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South Carolinians remember legendary drummer Charlie Watts

Charlie Watts was the heartbeat of the Rolling Stones for nearly 60 years.
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Charlie Watts was the heartbeat of the Rolling Stones for nearly 60 years.

Rock and jazz drummer Charlie Watts is remembered by South Carolinians who worked with or were influenced by him.

The strong and steady drumming of Charlie Watts propelled the music of the Rolling Stones for nearly 60 years. Hailed by musicians as a drummer’s drummer, Watts died in 2021, but his music will live on in the hearts of fans and in the many drummers he influenced.

One of those drummers was Paul T. Riddle, the founding drummer of South Carolina’s Marshall Tucker Band. He said he loved Watts’s playing, but that no one could have played the Stones’ music the way Watts did.

“Most of my drum pals would always say that we would all have messed it up,” he chuckled. “Everything he played with the Stones was just so perfect. He just was made for that band.”

Another thing Watts was made for was jazz, which he loved from his youth and played even before he joined the Stones. Shari Hutchinson produced “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz” at South Carolina Public Radio for NPR, and worked with Watts when he appeared on the show. She found him to be the opposite of the wild image the Rolling Stones cultivated in their early years.

“Charlie was probably one of the most laid back, charming guests we had on Piano Jazz,” Hutchinson remembered. “He was just a true gentleman, very unruffled, not at all taken with himself. He was just a wonderful musician who was very comfortable in his own skin.”

Unlike other rock musicians who would build a mountain of drums around themselves, Hutchinson said Watts kept things simple for both his rock and jazz playing.

“He was known for playing a Gretsch jazz kit, which is a very simple kit, not like a typical rock and roll kit. So he always kept it very simple and tasteful, it didn’t matter if he was playing rock and roll or if he was playing jazz. He still always played that jazz kit. And that’s why Keith Richards said ‘we have a great jazz drummer in the Rolling Stones.’ I think everybody respected him, because he played so tastefully,” Hutchinson added. “Not just as a jazz drummer, but as the Stones drummer. Because he just kind of sat back and watched everything, and took it in, and kept everything together.”

Watts sometimes looked to South Carolina for drums, where several of his sets were made at the Gretsch drum factory in Ridgeland. Chief of Operations Paul Cooper, a drummer himself, admired Watts’s technique, and his popularity with fans.

“Charlie’s playing was certainly different than your average rock drummer. He had a unique style. He played traditional grip like drummers of the old days. His touch, the way he hit the high hat. A lot of times he wouldn’t hit the high hat and the snare drum at the same time. I tried to imitate that myself, and it’s not that easy.”

Cooper said Watts’s drumming may have appeared simple, but that it was deceptively tricky. “There was some magic about the way he played.”

Cooper mentioned a time when he saw the Stones – and met Watts to talk drums backstage – in Florida in 2019. “When Mick was introducing the band, Charlie got the most applause. So he was definitely very loved by fans.”

Despite his and the Stones’ popularity, Watts told Marian McPartland that he was surprised that the crowds continued to show up in the numbers that they did. “I cannot imagine people going to a football stadium to watch people play an instrument,” said the famously unassuming drummer. “Having said that, I’m very pleased that they do.”

In comparing Watts to other rock drummers, Cooper pointed out what made him so unique.

“People think about Bonham, Keith Moon, and then you kinda have Charlie and Ringo out there, who really were people who played more for the song, and it wasn’t like they were trying to throw crazy drum chops everywhere,” he said. “And Charlie had a certain swing about him that was very unique and individual. Listen to the drums on Gimme Shelter. It almost starts out like a jazz thing, the drum part, right? And then all of sudden, it’s just rockin’ your tail off.”  

Cooper said a lot of people feel that the best rock drummers have jazz roots. And with Charlie Watts, he said, that was definitely the case.

Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.