American Songwriter is happy to share this, the first of several reflections from songwriters & musicians on the impact of Charlie Watts, the drummer for the Rolling Stones, who died yesterday.
Marvin Etzioni is a wonderfully prolific and inspired songwriter, as well as a recording artist, founding member of Lone Justice, half of Thee Holy Brothers with Willie Aron, a Grammy Award-winning producer and music scholar.
But when he was a kid, it was all about the drums for him, and Charlie’s drums especially. Charlie was then and has remained very close to Marvin’s heart, and has influenced all his songs and productions. As example, a video below accompanying his reflections of his song “What’s The Mood of The Country Now?” and his list of three specific Charlie Watts-inspired directions he gave his drummer before cutting the track.
Out of My Head for Charlie Watts
By MARVIN ETZIONI
I met Charlie once,
backstage at a Stones concert.
I thought he’d be 12-feet tall.
he was a tiny man
who played quietly.
much to admire.
Alongside Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts created the groove of the 21st century. If Dr. Dre were to sample Charlie Watts, everyone in the world would be shaking some serious action.
In 1963, the Rolling Stones started their recording career. Looking back twenty years, the swing era (although influential to rock & roll drummers like Watts) was the sound of the past. Yet as we enter 2022, nearly sixty years on, Charlie’s drumming sounds as fresh and current today as it was when it revolutionized transistor radios.
Charlie informed rock & roll drumming from The Kinks to Bowie and beyond. There are few records made with drums or drum machine on which the rattle of Charlie’s drumming isn’t felt.
He didn’t start out as a rock & roll drummer. He grew up on jazz and swing. When Charlie first joined the band, Keith Richards (according to his autobiography) had to inform Charlie of the rock & roll and blues records that oozed the sexual tribal rhythm of Bo Diddley to the back beat of Arthur Alexander and hip Charlie to his vision of the Stones’ sound. The Stones were about to re-invent rock & roll at a time when this form of powerfully brutal, timeless and minimalist songwriting was all but dead in America.
Andrew Loog Oldham, The Stones’ manager and first producer, did an incredible job of allowing the Stones to sound like the Stones. He didn’t turn Mick into a solo act and replace Charlie with Bobby Graham (a sought-after British session drummer).
At times, the early recordings were sloppy (listen to the out of time tambourine on “Time Is on My Side”). The early Stones were loose yet fearless. There is a saying that amateurs borrow and professionals steal. Well, the Stones stole the sound from blues artists over and over again until, because of Oldham’s insistence, they started to write their own songs. The combination of electric blues with Stax-inspired songwriting turned the Stones into “the greatest rock and roll band in the world.”
I personally have a deep connection to Charlie Watts. In elementary school, during a Halloween schoolyard event, I won a prize. When I went to pick it up, I saw a copy of “High Tide and Green Grass” and I asked for that, instead of some goofy toy. It was a life-changing album for me as a boy. At eight years old, I always gravitated to the drums on a record. Other key albums were Meet the Beatles! (Ringo was my favorite Beatle) and The Dave Clark Five’s Greatest Hits. Little did I know that the late great Bobby Graham was the drummer on some of those DC5 hits.
When producer Jimmy Miller played drums on “Happy” on Exile on Main Street, Miller sounded like Charlie, not the other way around.
By the time the Stones got to the multi-platinum Some Girls, the groove centered around Keith’s blistering guitar and Watts’ shift from punk exhilaration to four on the floor disco. I had heard that when Charlie played live, he only had Keith’s guitar in the monitor. Also, Watts invented the two beats on the hi-hat and hitting the snare without the hi-hat on the third beat. I don’t know if anyone had done that before him but it certainly became his signature sound from 1980 on.
In lockdown 2020, I thought it was time to finish another solo album that I had been working on for many years called What’s the Mood of the Country Now?” An important election was about to take place and I needed to finish the album, but I couldn’t go in-person to any studio. I had a version of the song recorded pre-COVID with my vocal and guitar, engineered by Joey Waronker.
I sent the track to percussionist David Leach and asked him for three overdubs to be played throughout the song:
1. Play the tambourine to the snare drum groove of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
2. Play the cowbell just like the intro on “Honky Tonk Women.”
3. Play the drum groove of “Street Fighting Man.”
This is about as close as I’ll get to a one-song Charlie Watts tribute (even though it was Jimmy Miller who played the cowbell at the top of “Honky Tonk Women.”).
As an artist and record producer, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of my all-time favorite drummers including Dave Mattacks, James Gadson, Abe Laboriel, Jr., Trevor Lawrence Jr., Stan Lynch, Randy Guss, Dave Raven, Danny Frankel, Dave Scheff, Pete Thomas, Phil Jones, Joe Bell and, of course, the late great Don Heffington.
I’ve dedicated my life to writing songs and producing records. Charlie Watts is so deeply woven into the audio of my soul that it’s something I hardly think about.
Until today. Then I heard the news that Charlie Watts’ heart stopped beating. Charlie was the heartbeat for the Stones. My tears fell and my heart stopped for a moment, too. The world has lost one of the greatest drummers of all time, the irreplaceable Charlie Watts.
Next time you listen to a track with Charlie playing, turn it up and get yer ya-ya’s out!
Marvin Etzioni is president of Regional Records The album What’s the Mood of the Country Now? is available on your favorite digital platform. Other Regional Records releases include “My Name Is Sparkle by Thee Holy Brothers. Forthcoming releases include Grey DeLisle, Borrowed, The Satellites Four, Earthless, and The Williams Brothers, Memories to Burn.