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Remembering Rolling Stones Drummer Charlie Watts


This is FRESH AIR. Charlie Watts, who laid down the backbeat of the Rolling Stones for nearly 60 years, died Tuesday at age 80. Born during the war in 1941, he developed an early love for jazz and the music of Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Monk, Mingus and especially Charlie Parker. He went to art school, became a graphic designer, then joined the influential British band Blues Incorporated in 1961, and headed into what he thought would be a career as a jazz drummer. But in 1963, the Rolling Stones hired him away to become their drummer.


THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) And I sit at home looking out the window, imagining the world has stopped. Then in flies a guy who's all dressed up just like the Union Jack, says I've won five pounds if I have this kind of detergent pack. I said, hey, you, get off of my cloud. Hey, you, get off of my cloud. Hey, you, get off of my cloud. Don't hang around 'cause two's a crowd on my cloud, baby.

BIANCULLI: During his 58 years with the Stones, Watts never chased the rock 'n' roll life. And he was perfectly comfortable letting the other members of the band take the spotlight on stage and in the press. But he was happy to talk about his jazz quintet, which gave us the opportunity to interview him on FRESH AIR in 1991. He spoke with Marty Moss-Coane, who hosts her own show on WHYY called Radio Times. The occasion was his album "From One Charlie," his salute to Charlie Parker. Here's a taste.


CHARLIE WATTS: When I first went to New York with the Stones, the first thing I did was to go to Birdland, and that was it. For me, I'd seen America. I mean, I didn't want to see anywhere else. That was it. We got the Birdland, and the rest of it was just waiting to go home.

MARTY MOSS-COANE: How would you compare the job of a drummer in a jazz band versus a rock and roll band?

WATTS: I - for me, they're the same. But that's me in my simplistic way. But then I - you know, I was brought up at a time where the jobs were the same. You know, there's no difference to playing with, I don't know, an R&B band, as they call it, to a jazz group, you know. There are subtleties and nuances that are there. But most of it - I mean, it's basically, physically the same. It's time. You have to keep time, and you have to keep certain things together, hopefully. And it's a sweat when you go on, and...


WATTS: ...A sigh of relief when you come off together at the end. So it's - to me, it's always been the same, really.

MOSS-COANE: I was thinking that you might listen or watch somehow differently. Of course, I've never played drum in either a jazz or a rock 'n' roll band. But is - do you find that you watch and listen differently, Charlie?

WATTS: No, not really. I mean, I watch Peter the same way I watch Mick, you know. The thing with playing with Mick is it's rather like playing with James Brown in the way you have to try - you just - you catch where he is every now and again, you know. And for where we are in a song, I have Keith for those marks.

MOSS-COANE: Well, you don't do drum solos either, right? I mean, is that - as that's all part of your desire to stay in the background?

WATTS: It's so - let's - I can't do them, actually.

MOSS-COANE: (Laughter).

WATTS: Actually, I never liked them. I'd never liked them as a young man. I've just finished a book by a guy called Burt Korall, a very good book called "Drummin' Men." And he was obviously fell in love when he was young with Gene Krupa. And I never liked Gene Krupa to - I like him now more than I did. But I never liked that sort of showman drumming. To me, I've always, like, preferred band drummers. You know, I'd much prefer Shadow Wilson and Kenny Clarke type of drumming. I mean, my favorite drummers are not great showmen or great soloists.

MOSS-COANE: When people talk about a Charlie Watts style of drumming, do you know what they're talking about?

WATTS: No. To me, that means they're lowest common denominator you could think of in a rhythm.

MOSS-COANE: You mean, the most basic kind of rhythm?

WATTS: Yeah. Yeah. But people think that's really something else. To me, it's total lack of technique. But I quite enjoy guys that play like that. I mean, one of my favorite drummers is Al Jackson. And to play like Al Jackson takes an awful lot of control and subtlety.

MOSS-COANE: Do you think you're a good drummer?

WATTS: Not particularly, no.

MOSS-COANE: But do you think you're with a good band, the Rolling Stones?

WATTS: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I love - I'm with a good band, with this quintet. I hide behind those...

MOSS-COANE: Is that right? (Laughter).

WATTS: No, I don't mind - I love playing rhythm, but I don't like being the frontman. That's why, with that orchestra that I got together one time, it was not - I should have been more out the front like Buddy Rich or something, if one could ever be like that. But, I mean, and I'm not that sort of person, so I can't really - I'm not a very good band leader for a start. You have to be a certain type person to be a band leader.

MOSS-COANE: Do you tire ever of being a Rolling Stone?

WATTS: No, I'm not allowed to be tired.

MOSS-COANE: (Laughter) Is that right? This will go on forever?

WATTS: Keith - yeah. Keith would suit me up and tell you to get your act together, I think he would be. I mean, there's nothing more thrilling than going on a stage with all that chaos going on, there isn't. It's incredible to have lived through it. I mean, what I hated about it was when you got off the stage. I could never behave like a sensible human being. You know, it was always silly like running in baker's shops with hats on. And, I mean, I'd never liked all that. It's a fantastic thing to have lived through. And for me to see - as a balding old man telling you that it was quite a moment which - I mean, it's all gone as well. I don't really think about it, actually.

MOSS-COANE: Are you recognized?

WATTS: Who, me?


WATTS: I don't know. As what? On the street?

MOSS-COANE: As who you are, on the street, yes (laughter).

WATTS: Yeah, yeah. I suppose - I don't know. Yeah, a lot of people say, hello. Or aren't you? Yeah.

MOSS-COANE: Do they keep their distance?

WATTS: No, I keep mine.

MOSS-COANE: (Laughter).

WATTS: I think. I don't know, really. I never think about it, you know.

BIANCULLI: Charlie Watts speaking with WHYY's Marty Moss-Coane in 1991. After 58 years with the Rolling Stones, the drummer died Tuesday at age 80. On Monday's show, actress Sandra Oh, who stars in the new Netflix comedy series "The Chair." She plays the first person of color and the first woman to chair the English department at a prestigious college. Oh also starred in the popular thriller series "Killing Eve" and in ABC's long-running medical series "Grey's Anatomy." I hope you'll join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "MESSIN' WITH THE KID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.