A Birthday Salute To Charlie Watts

June 22, 2011


This past June 2 marked the 70th birthday of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. And While Gretsch Drums and the whole Gretsch family join the drumming world in congratulating Charlie on this milestone, we have a reason of our own to celebrate. Charlie is the longest-running Gretsch endorsing artist. He’s played Gretsch drums for his entire career…starting even before he joined “The World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band” in 1963.

As Charlie puts it, “I've always used Gretsch. I still use the same one that Max Roach advertised you should buy, which was the soft [rack] tom-tom, bass drum, deep [floor] tom-tom, and a snare drum.” That simple four-piece kit has anchored The Rolling Stones over a history that spans forty-eight years, more than thirty record albums, and dozens of legendary (and sometimes infamous) tours.

Although he established his reputation as one of the simplest and steadiest—and yet most recognizable and emulated—of all rock drummers, Charlie’s own musical tastes run toward jazz. In the late ’70s he joined fellow Stone Ian “Stu” Stewart in the retro boogie-woogie party band Rocket 88, which featured many of the UK’s top jazz, rock, and R&B musicians. In the 1980s, he founded and toured worldwide with a big band that included such jazz/rock luminaries as Evan Parker, Courtney Pine, and Jack Bruce.

In 1991 Charlie founded a quintet to honor his personal hero, Charlie Parker. Two years later that quintet recorded the critically regarded Warm & Tender, which reached #6 on the Billboard jazz charts. All told, Charlie recorded seven jazz albums between 1986 and 2004. And as recently as 2010 Charlie was gigging with a quartet called The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie, together with pianists Axel Zwingenberger and Ben Waters, plus Charlie’s childhood friend Dave Green on bass.

In addition to making his mark in the jazz world, Charlie has also guested on recording projects by a surprising variety of artists. These include such diverse musical luminaries as Eric Clapton, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Leon Russel, Marianne Faithful, Peter Frampton, and even AC/DC (!).

But it’s Charlie’s inimitable contribution to the sound of the Rolling Stones that has placed him firmly in the pantheon of drumming greats. In fact, Stones guitarist Keith Richards was quoted in a 2005 Guitar Player interview as saying that the band would not be, or could not continue as, the Rolling Stones without Charlie. In 1989 Charlie and the rest of the band were inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. In July of 2006 Charlie himself was voted into Modern Drummer magazine’s Hall Of Fame.

As opposed to the high visibility and sometime controversy that have accompanied Charlie’s legendary bandmates in the Stones, his personal life has remained quiet. Even on stage, Charlie seems to exude a bemused serenity—providing a sense of calm amid the chaos created by his more flamboyant bandmates.

I vividly remember meeting Charlie on two very different occasions. The first was in 1986, when Gretsch supported Charlie's big band tour by supplying kits for all the drummers in the band. As I recall, it was five kits when the band played in New York City. My wife Dinah and I attended the show—which was terrific—and then later met Charlie for a quiet bite at a small downtown venue on 16th street. It was all very low-key, casual, and intimate.

Our next meeting with Charlie was quite a contrast. That was at Giants Stadium in New Jersey’s Meadowlands, just before Charlie and the Stones played to a packed crowd. The “rattlesnake roundup” food selections tended toward the gourmet, and the atmosphere was far from low-key and casual. But through it all Charlie was calm and personable as usual.

Other than his drumming, Charlie’s main claim to fame has always been his incredibly dapper image. The British newspaper The Telegraph once named him one of the World's Best Dressed Men. In 2006, no less a fashion authority than Vanity Fair elected Charlie into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame (an honor he shared with his own style icon, Fred Astaire).

On the home front, Charlie has been happily married to his wife Shirley since October 14, 1964…a partnership nearly as long as that of Charlie’s with the Stones. Charlie and Shirley have a daughter and a granddaughter.

Today, Charlie is still going strong, maintaining his position as the rhythmic anchor for the Rolling Stones—and as one of the world’s most revered drummers. I’m pleased to know him, and I’m honored to have him as a Great Gretsch Drums artist.

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