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Charlie Watts: five anecdotes about the Rolling Stones star

The famously mild-mannered rock star has died aged 80

The Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts has died at the age of 80.

Perhaps the most reluctant rock-star to emerge from the 60s, he was certainly the most “mild-mannered of the Rolling Stones”, said The Times, yet he acted as a “counterweight to the flamboyance” of his band members; indeed, his “phlegmatic presence was a vital ingredient in the Stones’ often volatile chemistry”, said the paper.

“Watts was the Stone who never rolled,” said The Telegraph, yet he was the “linchpin” of the band - by far “the most respected by musicians and popular with the fans.”

Indeed, it was “that temperament, coupled with his skills behind the kit, that kept the Stones going for nearly 60 years”, said Vulture, quoting a Keith Richards interview from 1979: “Everybody thinks Mick and Keith are the Rolling Stones. If Charlie wasn’t doing what he’s doing on drums, that wouldn’t be true at all. You’d find out that Charlie Watts is the Stones.” 

In the wake of his death, here are some of the best anecdotes from the life of one of rock music’s greatest drummers:

1. The Mick Jagger punch

Despite his temperate reputation, Watts had his moments of rock'n’roll excess too, perhaps most famously coming to blows with lead singer Mick Jagger while the group were in Amsterdam in 1984 to discuss the future of the band. 

Like all great legends, there are a few retellings – but according to Richards’ 2010 autobiography Life, Richards and Jagger arrived back in their hotel at 5am after a night on the town, when “Mick called up Charlie.” 

Richards recalled: “I said, don’t call him, not at this hour. But he did, and said, ‘Where’s my drummer?’ No answer.”

Then 20 minutes later, “there was Charlie Watts, Savile Row suit, perfectly dressed, tie, shaved, the whole f***ing bit.” 

Watts reportedly strode past Richards before grabbing Jagger, telling him: “Never call me your drummer again” – before landing a “right hook” on the singer. 

As Richards tells it, Jagger fell back onto a “silver platter of smoked salmon” and started to “slide towards the open window” before Richards grabbed him “just before he slid into the Amsterdam canal”.

Another apocryphal version, included in his Telegraph obituary, ends the story with Watts telling Jagger: “Don’t ever call me your drummer again. You’re my f****g singer!”

“It’s not something I’m proud of doing, and if I hadn’t been drinking I would never have done it,” Watts said in his own 2003 book, According to The Rolling Stones. “The bottom line is, don’t annoy me.”

2. Not giving up his day job

Watts was already gigging as a drummer in London jazz clubs by the time he met Jagger in 1961 – but his steady job was as a graphic designer for West End advertising agency Hobson and Grey, having attended Harrow School of Art.

Watts met Jagger when he joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, who sometimes used Jagger as a singer. Jagger had his own group – already including Richards and Brian Jones – but lacked a regular drummer.

According to The New York Times, the band was desperate to hire Watts, but “could not afford” his five pounds a week fee.

“We starved ourselves to pay for him!” Richards wrote in Life. “Literally. We went shoplifting to get Charlie Watts.”

Indeed, Watts preferred his secure job as a designer – admitting later that he was convinced rock ’n’ roll “wasn’t going to last five minutes”, according to The Times. 

Although he eventually started gigging with the band, he “stubbornly refused to give up his day job until the Stones signed their first recording contract with Decca” in 1963. 

3. Making his first drum kit

Despite the Stones’ desperation to have Watts on board as a drummer, his career as a sticks man had an unusual start: according to The Telegraph, he “made his first drum kit out of Meccano and a cannibalised banjo”.

The banjo was, in fact, his first instrument, but “baffled by the fingerings required to play it, he removed the neck and converted its body into a snare drum,” said The New York Times.

Buying his first jazz record at 13 – Walkin’ Shoes by Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker’s quintet – he began to play the drums a year later. 

And despite his fame for playing in the rockband, often dubbed the greatest of all time, jazz would remain his true love. Watts continued to play in various jazz groups throughout his life, including the Charlie Watts Quintet, the Charlie Watts Tentet, the Charlie Watts Orchestra.

4. A secret marriage

Watts was married for almost his entire career, meeting his wife Shirley Ann Shepherd in 1961 and becoming “the first Stone to tie the knot”, when they married three years later, said Vulture. 

But he initially kept his marriage a secret, fearing it would “upset the Stones’ army of screaming teenage female fans”, said The Times. Watts “figured that the fewer people who knew the better and didn’t even tell his bandmates or Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones’ manager.”

Indeed, “eschewing the attraction of groupies and hangers-on”, during their first trip to Australia in 1965, Watts reportedly spent more money on long-distance phone calls home every day to Shirley than he earned on the entire tour.

5. Hotel bed drawings

Rather less interested in the high-octane and often drug-fuelled adventures of his band members, Watts would usually go back to his hotel room alone while on tour – and sketch his lodgings. 

In 1996 he told Rolling Stone magazine: “I keep a diary of drawings. I’ve drawn every bed I’ve slept in on tour since 1967.”

“I used to take a lot of things that keep you awake, and I’d have nothing to do. So I have all these hotel rooms recorded,” he told the magazine.

“What’s nice about it is, it’s visual, and it just goes on and on, and you think, ‘Is this ever gonna end?’ You’ve got Washington in ’67 and then you’ve got Washington a couple of years ago, and they’re kind of the same.”

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