By Bob Bennett
Charlie Watts has died. A soft-spoken gentleman, Charlie would sign his notes with a parenthetical “(Rolling Stones)” after his name as if people might not place his name.
Let’s focus on his actual drumming. He played on a small 4 piece 1956 Gretsch drum kit which was more of a be-bop configuration. This minimalism seemed to fit his yeoman’s approach to his job as drummer, no doubt simplifying set-up, getting a consistent sound, facilitating upkeep and minimizing the bane of all drummers – transport. He was not the kind of drummer to use a double-bass drum kit that would spin above the stage (Tommy, here’s lookin’ at you). I would argue Charlie made more with less.
No, Charlie didn’t seek the spotlight, but his legacy of playing on every Rolling Stones song ever made easily cements him as one of the greats of all time.
First and foremost a jazz fan, Charlie had to be coaxed into joining a rock and roll band (apparently by Ray Davies of The Kinks no less). His thundering performance on their early hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” showed no doubt that he could adapt. Charlie could hit the drums hard, even though he used a traditional grip like jazz players do.
When he comes in with a *crack* near the beginning of “Start Me Up”, his heavy snare sounds like one of his disciples, Max Weinberg, who drummed in a similar way on Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. Getting that sound from a small kit is not only an engineering feat, it requires deep experience in where and how to hit the drums. Charlie had it (as does Max!).
My friend, Dennis Hartley wrote a tribute to Charlie Watts, concluding he was the Rock of the Stones. So true, and yet I think his brilliance also lay in his ability to Roll. A perfectly on-time, metronome-like beat is lifeless (and easily obtained with a drum machine) but you cannot teach a person or a machine to play with the “feel” that Charlie brought.
Call it a slight swing or a shuffle, it can be heard on songs like “Midnight Rambler” where Charlie sometimes swings and sometimes plays with the expected “rock” back-beat. “I like to play straight ahead with a groove,” Charlie once said in one of his rare interviews in reference to his playing on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”. Without Charlie adding that dash of sultriness, the Stones (including Mick’s swaggering hip shakes) would never have lasted as long as they have.
Charlie also had great dynamics and cymbal work. He sometimes had a jerky look when playing the hi-hat and snare together as he preferred to alternate between them (most drummers will play consistent 1/8 or ¼ notes on the hi-hat and simply layer on the snare, typically on beats 2 and 4). Maybe his habit of playing one or the other let him focus his intensity on one thing at a time. It worked, and provided another organic layer to his playing that perfectly fit the sometimes raggedy sound of the guitars.
Charlie was good at letting songs breathe, never overplaying and sometimes sitting out on entire songs. When the drums did come in, they often did with gusto as one can hear on innovative songs like “She’s a Rainbow” or “Ruby Tuesday”. One of his most innovative performances was playing a tabla with sticks on “Factory Girl” (Ricky Dijon also played on conga).
Like the knowing scrape of a boot from a cool cat’s walk, Charlie’s drumming had a sexiness and a *crack!” which is to say he could rock and roll.