When Charlie Watts Finally Made It to New York City

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“The engine” was a favorite phrase musicians used to describe Mr. Watts’s role in the band. Also: its motor, its backbone, its heartbeat, its scaffolding, its glue. The soft-spoken Mr. Watts, who died last Tuesday, was more modest, saying he was “brought up under the theory the drummer was an accompanist.” His job, he said, was “to keep the time and help everyone else do what they do,” to lend the music a little “swing and bounce” that would make people get up and dance.

When other drummers started going for bigger and fancier kits, adorned with all sorts of chimes and gongs, Mr. Watts stuck with a small four-piece drum set from 1957 and, unlike Keith Moon and Ginger Baker, he never went in for flash pyrotechnics or showy solos. He loved playing onstage with his mates, but he hated life on the road, hated leaving home, hated the cringe-making trappings of rock ’n’ roll — the parties, the press, the screaming girls. While his bandmates were out late at night, getting into trouble, Mr. Watts was often in his hotel room, sketching pictures of the bed: He told interviewers that he’d drawn every bed he’d slept in on tour since 1967; by 2001, he said, he’d filled 12 to 15 diaries.

For that matter, Mr. Watts said he felt out of place in the whole rock ’n’ roll scene — “I live in TCM world, Turner Classic Movies,” he told a BBC radio show, explaining that he’d inherited his father’s love for 1940s-style tailor-made suits, and regarded Fred Astaire as “the ultimate in what you should be if you’re a professional.”

Indeed, Mr. Watts was a man of contradictions — a jazzman in the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band, an old-fashioned gentleman among pirates and bad boys, a homebody who spent much of his work life on the road. It was also his contradictions — his loose, swinging style combined with his love of precision; his idiosyncratic technique combined with his remarkable versatility — that made him such an exceptional drummer, and the perfect musical partner for Keith Richards in forging the Stones’s signature sound.


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