Happy birthday, Charlie Watts! The Rolling Stones’ drummer is turning seventy-three today. Read below for a special excerpt from Rolling Stones Gear that tells the story of Charlie’s first make-shift drum set, his affinity for jazz, and his Stones debut.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, MR. CHARLIE WATTS
A couple of days before Tony Chapman was fired, Mick, Keith, and Brian asked Charlie Watts to join the band. They had always been hesitant about asking him for economic reasons, but knew he was not playing with anyone on a permanent basis. He was sort of drifting between Blues Incorporated and Blues By Six, and the Stones figured this would be a good time to ask. Charlie remembered: “The scene was growing bigger week by week for Alexis [of Blues Incorporated]. I loved the work, but it got to be too much of a strain after a while. So, I sort of backed out and worked with one or two other groups, meeting up with Brian and Mick and Keith from time to time. So, they asked me about kicking in with them. Honestly, I thought they were mad. I mean they were working a lot of dates without getting paid or even worrying about it. And there was me, earning a pretty comfortable living, which obviously was going to nosedive if I got involved with the Stones. It made me laugh to think of them trying to get me in with them too, but I got to thinking about it. I liked their spirit, and I was getting very involved with rhythm ’n’ blues. I figured it would be a bit of an experiment for me and a bit of a challenge, too. So I said OK, yes I’d join. Lots of my friends thought I’d gone stark raving mad.” He added, “Just a few months earlier, I wouldn’t have given their offer a second thought, because I was all for modern jazz. But I suppose I had a theory that R&B was going to be a big part of the scene, and I wanted to be in on it.”
Having already played with most of the members of the Stones via Blues Incorporated gigs, even doing a version of Chuck Berry’s “Around And Around” earlier the year before with Mick, Keith, and Dick Taylor, Charlie already knew what to expect musically and officially joined the group on the evening of January 9, 1963. His first official gig with the Stones took place a few days later, at the Ealing Jazz Club on January 15, 1963. He commented on his situation at the time: “When I left Alexis, Ginger (Baker) took over, and I went around with a few different bands. I was sort of between jobs. I used to play with three bands at once. You’d play with people you knew because they knew that you knew what song they were talking about. But Keith and Mick were looking for a drummer and asked me if I’d do it. So, I said yeah. I had nothing better to do. Getting with them was just luck, really. I didn’t expect it to go on.” Ultimately, Ian Stewart had the final word: “I knew that Charlie liked the stuff we were trying to do and was quite prepared to come in with us.” He continued, “We said to Charlie, ‘Look, you’re in this band, that’s it, end of story,’ and Charlie said, ‘Yeah, alright then, but I don’t know what my dad’s gonna say.'”
Charles Robert Watts was born on June 2, 1941, in Neasden, London to Charles and Lillian Watts and had one sister, Linda. He attended Tylers Croft Secondary Modern and spent three years at the Harrow School of Art. An accomplished artist, Charlie wrote and illustrated a small book on the life and times of his idol, saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, titled Ode To A High Flying Bird, which was published in December 1964. He got turned on to music in his early teens, jazz in particular, but said: “I certainly can’t claim that I came from a musical family. My dad was a lorry driver for British Railways, and I reckon the only instrument any of them could play at home was a gramophone!” He first discovered jazz through his aunt and uncle’s record collection . He recalled: “When I was twelve, I remember listening to records my uncle and auntie used to buy. I especially liked Earl Bostic’s ‘Flamingo.’ It was an R&B/swing thing. I loved instrumental improvisation from that record onward.”
Charlie’s first instrument was a banjo, but his real interest was playing the drums. He explained: “Well, I had a banjo first. I tried to learn that, but I couldn’t quite get the dots on the frets right. It drove me up a wall. So, I took the thing apart. Luckily, it wasn’t a really good banjo. I made a stand for it out of wood and played on the round skin part. It was like a drum anyway. I played it with brushes.” When asked what made him take an interest in playing the drums in the first place, he explained: “Blame it on Chico Hamilton, I suppose. When I was twelve, I heard Chico Hamilton with Gerry Mulligan playing ‘Walking Shoes,’ and I played it on a skin of a banjo. I used to play brushed like Chico Hamilton. Well, not LIKE him, but that was the inspiration anyway. After that, I heard Charlie Parker and that was it. It was all over. It was the music really, that got me going, because I’m not a drummer. I’m not a drummer because I never learned to play the drums. I’m not like people I admire. They learned and I never did. I just sat and played drums like they played them.”
Charlie’s mother explained his passion for the drums: “Charlie always wanted a drum set, and he used to rap out tunes on the table with pieces of wood or a knife and fork. We bought him his first drum set for Christmas when he was fourteen. He took to it straight away, and often he used to play jazz records and join in on his drums.” Charlie remembered: “My first kit was made up of bits and pieces. Dad bought it for me, and I suppose it cost about twelve pounds. Can’t remember anything that gave me greater pleasure, and I must say that the neighbors were great about the noise I kicked up. I don’t think I ever wanted to play any other instrument instead of the drums. I marvel sometimes even now at the way guitarists can get such tricky little phrases by just quietly using their fingers, but drums are for me. Someone like Max Roach . . . well, he’s a real idol of mine. Maybe only another drummer can understand exactly what he is doing and how well he does it. But I can listen to a brilliant drummer for hours on end.” In a photo of Charlie with his then-new kit, the set can be identified as a John Grey and Sons Broadway model by the cast lugs on the snare drum and the center support single tension lugs on the bass drum. John Grey and Sons of London was a brand name that first appeared on imported banjos and drums in England in 1905; the company was run by Barnet Samuels. In 1932, Rose-Morris bought out Barnet Samuels and continued manufacturing drums under the John Grey brand name. The John Grey Broadway drums were a very popular budget-line kit available in England from the mid to late 1950s. Charlie’s white Broadway set had a 20-inch bass drum and a 14-inch snare, with both drums only having six tension lugs. The kit had a bass drum–mounted cymbal and a set of hi-hats with a stand. Charlie remembered the cymbals being Zyn or some such cheap cymbal. Many of the big band and jazz drummers that Charlie admired put their initials on their bass drumhead, so he emulated his heroes by inscribing “C R W” on the front of his. After finishing school, Charlie began working for Charles Hobson and Grey advertising and started playing his first gigs with a jazz combo called Blues By Five. While playing in an East London pub known as the Troubadour, he met Alexis Korner, who was forming Blues Incorporated and suggested that Charlie join up. Charlie had made a commitment to go to Denmark to do design work for Charles Hobson and Grey, so, although bent on joining up with Korner, he went to Denmark where he played with American saxophonist Don Byas. He later explained the situation: “A friend of mine, Andy Webb, said I should join the band [Blues Incorporated], but I had to go to Denmark to work in design, so I sort of lost touch with things. While I was away, Alexis formed his band, and I came back to England with Andy. I joined the band [in February 1962] with Cyril Davies, and Andy used to sing with us.”