Charlie Watts was never a flashy drummer.
Unlike John Bonham and Keith Moon, he never spilled all over his kit in a drunken, dangerous tightrope act on the verge of tumbling down on his band. Instead, Watts had quietly anchored the Rolling Stones for more than five decades, serving as their terrific rhythm section’s key component, a solid and understated drummer whose love of jazz informed nearly every one of his professionally played beats.
The Stones never would have been crowned the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band without Watts, one of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll drummers. Need proof? We have 10 pieces of evidence below.
10. “Moon Is Up”
From: Voodoo Lounge (1994)
One of the few things about the Stones that didn’t get lazier as they got older was Watts’ expert drumming. Throughout the post-peak years, the routine tours and the dismal Dirty Work, Watts remained an illuminating beacon. Just listen to his reliably remarkable timekeeping on the Voodoo Lounge deep track “Moon Is Up.” Nothing too tricky here; just a veteran drummer doing his job supremely well.
9. “19th Nervous Breakdown”
From: 1966 Single
The Stones started taking some risks in 1966, starting with this musically adventurous single, which peaked at No. 2. Watts plays like a jazz drummer on the verses for “19th Nervous Breakdown,” turning into the more rock-like choruses with rolling toms and cymbal crashes without missing a single beat. Pure excellence from start to finish.
8. “Undercover of the Night”
From: Undercover (1983)
Even though outside musicians supply some of the percussive fuel for this rhythmic political song from 1983, it’s Watts’ machine-gun drumming that propels it forward, spraying bursts of snare and big drum bounce all over the place. Like their mid-’60s output, “Undercover of the Night” breaks band formula and ricochets inside your head with exciting new sounds.
7. “Gimme Shelter”
From: Let It Bleed (1969)
The menacing opening guitar lick signals a brewing storm, but it’s Watts’ monster drum drops that bring the thunder. And just as soon as he makes his booming entrance, he settles in for the rest of the song, riding the torrent like a master of the wave. Even as the rest of the band hurtles toward doom at the end of “Gimme Shelter,” Watts remains cool in the face of danger.
6. “Beast of Burden”
From: Some Girls (1978)
Watts excelled at laying a solid foundation for the Stones, no matter what style they were operating with – blues, R&B, pop, psychedelia, disco or rock. On this Top 10 single, he locks into a groove immediately after the great opening guitar riff, giving the mid-tempo song a worthy backbeat to carry it through to the end. A typically subtle, but absolutely brilliant, performance by Watts.
5. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
From: 1965 Single
The Rolling Stones’ first No. 1 is rightfully celebrated for its career-defining guitar riff, one of rock’s all-time best. But don’t underestimate Watts’ contribution to the classic: He pounds away like an R&B journeyman on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” occasionally adding tiny fills to the driving mix. And, of course, he’s the one leading the charge into this song’s timeless “hey, hey, hey, that’s what I say” line.
4. “Tumbling Dice”
From: Exile on Main St. (1972)
Like in “Beast of Burden,” the lead single from the Stones’ best album starts with a spiked but fluid guitar lick by Keith Richards. But then Watts rolls into the song with a delicacy that never forces his appearance. But you know he’s there: Just listen to the way he locks into the beginning and end of each verse.
3. “Paint It, Black”
From: 1966 Single
Even with all of the other musical shenanigans going on (sitar, Hammond B3, the stop-start structure near the end of the song), Watts’ arms-all-over-the-place drumming manages to stand out on “Paint It, Black.” Unlike most of his subtle playing throughout his career, Watts’ performance here tends to be a bit showy, as he slams, rolls and attacks with spotlight-hogging directness. No complaints.
2. “Honky Tonk Women”
From: 1969 Single
Forget Blue Oyster Cult‘s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” “Honky Tonk Women” is the premier cowbell song (even though that’s not Watt on the famous intro; that’s producer Jimmy Miller getting all Gene Frenkle there). It also features one of Watts’ best-ever performances. From the stumbling-in intro, which is 100 percent Watts, to the steady beat that drives the verses to the doubling up on the choruses, rock ‘n’ roll drumming doesn’t get much better.
1. “Get Off of My Cloud”
From: 1965 Single
Watts totally dominates the Stones’ second No. 1 single, which features one of the most unconventional drum structures ever employed in a Top 40 hit. Basically, Watts plays the same 4/4-beat-fill-4/4-beat-fill pattern throughout the song, guaranteeing you won’t be able to escape the noisy upstairs neighbors, no matter how hard you try. That he keeps it up for the entire three minutes without once breaking the beat is a testament to his timeless talent.
The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts Year by Year: Photos 1962-2020
We collected dozens of pictures of the drummer below for Charlie Watts Year by Year: Photos 1963-2020.