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Charlie Watts, the backbone of the Rolling Stones, has died aged 80. One of rock’s most celebrated drummers, his death was announced by the band’s publicist, who said that he “passed away peacefully in a London hospital” surrounded by his family.
He had undergone treatment for an unspecified medical condition that forced him to miss a forthcoming Rolling Stones tour of the US. With his customarily dry wit, he remarked earlier this month: “For once my timing has been a little off.”
Watts was a member of the British band from its earliest days in 1963. His first musical interest was jazz, not blues or R & B like bandmates Sir Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. In contrast to their wilder personas, he had a calm playing style and gentlemanly temperament. During their infamy as “the bad boys of rock-and-roll” in the 1960s, delinquent “British Invasion” cousins to The Beatles, Watts maintained a cool aura of amused detachment.
His playing style was straightforward. He disdained solos, the mark of the flashier kind of drummer. “I wanted to play drums because I fell in love with the glitter and the lights, but it wasn’t about adulation. It was being up there playing,” he said.
The band’s history has been marked by the difficult relationship between its founders, Jagger and Richards. As supple as his drumming, Watts was able to keep his balance between their rivalrous dynamics. Among the ruined lives and decadent lifestyle that accompanied the Stones’ rise to the highest summit of rock, including the death of original guitarist Brian Jones in 1969, Watts managed to maintain his equilibrium.
Although he was not immune to narcotic temptation, he avoided addiction. In contrast to the sexual hedonism common in 1970s rock, he remained with his wife Shirley Ann Shepherd, who he married in 1964. She survives him with their daughter Seraphina and granddaughter Charlotte.
Tributes have been paid from across the world of music. “God bless Charlie Watts we’re going to miss you man,” tweeted Ringo Starr, his only rival as rock’s most famous drummer. “Condolences to the Stones,” Sir Paul McCartney said in a video statement. “It’s a huge blow to them because Charlie was a rock.”
In a tweet, Sir Elton John described him succinctly as “the ultimate drummer”.
Watts, son of a lorry driver and a housewife, was born in London in 1941. From childhood, he was passionate about music — jazz in particular. He fell in love with the drums after hearing Chico Hamilton and taught himself to play by listening to records by Johnny Dodds, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and other jazz giants.
He worked for a London advertising firm after he attended Harrow Art College and played drums in his spare time. London was home to a blues and jazz revival in the early 1960s, with Jagger, Richards and Eric Clapton among the future superstars getting their start. Watts’ career took off after he played with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, for whom Jagger also performed, and was encouraged by Korner to join the Stones.
Watts was not a rock music fan at first and remembered being guided by Richards and Jones as he absorbed blues and rock records, notably the music of bluesman Jimmy Reed. He said the band could trace its roots to a brief period when he had lost his job and shared an apartment with Jagger and Richards because he could live there rent-free.
“Keith Richards taught me rock and roll,” Watts said. “We’d have nothing to do all day and we’d play these records over and over again. I learned to love Muddy Waters. Keith turned me on to how good Elvis Presley was, and I’d always hated Elvis up ‘til then.”