones’ unsung but faithful pianist, Ian Stewart.
A meeting with Jagger and Richards prompted the formation of the Rolling Stones, although it was a few months before the cautious Watts could be induced to leave Korner’s band to join them, which he eventually did in January 1963.
Watts would observe the Stones’ remarkable trajectory from his vantage point at the back of the stage, occasionally permitting himself a quizzical smile but always remaining detached from the cavalcade of sex, drugs and spectacular headlines that followed the band around the world.
Renowned as the quiet, sensible one, he never strayed into the limelight if he could avoid it, though the title of Peter Whitehead’s documentary film Charlie Is My Darling, shot when the Stones visited Ireland in 1965, acknowledged that Watts projected his own quiet mystique. While Jagger, Jones and Richards would be out on the town in London, Watts quietly married Shirley Shepherd in 1964 without telling his bandmates, and their relationship remained solid until his death.
Only for a brief period during the mid-80s did his natural self-reliance fail him. During recording of the Stones’ Dirty Work album in 1985, Jagger and Richards were at loggerheads, the future of the band looked shaky, Charlie’s daughter Seraphina (born in 1968) had been expelled from school for smoking dope. Watts began hitting the bottle, and – shockingly for anyone who knew him – developed a heroin habit, though never on a scale to match that of Richards.
“Maybe towards the end of 1986, I hit an all-time low in my personal life and in my relationship with Mick,” he admitted later. “I was mad on drink and drugs. I became a completely different person, not a nice one. I nearly lost my wife and family and everything.”
However, the ever-practical Watts quietly weaned himself off drugs even before his problem had become public knowledge, and concentrated on building a family life focused around horses and breeding sheepdogs at a country estate he had purchased in Devon.
He also distracted himself from the squabbles and struggles of the Stones by putting together the Charlie Watts Big Band, which featured many top British jazz players.
They toured the US and recorded an album, Live at Fulham Town Hall, released in 1986. In 1991 he formed the Charlie Watts Quintet, which recorded a string of albums including From One Charlie, a tribute to Charlie Parker, and in 2000 he teamed up with fellow sticksman Jim Keltner for the Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner Project, a tribute to the pair’s favourite jazz drummers.
In 2004 came Watts at Scott’s, a live recording of the Charlie Watts Tentet at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. The disc appeared as news emerged that Watts had been undergoing surgery and radiotherapy for throat cancer. The treatment proved successful and the cancer went into remission.
While touring and studio work with the Stones continued as ever, in 2009 he began playing with the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie – the name came from the first-name initials of its members, who were the pianists Axel Zwingenberger and Ben Waters and bassist Dave Green. They recorded the albums The Magic of Boogie Woogie (2010) and Live in Paris (2012). Charlie Watts meets the Danish Radio Big Band was recorded live in Copenhagen in 2010 and belatedly released in 2017.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Stones in 1989, and was voted into Modern Drummer magazine’s Hall of Fame in 2006. Also in 2006, Vanity Fair voted the impeccably tailored Watts into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.
Shortly before his death it was reported that he had undergone surgery and that Steve Jordan would be taking his place on the Stones’ No Filter tour of the US.
He is survived by Shirley, Seraphina, and a granddaughter, Charlotte.
• Charles Robert Watts, drummer, born 2 June 1941; died 24 August 2021