Charlie Watts, the unshakeable drummer for The Rolling Stones, died this morning. According to a publicist, he died in a hospital in London, surrounded by family. No cause of death was given. He was 80 years old.
Where most rock bands take their cues from the drummer, Watts was the type to hang back. He told NPR in 2012 that in the early days, he'd have to sit close to guitarist Keith Richards' amplifier during live set. "And they weren't very big amplifiers. So with an audience shouting, I needed that to know where the changes came," Watts said.
Watts was born on June 2, 1941. Growing up, he was mostly a fan of jazz — people like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. It was listening to Gerry Mulligan's "Walking Shoes" as a kid that inspired him to play drums. After bouncing around various jazz clubs as the British blues scene was picking up, he met Mick Jagger and then the rest of the Stones. Watts played his first gig with them in 1963.
Watts gave off a different vibe from his bandmates in more ways than one. Aesthetically he preferred tailored suits, while the others took the stage with their more bohemian looks. He also did his best to stay out of the limelight, using some of the band's early successes to buy a 16th century mansion in Sussex. But he was no less of a core member of the group, giving the band a steady backdrop to rock on for nearly 60 years.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES SONG, "START ME UP")
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Rock 'n' roll has lost one of its seminal architects - Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones. You hear him here playing on their 1981 hit "Start Me Up." Watts died today in a London hospital. He was 80. He had played with the Stones for nearly 60 years. Here to talk about his life and legacy is another drummer and former music critic, NPR's Eric Deggans.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.
KELLY: Hey. So what do we know about the circumstances of Charlie Watts's death?
DEGGANS: Well, we don't know much. The band posted a statement saying that Watts, who had just turned 80 in June, died peacefully in a London hospital, surrounded by family. No cause of death was given. Fans had begun to wonder about his health because earlier this month he'd announced that he was not going to play a U.S. tour with the Rolling Stones that had been postponed by the pandemic. It was supposed to start next month. He was recovering from an undisclosed medical procedure. And I think this death is so shocking to rock fans because even though these guys are all in their 70s, you know...
DEGGANS: Watts was the oldest at 80. He'd survived addiction and throat cancer. They never seemed to slow down. And it always seemed like they would always be around.
KELLY: It kind of does. Yeah. I mean, talk as a drummer about why, for so many of you drummers, Charlie Watts was, like, the drummer. His playing was so revered.
DEGGANS: Well, you know, his playing seems simple until you sit down at a drum kit and try to recreate it.
DEGGANS: I mean, he was a jazz player who started working with blues bands in the early 1960s. He played with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated. By the time he joined the Rolling Stones in 1963, he had this style that was steady, powerful, simple but also kind of had a little bit of a swagger to it and kind of a looseness to the groove that really epitomized the Rolling Stones sound.
For example, he often didn't hit the snare drum and the high hat at the same time when he was playing a backbeat, something that's kind of unusual that gave his playing kind of this loping feel. Let's check out his playing on this hit, "Sympathy For The Devil," where he's grooving with a conga player and someone playing a shaker kind of instrument. Let's check it out.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL")
THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Please allow me to introduce myself.
DEGGANS: Yeah, so you hear that caustic rhythm where he's holding the stick across the snare drum, that click on the drum rim. And it feels like something a jazz player might do, but it's also a powerful rock groove. And he came up with these ingenious, simple turns on songs like "Honky Tonk Women" and "Brown Sugar" and "Start Me Up," as we heard.
KELLY: So many good ones. What do you think his legacy will be as a musician?
DEGGANS: Well, stars like Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Public Enemy's Chuck D, they all paid tribute to Watts online today. They pronounced him the backbone of one of rock's most enduring bands. I mean, there's basically a small group of drummers, including Ringo from the Beatles and Cream's Ginger Baker, who essentially invented rock 'n' roll drumming. And Charlie Watts was one of them. He was the anchor grounding a band that was inventing the shape of classic rock 'n' roll from the merging of blues and jazz that was happening in the 1960s. And he was the epitome of a drummer who wasn't flashy. He played for the song and made rock history, inducted with the band in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.
KELLY: All right. We've been talking to NPR's Eric Deggans about the death of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES SONG, "HEARTBREAKER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.