Charlie Watts - A Personal Remembrance and Tribute, by Rob Shanahan

Ringo Starr and I waited at the top of his Los Angeles driveway. It was November 2006, and as noon approached, I turned to ask Ringo, “When was the last time you and Charlie saw each other?”

     It had been a long time—probably backstage somewhere in passing—but with the Rolling Stones in town to play at Dodger Stadium, I’d managed to orchestrate a photoshoot that would reunite the drumming legends. I couldn’t believe it—the thought of spending a casual afternoon hanging with them at Ringo’s house was almost more than I could take.

Outside of Ringo’s gates, it was your typical gorgeous fall day—the kind where you can almost smell every flower around. But inside the gates, it was anything but ordinary. Charlie Watts was coming.

     Then, just like that, Jim Keltner’s car appeared up the driveway. Out stepped a beaming Charlie, and the Beatle and the Stone closed the distance between them, arms extended wide, each calling out the other’s name with joy in their voice. Staring in awe, I froze at the significance. The two biggest drummers on the planet were about to lock into an embrace, the way long-lost friends do. The greeting unfolded in front of my eyes, five precious seconds that I will never forget.

     Then, at the very last moment, I remembered the camera hanging on my shoulder.

     The embrace that followed exuded mutual admiration, love, and appreciation. They parted with just enough space to look at each other, then hugged again. The series of photographs resulting from this interchange is priceless to me. It captures a sweet moment between two friends—two drumming legends—and I was lucky enough to witness it. Sadly, it will never happen again.



As Tears Go By

     On August 24, 2021, the Rolling Stones and the world changed forever. That day, Charlie Watts left us at the age of 80. With everything else going on, his departure made an already bleak world seem just a little bit darker. Not long before, the Rolling Stones released a statement that he wouldn’t be drumming on the rescheduled U.S. tour, but I was told by the Stones camp that Charlie “was gonna be all right.” So, I was as shocked as anyone when the news broke of his passing. I was sitting at my kitchen table and literally fell to the floor in sadness and disbelief.

     Charlie hadn’t missed a live show with the Rolling Stones since joining the group in January 1963. He was born in London on June 2, 1941, to a truck-driving father and factory-working mother. Growing up in Wembley, he disassembled a banjo and a chair to create his very first drum, and he played the head with brushes until his dad bought him his first drum kit in 1955. He practiced playing along to his jazz record collection with his neighbor and lifelong childhood friend David Green on upright bass. After completing art school, he worked as a graphic designer by day, drumming with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and various other bands at night. He met Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, and Ian Stewart in the summer of 1962 in the rhythm and blues clubs of London, but he did not join their group until they could finally afford to pay him. Adding bassist Bill Wyman, the group’s first public appearance with Charlie was at the Ealing Jazz Club on February 2, 1963.

     It’s hard to believe Charlie is gone, and that the Rolling Stones cease to exist as we knew it. I’m still in shock. My friend Steve Jordan is getting them through, but we will never again see the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band in its massive glory in a huge stadium with the incredible Charlie Watts at the helm. And that makes me sad.

     I take comfort in knowing that I saw them many times through the years—four times in the fall of 2019 alone—including their second-to-last show with Charlie in Phoenix. Little did I know then "this could be the last time."

     I’d like to offer my condolences and heartfelt sympathies to his lovely wife of almost 60 years, Shirley; their daughter, Seraphina; and his granddaughter, Charlotte. And, of course, to the Rolling Stones family and the millions of fans around the world. We lost a musical giant, and one of the greatest drummers of all time. We all owe a great deal of gratitude to Charlie—not only for his musical contribution to the world with one of the most iconic bands to ever exist, but as a member of an institution that transcended generations and helped shape our art and culture. I lost my drumming mentor, and a friend.



No Expectations

My very first photograph of Charlie dates back to July 1996. The Charlie Watts Quintet was playing in Los Angeles at the Henry Fonda Theater. I was excited to hear Charlie play with his jazz group, and to photograph him with his Gretsch black-nitron, round-badge jazz kit with the 18-inch bass drum.

       My film camera of the day—this was pre-digital—was a bit loud for an intimate jazz show, so I waited until the outro of the very last song, as I didn’t want to disrupt the proceedings. Then, I fired off five photographs. Charlie was looking ultra-cool in his white tux jacket, and it was great to see and hear him playing in his element. I found out later that the upright bassist was David Green. Charlie truly was a jazz lover, and he seemed happiest when holding a pair of brushes.

       The following year, he was back out with the Rolling Stones and in Los Angeles, so I sent a black-and-white print from this jazz show to his hotel. To my surprise, a few days later, I received a handwritten letter on The Peninsula Hotel’s stationery: “Dear Rob, thank you for the photograph.” Below was Charlie’s signature, followed by, in parentheses, (Drummer, Rolling Stones), which made me laugh out loud. I was elated. It had taken a year, but contact had been made.

       After that, I saw Charlie as often as I could. With the help of my friend Jim Keltner and Charlie’s tech, Don McAulay, I would meet up with Charlie while he was out on tour with the Stones, and in far-off places like Norman, Oklahoma, or Little Rock, Arkansas. Our mutual love of the jazz greats such as Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, and legends such as Hal Blaine and D. J. Fontana was the great connector.            

      Everything I had worked for my whole life—starting at age ten as a young drummer, and in my teenage years learning photography—prepared me for my friendship with Charlie. Talking drums with another drummer is as easy as breathing. And this was how Charlie started trusting me with my camera, allowing me access to his unguarded self. I am forever grateful.



Rip This Joint

In 2016, as the Rolling Stones were rehearsing in Los Angeles for the six-day Desert Trip music festival, I sat on a black-leather couch a few feet behind Charlie’s drum riser and Keith’s Fender amp and got my mind blown. It wasn’t a massive room, as you might expect, and hearing the band in a smallish space without a huge P.A. and in their rawest form was mindboggling.

       From up close, I marveled at how they would all play off each other to create that Stones magic—the benefit of playing with the same group of guys for all your adult life. I could really focus on Charlie and study his technique. His ability to push and pull a song, and just make it all feel so right, was a thing of beauty. And his sheer power came across loud and clear—not in a bashing way, but more of an “in the wrist” kind of way. He didn’t hit the drums—he played the drums, and with grace. 

       I’ve talked to many drummers over the years about Charlie’s drumming, and swing is the word that comes up often. It’s difficult to define, but all drummers know what it means. You can’t learn it. You either have it, or you don’t. And Charlie had it. He once said to me, “My role in this band is to keep time and stay out of the way.” In past interviews, he admitted that he was a jazz drummer stuck in a rock band. And that’s how Charlie approached his playing with the Rolling Stones—like a jazz drummer. Tasked with being the foundation for driving the orchestra, providing the swing for the dancers all the while. And that two and four lift-off of his right hand on his hi-hat is uniquely Charlie’s move. I once asked him where he got that from, and he said Jim Keltner. So, I asked Jim, who said he got it from Charlie. I guess we’ll never know. Try it out sometime while playing along to your favorite Stones songs, and be sure to use traditional grip. It creates breathing room for the backbeat when done correctly, and with your kick thrusting the downbeat forward. That was Charlie’s magic—pushing the band with his right foot, and keeping everything groovy and relaxed with his left hand.

       If you were lucky enough to see a live show, then you know how powerful the Rolling Stones are as a band. And you also know that Charlie (and the others) never played a song the same way twice.

       As Keith once said, “The songs are living, breathing organisms that have evolved over time.”

       And we are all better for it. The solid grooves of their classic standards, such as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Tumbling Dice,” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” have transformed into rock-along anthems of perfection. There is something magical—or dare I say, religious—about a live Stones show. When you get a stadium full of people sharing the same musical experience together—and rocking out to the songs that have been running through our collective veins for almost 60 years—that’s powerful. No other band in musical history has achieved this level of enduring success. From the enormous world tours to the amazingly deep catalogue of multiple hit songs, the juggernaut we call the Rolling Stones has been firmly embedded into our DNA. And Charlie was the heartbeat of it all.



Talkin’ About You

For the past five years, I’ve been working on a behind-the-scenes documentary of my photo shoots. It has given me the chance to interview guys like Jim Keltner, Steve Gadd, and Mick Fleetwood, as well as Hal Blaine and D. J. Fontana just before they passed. Invariably, Charlie’s name comes up in conversation. To hear firsthand stories from these guys about their experiences with—and love for—Charlie is unbelievably heartwarming.

       In August 2019, my film crew was granted access to follow Charlie and I around backstage in New Jersey at MetLife Stadium. As it turns out, it was the last few weeks of the Stones touring with Charlie.

       It was also his last interview.

       We went from playing his backstage rehearsal Gretsch kit, to the tour kit on stage, then sitting in his dressing room, “The Cotton Club,” double-drumming on his practice pads—all the while talking about our favorite drummers. I took the opportunity to present Charlie with some gifts I had been collecting for him through the years: framed portraits I had made of Jim Keltner, Hal Blaine, and D. J. Fontana, who had all personalized them to Charlie. It’s truly one of my most cherished memories of Charlie, and I am grateful to have it on film.

       My film crew and I were also at Hal’s 90th birthday party at The Baked Potato in Studio City, which was packed to the rafters with friends and family, and with many notable drummers in attendance: Jim Keltner, Denny Seiwell, Danny Carey, Chad Smith, Slim Jim Phantom, Danny Seraphine, and John DeChristopher.

       Just when I thought the party couldn’t get any better, Don McAulay called to say he was ten minutes away and with Charlie. It was great to see Hal and Charlie together—even for a moment. Hal got up to play a few songs, and we all had a really nice evening. Sadly, he passed away a few weeks later. I’m glad Hal and Charlie got to see each other one last time.

       We drummers have a unique and unspoken bond. A brotherhood that doesn’t need to be verbally recognized, and it can’t be explained. It’s just there. The excitement of hanging out with—or talking about—other drummers, and the curiosity it brings, is deep within all of us. Charlie was no exception. He loved to talk about guys like Max Roach, or Dave Tough, or Chico Hamilton, or Tony Williams.

       The best gift a drummer can give a band is the gift of time—both on and off stage. And Charlie was generous with his time. I’m forever grateful to have become friends with someone who has touched so many of us and was loved by all.

       He was a true English gentleman. Charlie loved it when I mentioned the six years I spent playing in my high-school jazz band, and the influence guys like Louie Bellson and Buddy Rich had on me. When I told him about my photo shoot with Louie Bellson, he asked if I got to photograph him playing. Sadly, I did not, as it was just before Louie passed, but when I mentioned that the shoot was with Louie and Joe Porcaro, he thought that was perhaps even more special.



Who’s Driving Your Plane?

Along with his sincerity, I’ll miss Charlie’s sense of humor. Once, on a break at rehearsals, he asked to see my car, a 1956 Chevy Nomad. Charlie and I, along with his tech, Don, went out to the parking lot to have a look. He collected classic cars and had half a dozen or so, although he never drove them, as he’d never bothered to get his license. It was an interest the two of us shared. The car is vintage cool, like Charlie, and from the same era as his Gretsch kit.

       “It’s amazing,” he said as he admired the vehicle’s polished chrome and beautiful lines.

       I had parked in the corner, in front of a big metal roll-up door and under a large, overhead security light, so it looked like a scene out of The Connection. After we’d walked around the car a few times, I invited him to get in behind the wheel—which he did with the glee of a teenager pretending to drive Dad’s car in the driveway. He was in awe of the large, original 18-inch steering wheel, which my brother TJ painted. We had a laugh when I mentioned it was the same diameter as the bass drum of his jazz kit. My dad painted the mirror-like black metal dash, which Charlie agreed matched his black nitron kit.

       He really enjoyed seeing the attention to detail, and it especially pleased him to learn that I hauled my Gretsch kit to gigs in this car. When I proudly showed him how the back end opened up, his eyes immediately moved to a small little ding on the top edge of the tailgate. (Just days earlier, I’d backed into a yellow pole at a load-in door with the tailgate down—ouch!) He pointed to it and, with a serious look on his face, he asked, “Did Ringo do that?” It sent the three of us cracking up.


In Another Land

Back on Ringo’s driveway that November afternoon, I continued to capture the lovefest until Charlie and Ringo stepped apart, but things were just getting started. After a few minutes of catching up, Ringo led the three of us—Charlie, Jim Keltner, and I—indoors. I had been to Ringo’s house before, and, yes, it’s cool, but this time was different. Being in the company of these three icons was an honor.

       You don’t have to walk too far into Ringo’s house to stumble upon a drum kit. In a room filled with instruments and memorabilia sat Ringo’s custom Ludwig abalone kit from the All-Starr tour. Even after all these years, Charlie was genuinely excited about drum gear. After examining the custom-designed kit’s gorgeous abalone with purple stars and turquoise inlay, he commented with curiosity and amazement about Ringo’s mounted hi-hats on the right—next to his ride cymbal. (I was thinking to myself, "Don’t do it, Charlie, it would completely change your style.")

       Next, we entered another room housing Ringo’s Roland electronic kit, which was completely alien to Charlie. After showing Charlie a few cool sounds on the kit, Ringo got up to let him have a go, handing over his drumsticks. My shutter clicked, capturing the iconic moment—one drumming great happily passing a pair of sticks to another. It was a nanosecond in time that I am forever grateful to have preserved. 



To pose them in such a way would not have had the same feel as this photograph. With two extremely creative guys like Charlie and Ringo, spontaneity is the rule, and if the moment passes, it’s gone forever. So many variables came together in just the right way for this image to work. It truly is one of my all-time favorite photos. It’s the photo Ringo posted on Instagram the day Charlie passed.

       We watched Charlie fool around on the electric kit. I think he enjoyed it for the most part, but I sensed that this was his first—and probably last—time. Right after, I did a fun series of photographs of them sitting on a stiletto-shaped, leopard-print chair—a gift from Joe Walsh. As we dissolved into laughter, I had the distinct feeling this was the first and last time Charlie would ever do that, too.

       It was then that I lined the three of them up, arranging them in a Mt. Rushmore kind of way. My plan was to get a stoic, grand portrait of the drumming legends of rock. But just when I would get them positioned just so, one would crack a joke and set the other two off. We were having way too much fun for stoicism. Instead, it became a series of lively photos of three guys with incredible intertwining histories simply enjoying each other’s company. And looking back at the photos, I’m much happier with the results.

       As if the day couldn’t get any more surreal, Ringo announced it was teatime. A few moments later, I found myself sitting at a small poolside table, sipping tea from a Flora Danica teacup, and snacking on grapes, with Charlie on my left, Ringo across, and Jim to my right, discussing drums, life, and family. Just incredible!

       I had so many questions to ask Charlie about certain drum parts on different songs, and I knew this was my chance. I started by asking about his method for creating the ultra-cool drum track on one of my favorites, “Bitch.”

       Coolly looking at me with his usual deadpan face, Charlie replied, “I don’t even remember what I played last week!”

       His response had us in hysterics and I quickly realized I wasn’t going to get the drumming answers I was looking for. But it didn’t matter. I was hanging out with my drumming heroes in the comfort of Ringo’s home—not backstage somewhere with distractions—and with nothing on our schedules for the afternoon. It was perfect.

       I brought a gift for Charlie that day—a pristine copy of Gretsch Drum Night at Birdland, which was recorded live in New York City in 1960, and featured some of his favorites, such as Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Charlie Persip, and “Philly” Joe Jones. When I presented it to him, his eyes lit up, and his smile revealed that it was the perfect choice. He mentioned he had a CD copy of it, but had always wanted the original LP.

        Finally, in late afternoon, we started saying our goodbyes. Charlie generously asked if I’d like to see the show at Dodger Stadium, and said he’d leave tickets at will call. To my surprise, they turned out to be backstage passes and amazing seats. I’d seen the Stones before, but this would be the first of many shows I would attend as Charlie’s guest.       

       Leaving Ringo’s house, I drove home toward the setting sun with a grin plastered on my face, convinced I was in a dream.

       Did I really just spend the most amazing afternoon with Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr, and Jim Keltner?

       I glanced down at the passenger seat next to me, and there it was—a snare drumhead, signed by all three. I raced home to start looking through the images I’d shot. From the first driveway embrace to the last group photo, I was speechless. Realizing I had an amazing collection of images that told a remarkable story, I put together a photo book, and had four custom copies printed—one for each of us.

       Two months later, I received a call from a London number.

       “Hello, Rob, it’s Charlie Watts—drummer with the Rolling Stones.”

       I laughed out loud again—as if I’d mistake him for any other. He couldn’t thank me enough for putting the day together and for the great collection of photographs. First, he asked if it would be okay to use a few of the photos for the Rolling Stones (yes, of course). Then, he said, “You make me look like a movie star.” It filled my heart and soul beyond words.



Shine a Light

Fast-forward to May 2013, to the Rolling Stones soundcheck at L.A.’s Staples Center, where I was photographing Charlie at his '57 Gretsch round-badge tour kit. For the first time, I got to sit on Charlie’s throne at the kit and inspect every little detail: his Rogers Swiv-O-Matic hi-hat, the classic Ludwig Speed King pedal, the Ufip China and swish, the Tosca flat ride, the Zildjian A crash, vintage Avedis hats, and those beautiful drums.

       The story is that the Gretsch kit was backlined from SIR for a recording session with Ronnie Wood in Los Angeles. Charlie fell in love with it, and he convinced SIR to sell it to him.

       The DW custom icon snare with the Stones tongues was the creation of the “Wood Whisperer,” John Good, and his team at Drum Workshop. It’s a thing of beauty, and rare. There are only four in existence. One of the others is in John’s office at DW.

       After Charlie, Keith, and Ronnie came over to say hello, my wife and I stood on stage behind Charlie and watched as the Stones ran through a few numbers. Being on stage with the Rolling Stones—soundcheck or not—was one of the most powerful musical experiences I’ve ever had.

       Right after they wrapped up, Scott Donnell from DW and Charlie’s tech, Don, helped me quickly set up my lighting, and I got Charlie back to the kit. I asked him to grab a pair of his Vic Firth Charlie Watts signature sticks, and told him, “Charlie, you are a movie star.” He beamed, and I made another one of my favorite photographs of all time. You can see it and three of my other Charlie photographs on the cover of this magazine.



Not Fade Away

Thankfully, Charlie left behind an impressive body of work, and so he will live on through his music—not only with the Rolling Stones, but also with his various jazz projects.

       Once in a while, someone comes along in your life and has a profound effect on who you are as a person. For me, Charlie was that guy. I can’t explain it other than that his generosity and friendship meant the world to me, and I realize how lucky I was to get to know him. His commitment to his family and to his band—in the most humble of ways—makes him a good role model for all of us.

       Mr. Charlie Watts—thank you for everything.


All words and photographs © Rob Shanahan - 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Originally published in Modern Drummer Magazine, 11/01/21. 


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