Why Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones Matters

Videos by American Songwriter

Paul Ingles’ Talk Music With Me series answers this question in a two-part special with Mike Edison, drummer and author of Sympathy for the Drummer

For years, anytime anyone would ask Keith Richards what sustains the Stones, he would say it was Charlie. Keith has never wandered far from his statement that Charlie Watts is the Rolling Stones. It’s Charlie’s buoyant swing-inflected grooves that Keith relies on, the secret jazz he’d mix into the brew, like turning the beat inside out live on stage. But also for never being false. He was always the inverse of Mick, focused as a front-man must be on the show. Charlie always was about music, not show. The man would never smile if he didn’t feel happy. Keith relied on this just as much. He knew Charlie–unlike almost everyone around him-could always be trusted to tell the truth.

Yet great drummers, unless they’re especially flamboyant both visually and musically, like Keith Moon or John Bonham, rarely get appreciated by civilians. Charlie, like Ringo, is so great that it looks easy. Effortless even.

So how does one explain to a non-musician why Charlie is great, and why he’s crucial to the greatest living rock band there is?

Paul Ingles answers that question with his usual grace and ease in his latest radio documentary. Like his great shows on songwriting heroes, this is both compelling and comprehensive. He merges his own real passion for the music and those making it with a journalist’s hunger to go to a good source.

He couldn’t find a better one than the man who wrote the book on the subject, Mike Edison. A drummer himself who understands this subject from the inside, as well a passionately eloquent guy who can put it into words. He’s the author of the book Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters. His spoken explanations are as charged and thorough as the book, brilliantly delving directly into the heart of this ongoing mystery.

“Charlie Watts for me was the holy grail, style-wise,” he says on the show, “and my greatest inspiration for playing the drums.”

Ingles edited this documentary, like all the others, like a great movie. He always finds the perfect musical example to match a spoken detail, immediately transforming what seems abstract into something easily understood. For musicians listening in, this is regarded with delight, as producers of such shows often display a disconnection from the music. Ingles never is disconnected, which makes all the difference.

Listen to “Talk Music With Me: Why Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones Matters, Part 1.”

Listen to: “Talk Music With Me: Why Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones Matters, Part 2.”

In this regard, Edison is the ideal collaborator, as he created a playlist of songs that embody those aspects of Charlie’s playing that distinguish him from all others.  Some are famous examples. Others are fairly obscure. And all are persuasive evidence of Charlie’s foundational presence in the music of the Rolling Stones. That playlist is below. 

We turned the question on Paul Ingles: Why Charlie Watts? His answer reflects the depth of love and thought that informs all his work.

I was from that generation growing up when `Are you a Beatles or a Stones fan?’ was a legitimate litmus test.  I was definitely a Beatles kid first.  I was eight years old in 1964 and was devoted to their story through the breakup in 1970 when I was 14.  I bought all the 45s.  Still have most of them.  All the albums. I liked the Stones on the radio, watched them on TV, but didn’t often buy their records.

I learned who Charlie Watts was when he was on the cover of the live Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out,  which we got another year later I guess.  Then sometime in 1974, my brother and I went to a DC movie theater to see Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones, the live quadraphonic sound film from their 1972 tour, and that was it!   It’s still the definitive document of that band at its peak, I think.

But when the Beatles broke up, my brother bought Hot Rocks, the Stones 1964-1971 compilation, and I started to catch up.  The shift towards fascination with the Stones began there. As I hit puberty, the Stones’ naughtiness and sexuality had finally found a welcoming target in me.  The first record I remember buying by them was Sticky Fingers with the Warhol crotch shot and zippered jeans.  My mom was horrified when she saw it and threw it in the trash.  I fished it out and hid it in my album collection, only taking it out to play it when the parents were away.

I bought every Stones record from that point on, saw every film, saw them live (only) twice (’89 and ’97). But now that’s 40 years of devoted attention to their every move.

When I saw that musician and writer Mike Edison had released a 2020 book on Charlie, (Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlies Watts Matters), I knew this would be the perfect time to craft my radio homage to Charlie.  

I got in touch with Mike and he kindly agreed to an interview and to create a playlist of what he thought were essential Charlie drumming performances with the Stones.  Mike’s list was great because it wasn’t the usual stuff and he’s an enthusiastic, informed, and opinionated guest.  So it makes for a lively couple of hours of radio fun.

Among the many interesting elements of Charlie’s story is his jazz playing background, his ability to get great power out of a 5 piece drum kit that he’s used throughout his career, and that he knows exactly how to put the band across without demanding the spotlight.  When you tune your ears to his playing, it’s plenty inventive (or, as Mike Edison says, “`He can get busy when he needs to’), but it’s all done with perfect purpose. 

For all the attention that Mick and Keith have rightfully received over the years, everyone, including the band members, certainly know, there really would be no Rolling Stones if Charlie was forced to bow out.  And with Charlie coming up on age 80 here in June, one has to wonder how much longer the world’s greatest rock & roll  band can continue.”

June 1964: Charlie (far right) characteristically looking away from the camera.
From left to right; Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones. They are posingfor a photo in a New York street, while a policeman holds back some curious spectators.
Photo by William Lovelace

Charlie Watts Playlist

Hour One.

If You Can’t Rock Me – Rolling Stones (excerpt from “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll”)
Walkin’ Shoes – Gerry Mulligan Quartet (excerpt from “Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Vol. 1”)
I’m A King Bee – Slim Harpo (excerpt)
I’m A King Bee – Rolling Stones (excerpt from “England’s Newest Hitmakers”)
Bye-Bye Johnny – Chuck Berry (excerpt)
Bye-Bye Johnny – Rolling Stones (excerpt) (from Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones)
Down the Road A Piece – Rolling Stones (from “Charlie is My Darling” Soundtrack)
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – Rolling Stones (from “Got Live If You Want It”)
Hand of Fate – Rolling Stones (excerpt from “Tattoo You”) [Break Music]
Street Fightin’ Man – Rolling Stones (excerpt from “Beggar’s Banquet”)
Jumpin’ Jack Flash – Rolling Stones (excerpt from “Singles Collection: The London Years”)
Jumpin’ Jack Flash – Rolling Stones (excerpt from “Shine A Light” Soundtrack)
Live With Me – Rolling Stones (from “Sticky Fingers” Deluxe re-release)
It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll – Rolling Stones (from “Love You Live”)
Crazy Mama – Rolling Stones (from “Black and Blue”)   

Hour Two.


SHOW INTRO – Hand of Fate – Rolling Stones (excerpt from Black and
Scarlett – Rolling Stones (excerpt from re-issue of Goat’s Head Soup)
[Paul’s pick]
Commit A Crime – Rolling Stones (excerpt from Blue and Lonesome)
Shattered – Rolling Stones (from Some Girls)
When The Whip Comes Down – Rolling Stones (from Live in Texas ’78)
Respectable – Rolling Stones (from Live in Texas ’78)
Miss You – Rolling Stones (from Some Girls)
BREAK MUSIC – Undercover of the Night – Rolling Stones (excerpt from
Get Off My Cloud – Rolling Stones (excerpt from Got Live if You Want It!)
[Paul’s pick]
Let Me Go – Rolling Stones (excerpt from Emotional Rescue)
Hang Fire – Rolling Stones (excerpt from Tattoo You)
Moon is Up – Rolling Stones (from Voodoo Lounge)  [Paul’s pick]
(Satis)Faction – The Danish Radio Big Band  (from Charlie Watts meets the
Danish Radio Big Band – Live

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