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Appreciating Charlie Watts, The Rolling Stones' Understated Drum Master

Charlie Watts performs at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., with the Rolling Stones in 2019.
Taylor Hill
Getty Images
Charlie Watts performs at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., with the Rolling Stones in 2019.

This is tough to admit now, but any good appreciation is grounded in honesty, so here goes:

I used to be one of those drummers who thought the Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts was overrated.

Proof of my horrendous mistake in such thinking flooded social media Tuesday, as superstar musicians such as Elton John, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Joan Jett, Bruce Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg and Public Enemy frontman Chuck D paid tribute to Watts, who died Tuesday in London of an undisclosed illness. He was 80.

Jettcalled Watts "the most elegant and dignified drummer in rock and roll." McCartneysaid he was "a fantastic drummer ... steady as a rock." Guns N' Roses guitarist Slashposted the "countenance of rock n roll is forever changed this day."

That's because Watts was the epitome of a drummer who played for the band and for the song, never drawing attention to himself or his chops.

The world might focus on the Glimmer Twins – singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards – as the glamorous core of the world's most enduring rock band. But anyone who really listens to the Stones could hear that the center of their sound was Richards and Watts, whose loping, steady rhythms always anchored the band's angular guitar parts and boozy grooves. (Small wonder that when the band played gigantic shows with terrible sound systems in the 1960s, Watts says he always insisted on having Richards' guitar amplifier placed where he could hear it.)

Check out the drummer's halting entranceon the Stones' 1969 classic "Honky Tonk Women," where his snare lick almost seems to trip over the opening cowbell before settling into a swaying, sinewy beat. He makes another astounding entranceat the beginning of 1981's "Start Me Up," where the addition of an extra bass drum note makes Richards' guitar feel propulsive and off-kilter for just a moment, before the song's driving beat really kicks in.

Watts' cross-stick work on a snare drum with its snares turned off complements the congas perfectly in the propulsive "Sympathy for the Devil." And I realized how much I loved the trashy-sounding, upside-down cymbals often called China cymbals when he crashed one throughoutthe band's 1989 single "Rock and a Hard Place."

It was particularly endearing to watch an interview with the self-effacing Watts and legendary studio drummers Jim Keltner and Hal Blaine. When the subject turned to Watts' habit of not hitting the high-hat and snare at the same time when playing a backbeat, producing a skittery, halting groove that almost seems to lurch through a song, the Rolling Stones stickman said he didn't even notice what he was doing until Keltner pointed it out.

"The very nature of playing drums is a nervous twitch, really," Watts told interviewer Matt Lauer in 1993 on NBC's late-night interview show Later. "It's a cross between being an athlete and a totally nervous wreck."

Watts seemed to realize that part of his success came from being in the right place at the right time. Born in London, he took up drums as a teenager, inspired by jazz players such as Gerry Mulligan and Charlie Parker. But his early gigs came in clubs with English musicians playing electric blues and R&B, such as Alexis Korner and his band Blues Incorporated. The members of the Rolling Stones were hanging out in those clubs, too; by 1963, Watts had joined the band, getting a crash course on blues and early rock, courtesy of Richards.

This happened to be a moment where British musicians were defining the shape of rock 'n' roll by marrying the rebellious spirit of baby boomer youth with a blend of blues, R&B and jazz into something new and revolutionary.

The very nature of playing drums is a nervous twitch, really. It's a cross between being an athlete and a totally nervous wreck.

Richards referred to Watts as the band's "hidden hero," and his role in providing indelible grooves for some of rock's most important hits placed him in an influential position. The list of similar players isn't long: the Beatles' Starr, The Who's Keith Moon, Cream's Ginger Baker and Jimi Hendrix's Mitch Mitchell, drummers who were figuring out the genre with their bands, unknowingly setting the rules with choices made by instinct and talent.

To be honest, I didn't grow to appreciate Watts' signature style fully until I had to learn how to copy it myself. I've been a drummer for more than 40 years, and I've played more than my fair share of Rolling Stones tunes with assorted cover bands, fulfilling special requests at weddings or during jam sessions.

Cranking out his classic grooves, I learned how much harder it is sometimes to play a simple part that makes a song live, rather than whip out a more technically proficient lick that mostly just tells the audience how good you are.

Watts' reserved attitude extended to his personal style. Offstage, he wore sharp suits and had a witty, understated manner — a fitting and wonderful contrast to his flashy and flamboyant bandmates. He was married to the same woman, wife Shirley Ann Shepherd, for 57 years, and played with the same band for 58; in 1989, he was inducted with the Stones into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Watts' struggles with addiction in the mid-'80s and a 2004 bout with throat cancer were largely under the radar. His solo projects, mostly jazz albums recorded with a big band or the Charlie Watts Quintet/Tentet, were unassuming affairs.

Fans began to worry about Watts' health this month when the drummer announced he wouldn't play on the group's upcoming U.S. tour while recovering from an unspecified medical procedure. (Drummer Steve Jordan, who played in Richards' band the X-Pensive Winos, was tapped to fill in.)

Now Watts' death has shaken fans who saw the Rolling Stones as a perpetual, somehow ageless symbol of rock 'n' roll's enduring vitality. And those of us who had to learn how to appreciate an understated master are now left to grapple with the loss of one of pop music's finest players.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.