Charles Robert "Charlie" Watts (born 2 June 1941) is an English drummer, best known as a member of The Rolling Stones. Originally trained as a graphic artist, he started playing drums in London’s rhythm and blues clubs, where he met Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards. In 1963, he joined their group, the Rolling Stones, as drummer, while doubling as designer of their record-sleeves and tour-stages. He has also toured with his own group, the Charlie Watts Quintet, and appeared at London’s prestigious jazz-club Ronnie Scott’s with the Charlie Watts Tentet.
In 2006, Watts was elected into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame; in the same year, Vanity Fair elected him into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame. In the estimation of noted music critic Robert Christgau, Watts is "rock's greatest drummer." In 2016 he was ranked 12th on Rolling Stone magazine's "100 Greatest Drummers of All Time" list.
Charles Robert "Charlie" Watts was born to Charles Richard Watts, a lorry driver for the London Midland & Scottish Railway, and his wife Lillian Charlotte (née Eaves), at University College Hospital, London, and raised (along with his sister Linda) in Kingsbury. He attended Tylers Croft Secondary Modern School from 1952 to 1956; as a schoolboy, he displayed a talent for art, cricket and football.
As a child, Watts lived in Wembley, at 23 Pilgrims Way. Many of Wembley’s houses had been destroyed by German bombs during World War II; Watts and his family lived in a prefabricated home, as did many in the community. Watts's neighbour Dave Green, who lived next door at 22 Pilgrims Way, was a childhood friend, and they remain friends today; Green went on to become a jazz bass player. Green recalls that as boys, "we discovered 78rpm records. Charlie had more records than I did… We used to go to Charlie's bedroom and just get these records out." Watts' earliest records were jazz recordings; he remembers owning 78 RPM records of Jelly Roll Morton, and Charlie Parker. Green recalls that Watts also "had the one with Monk and the Johnny Dodge Trio. Charlie was ahead of me in listening and acquisitions." When Watts and Green were both about thirteen, Watts became interested in drumming:
“I bought a banjo, and I didn't like the dots on the neck. So I took the neck off, and at the same time I heard a drummer called Chico Hamilton, who played with Gerry Mulligan, and I wanted to play like that, with brushes. I didn't have a snare drum, so I put the banjo head on a stand.”
Green and Watts began their musical careers together from 1958 to 1959, playing in a jazz band in Middlesex called the Jo Jones All Stars.
Watts initially found his transition to rhythm and blues puzzling; commenting, "I went into rhythm and blues. When they asked me to play, I didn't know what it was. I thought it meant Charlie Parker, played slow.
Watts' parents gave him his first drum kit in 1955; he was interested in jazz, and would practice drumming along with jazz records he collected. After completing secondary school, he enrolled at Harrow Art School (now the University of Westminster), which he attended until 1960. After leaving school, Watts worked as a graphic designer for an advertising company called Charlie Daniels Studios, and also played drums occasionally with local bands in coffee shops and clubs. In 1961 he met Alexis Korner, who invited him to join his band, Blues Incorporated. At that time Watts was on his way to a sojourn working as a graphic designer in Denmark, but he accepted Korner's offer when he returned to London in February 1962.
Watts played regularly with Blues Incorporated and maintained a job with another advertising firm of Charles, Hobson and Grey. It was in mid-1962 that Watts first met Brian Jones, Ian "Stu" Stewart, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards, who also frequented the London rhythm and blues clubs, but it was not until January 1963 that Watts finally agreed to join The Rolling Stones.
Besides his music, Watts contributed graphic art to early Rolling Stones records such as the Between the Buttons record sleeve and was responsible for the 1975 tour announcement press conference in New York City. The band surprised the throng of waiting reporters by driving and playing "Brown Sugar" on the back of a flatbed truck in the middle of Manhattan traffic, a gimmick AC/DC copied later the same year. (Status Quo repeated the trick for the 1984 video to "The Wanderer" and U2 would later emulate it in the 2004 video for "All Because of You".) Watts remembered this was a common way for New Orleans jazz bands to promote upcoming dates. Moreover, with Jagger, he designed the elaborate stages for tours, first contributing to the lotus-shaped design of that 1975 Tour of the Americas, as well as the 1989–1990 Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle Tour, the 1997 Bridges to Babylon Tour, the 2002-2003 Licks Tour, and the 2005-2007 A Bigger Bang Tour.
Watts has been involved in many activities outside his life as a member of The Rolling Stones. In 1964, he published a cartoon tribute to Charlie Parker entitled Ode to a High Flying Bird. Although he has made his name in rock, his personal tastes lie principally in jazz. In the late 1970s, he joined Ian Stewart in the back-to-the-roots boogie-woogie band Rocket 88, which featured many of the UK's top jazz, rock and R&B musicians. In the 1980s, he toured worldwide with a big band that included such names as Evan Parker, Courtney Pine and Jack Bruce, who was also a member of Rocket 88. In 1991, he organised a jazz quintet as another tribute to Charlie Parker. 1993 saw the release of Warm And Tender, by the Charlie Watts Quintet, which included vocalist Bernard Fowler. This same group then released Long Ago And Far Away in 1996. Both records included a collection of Great American Songbook standards. After a successful collaboration with Jim Keltner on The Rolling Stones' Bridges to Babylon, Watts and Keltner released a techno/instrumental album simply titled, Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner Project. Watts stated that even though the tracks bore such names as the "Elvin Suite" in honour of the late Elvin Jones, Max Roach and Roy Haynes, they were not copying their style of drumming, but rather capturing a feeling by those artists. Watts at Scott's was recorded with his group, "the Charlie Watts Tentet", at the famous jazz club in London, Ronnie Scott's. In April 2009 he started to perform concerts with the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie together with pianists Axel Zwingenberger and Ben Waters plus his childhood friend Dave Green on bass.
In 1989, The Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the July 2006 issue of Modern Drummer magazine, Watts was voted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame, joining Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Steve Gadd, Buddy Rich and other highly esteemed and influential drummers from the history of rock and jazz. In the estimation of noted music critic Robert Christgau, Watts is "rock's greatest drummer."