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Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts dies, aged 80

Charlie Watts
(Image credit: Getty / Gary Miller)

Rolling Stones drummer, Charlie Watts has passed away in hospital, aged 80. The announcement was made via a statement from the Rolling Stones’ publicist, Bernard Doherty.

"It is with immense sadness that we announce the death of our beloved Charlie Watts. He passed away peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family. 

"We kindly request that the privacy of his family, band members and close friends is respected at this difficult time.”

Charlie Watts

(Image credit: Michael Putland / Getty)

The cause of death has not been confirmed at the time of writing, however Watts was previously treated for throat cancer in 2004 and earlier this month, Watts announced that he would be unable to join the Rolling Stones on the US leg of the band’s No Filter tour in September due to recuperating from unspecified surgery. The band instead enlisted Steve Jordan as his replacement for the dates.

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Watts was, of course, a founding member of The Rolling Stones, having clocked up 30 studio albums and over 30 live albums with the band.

In 1979, Keith Richards said “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.” 

Watts' drumming is unlikely to ever be described as ‘showy’, instead - like many of his contemporaries -  Charlie was raised on a solid diet of jazz, developing his playing during the British explosion of the 60s, leaning heavily on blues and RnB for inspiration in an environment where drums were very much thought of as an accompanying instrument, but the swing of be-bop was never far from Charlie's meter. 

The song was key, and this is reflected in Charlie’s drumming, which contends with Keith Richards’ concept of “the ancient art of weaving” to provide the solid base on which the Stones’ hits are formed. “The way I look at drumming is, it’s backing somebody.” He told Rolling Stone in 1996. “If you think like that, you’re quite happy backing Keith in whatever time he plays – musical time or length of time.”

Watts’ near-lifelong love affair with drumming began as a teenager after receiving his first kit in 1955, and he started to play alongside his childhood friend, neighbour and first rhythm partner, bassist Dave Green. 

Watts was an accomplished artist and after leaving secondary school, enrolled in Harrow Art School - writing and illustrating Ode To A High Flying Bird whilst there in tribute to Charlie Parker - before pursuing a career as a graphic designer.

After leaving art school, Charlie was hired by advertising agency, Charlie Daniels Studios, designing by day and drumming at night around London’s cafes and bars. It was a chance meeting with Alexis Korner while performing at the Troubadour Club in Chelsea that set Charlie’s path on a different course. Impressed, Korner convinced Watts to join his band, Blues Incorporated - largely recognised as the first British electric blues band.

From here, Watts met the blues-loving Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and Ian Stewart, and in 1963, Watts joined the band for his first performance as a paid-up member of the Rolling Stones at Ealing Jazz Club.

While the Stones are known for not only partaking in rock ’n’ roll antics, but defining and raising the bar, Charlie Watts generally preferred a quieter existence, claiming to have sketched every hotel bed he’d ever slept in and shunning the advances of fans. 

"There's a lot more interesting people around than rock'n'roll bands." he told The Guardian. “There’s this huge cult grown up around rock'n'roll, but I never saw it myself. I don't mean I never saw it going on, I mean I just didn't "get" it.”

That is, apart from a brief period in the 80s where the universally, immaculately decked-out Charlie fought a more private battle against addiction. Speaking to The Mirror in 2021, Charlie said “It was very short for me. I just stopped, it didn’t suit me at all. I never knew whether Ronnie was drunk or not. Keith permanently lived like that so it was never a problem with either of them. 

“But it didn’t work for me, glad to say. I drank too much and took drugs. I went mad really. But I stopped it all. It was very easy for me. I broke my ankle when I was playing at Ronnie Scott’s so I had to get straight really, so I did.”

In addition to his work in the Stones, Watts released a number of albums celebrating his love of jazz with the Charlie Watts Orchestra, Charlie Watts Quintet - including tributes to his hero, Charlie Parker and Charlie Watts Tenet.

He is survived by his wife, Shirley, daughter Seraphina and granddaughter Charlotte.

Paul McCartney is one of the many stars paying tribute, describing Watts as "a rock, and a fantastic drummer - steady as a rock."

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