“He was such a unique, beautiful person,” said Tim Ries about legendary Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who died on Aug. 24. “I sure loved him. I miss him terribly.”
Often described as one of the greatest rock drummers of his generation, Watts not only kept time for the band, but was the heart and soul of the group, according to Ries and Bernard Fowler, whom I spoke with last week. Ries has played saxophone and keyboards with the Stones since 1999, while Fowler has sung backing vocals and played percussion for them since 1989.
“As long as there are people on Earth, there’s going to be people listening to Charlie Watts play,” said Ries. “Some 16-year-old kid, 50 years from now, is going to be introduced to the Stones and hear Charlie Watts and he’s going to be living on.”
Also, said Ries, “He was a very distinguished gentleman, very well dressed — not just a classy person, a beautiful human being. The Earth is a better place knowing that he walked on these grounds.
“As a musician, he’s a great jazz drummer that played with the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band. His way of playing the instrument and his kind of swing element of playing the drums created the sound of the Stones … obviously with Mick and Keith, too, and their iconic songs. Keith was quoted as saying in ’79 that ‘Charlie Watts is the Stones.’ ”
Fowler called Watts “the calm in the storm, aside from being in charge of the engine that drove the band. He was always there and always solid. Keith and I used to call him Charlie 2000” (a reference to a drum machine).
Ries called Watts “one of the kindest, most gentle people I had ever met. He always had time for everybody. He would take time to spend time with a guest of mine. He would let them come backstage and take a picture. He was just very open and a very giving person to everybody. He was like a cool uncle that you wish you had.”
Last week, Fowler and Ries joined the band’s rehearsals in New England to prepare for a 12-date tour that kicks off on Sept. 26 in St. Louis. While they have packed their bags before many times in preparation for touring, this time is different. When they practice with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ron Wood, Steve Jordan — who has played in Richards’ side project the X-Pensive Winos, among many other groups — will be sitting behind the drums. (Several weeks before Watts’ death, the Stones announced that Jordan would be playing drums on the tour, since Watts was too ill to make it.)
Fowler takes some solace in the fact that Jordan was selected by Watts to join the band on this tour.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “We miss him so much, but the thing that is really important, that means something to me, is that (Jordan) is sitting in that chair because of Charlie Watts. … Charlie chose that and called Steve and gave him his blessing.
“I almost feel like we are here because of Charlie. He would want them (the Stones) to forge on. He was such a considerate cat. I’m sure he thought about the amount of people that would be affected if he let them down.”
“Steve is one of the greatest drummers, one of my favorite players,” said Ries. “It’s gonna be different. But he will sound amazing.”
I spoke with Ries on the day before he left for rehearsal from his home in New Jersey, and with Fowler during a break on his first day of rehearsals, about their close connection to Watts.
Both forged a friendship with Watts (and each other) that extended offstage. They collaborated with Watts on outside music projects, explored jazz clubs together and talked about music over dinner.
Fowler said he has had periods of sadness, “but being here with the cats is healing. We are all in the same place. It’s a shock. I’m sure they (Jagger, Richards and Wood) knew more than I did. I thought that he was on the mend after his surgery. I was hopeful that he was, at the very least, going to join us next year.”
Both Fowler and Ries spoke about Watts’ jazz-influenced drumming style, his elegant and graceful manner, and his swing. He cultivated his passion for jazz from a very young age, which shaped the sound of the Stones, they said.
But they also spoke about his warmth and kindness.
“He was not ‘a’ gentleman — he was ‘the’ gentleman,” said Fowler. “When I first entered the Rolling Stone world 33 years ago, there was a storm and, in that storm, there was always calm. And that came from him. … Charlie was the reason why I’m able to venture into the jazz world. I sang on three of his jazz recordings. Charlie was a jazz aficionado; he wasn’t just a fan of the music. You name the artist and he could tell you who played on his record and where that record was recorded. That was who he was.
“But that’s not all he was. Charlie had his ear to the ground. He tried to stay current even though he wasn’t a fan of the new popular genres. I remember about two tours ago, we were in rehearsal and we were talking about hip-hop. Charlie said to me, ‘Bernard, Dr. Dre — “Keep Their Heads Ringin.” ‘ I said ‘Yeah man, I’m grooving on that track, Charlie.’ He said, ‘It’s not my favorite genre of music but, Bernard, I quite like that song.’ Charlie dug that track. He was aware.”
Watts also liked the rapper Ludacris, Fowler said.
Ries said that some band members were already rehearsing before he left to join them. “Mick and Keith and Ronnie are there with Steve Jordan on drums and (keyboardist) Chuck Leavell and (bassist) Darryl Jones,” he said, last week. “They’ve already been rehearsing for a couple of weeks now. So, for us (Ries and Fowler), arriving next week, it’s going to be a shock and weird walking in the room and seeing the drums.
“There’s been waves of sadness and crying and missing him. The first rehearsal is going to be difficult. And then the first gig onstage in front of people, that’s going to be another a hard night. There’s going to be waves of difficulty over the course of many years.
“We knew he wasn’t going to be on this tour because he was not well, but the hope was that he would get better and then next year — the 60th anniversary of the band — I assumed that they’d be thinking about touring, and then he’d be healthy enough for that tour.”
Watts started his career playing in a jazz band, and continued playing in jazz groups he led himself, while in the Stones.
“Charlie created a new way of playing rock music on drums,” said Ries. “His touch on the drums, swing feel … it’s very unique. You have Keith Richards coming more from blues and early rock influences, combine that with Charlie’s influence with jazz … that’s what created the Stones. So in a sense, the Stones did create a whole new genre. And Mick is one of the greatest entertainers of all time. In the last 50 or 60 years, there’s a handful of people — and Mick is one of them, like Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, James Brown — who when they get onstage, you’re galvanized by their presence.”
Watts, said Ries, “would never think of himself as such a great drummer. He didn’t like taking drum solos. He was modest and humble.”
Among the jazz drummers who influenced Watts the most were Max Roach and Roy Haynes. “This is what he saw live, growing up in London and then moving to New York,” said Ries. “The level of musicianship has been set by the masters of the instrument, so once that has happened, you are humbled by the music and you try to attain the highest level that you can.
“He played an old Gretsch set of drums, which is like what a lot of old jazz drummers in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s played. It was a very small jazz drum kit … the way he touched the drums … the way he hit the drums, it was not like a typical rock drummer who would bash the drums really loudly.
“When you look at somebody that is a jazz drummer, the way they hold their hands and wrist, the way they touch the cymbals and drums, it’s different. He had what’s called a traditional grip. The traditional grip is where the stick is in your left hand upside down, facing you … Like the old marching band field drumming … The way he held the drum stick is very jazz-like and the manner in which way he played was, too. There’s a 12/8 underlying swing beat even within the kind of rock ‘n’ roll music that he played.
“I got to hang out with him a lot offstage whenever the Stones would be in a different city — Chicago, Detroit or Los Angeles, New York. If he had an off night, we would go to jazz clubs or theater, or if there was a group, he’d always want to go. He’d call me and say, ‘This group is playing. Do you want to go?’ We’d go and have dinner and we’d go hear the music.”
Ries spoke fondly of Watts’ involvement with his albums The Rolling Stones Project (2005) and Stones World: The Rolling Stones Project II (2008), which featured Stones songs arranged for jazz ensembles.
“We recorded the first time in L.A. with Charlie, Keith and Ronnie in that first recording session. Sheryl Crow and Darryl Jones played on it and Larry Goldings, a great organist. We were in Germany, then Bill Frisell came by and we recorded in Munich. Then we recorded in Portugal — and this was all with Charlie. Another one in L.A. with West African singers and Charlie.
“He was like a little kid on the drums during these sessions. We recorded in Paris in July … the studio had no air conditioning and must have been 100 degrees. Charlie was wearing a T-shirt and was amazing.”
One of Ries’ favorite tracks from the album is one of the two versions recorded of “Honky Tonk Women.” (listen below)
During the first session in Los Angeles, Watts, Wood and Richards recorded “Honky Tonk Women” as they do with the Stones. “We recorded their version with me playing saxophone instead of Mick singing and then we did one of Keith’s great tunes, ‘Slipping Away.’ Then Keith and Ronnie left. Sheryl Crow and Darryl Jones left.”
Ries remained in the studio with Watts and Goldings. Ries said that he told Watts, “Charlie, I’d love to do ‘Honky Tonk Women’ like an organ trio, like in a little club in Newark in the 1960s.” Watts agreed to play drums as part of the trio, with Goldings on organ and Ries on saxophone. “We did one version and that was it. I think it was the most unique … just playing jazz straightaway.”
Fowler and Ries have performed these unique arrangements with notable ensembles while touring at gigs on off nights in jazz clubs for years. Watts would attend to watch and would usually join in.
I saw Ries and Fowler perform at the Jazz Standard in New York in 2019 when Watts stayed on the sidelines. The evening was a magical fusion of rock, jazz and spoken word by Fowler, Ries, drummer Terreon Gully and trumpeter Wallace Roney. I caught a glimpse of Watts and Fowler talking before the show started and have a strong memory of Watts’ focus on and warmth towards Fowler.
Fowler told me what happened when he received the news of Watts’ death: “I got the call early in the morning. When I got the call, I don’t think people knew about it. So I had to keep it to myself until they all knew. It was definitely a shock to the system. People sent a lot of love. I was in a really blue place.”
Singer-songwriter La Forrest “La La” Cope, best known for writing the Whitney Houston hit “You Give Good Love,” sent him a comforting passage from Henry Scott Holland’s 1910 sermon “Death Is Nothing at All.”
Fowler said, “A good friend of mine (Cope) sent me a clip, I read it one, then two or three times. And I can’t wait to hug her because the thing that she sent me took me out of where I was. I saw some rays of sun after the third time I read it. It really helped me.”
Fowler sent me the sermon that helped him move forward. It reads, in part, “Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.”
Fowler released his third solo album, Inside Out, in 2019 on the Jersey City-based Rhyme & Reason Records label. It’s a stirring and evocative collection of Stones material — featuring nine of the band’s songs as spoken word with Jordan on drums, Jones on bass, Mike Garson on piano and others — that reveals Fowler’s soul and depth and provides another portal to appreciate the range of the Stones’ lyrics.
“Charlie liked that record and his comment to me was, ‘Bernard, that was quite brave of you,’ and that was a heavy compliment,” said Fowler. “He understood exactly what I did. I guess he appreciated the balls I had to actually go do that.”
Fowler said he got into some trouble once, while touring. He declined to share the details, saving them for his own book. But Watts’ reaction shook him up.
“When he found out about it, he expressed his distaste,” said Fowler. “And the look that he gave me, nothing else fazed me about what I did. The only thing that fazed me was the look that I got from Charlie. He was somebody that I would never want to let down. I’d never want him disappointed in me. He was not pleased and he gave me the look and he let me know.
“On the other hand, Keith looked at me and he winked.”
Watts and Fowler also connected through their interest in Arabian horses.
“We looked at Arabian horses together all the time,” Fowler said.
Their outings started when Fowler had a conversation with Watts’ wife “when I first started working for the Stones — maybe a year before the release of Steel Wheels,” he said. “When we toured all over the world, we looked at Arab studs. Charlie would call me and say, ‘Bernard, there’s an Arab stud horse farm to look at, would you like to come?’ That’s what we did together. Or we’d have dinner or see a local jazz show.
“He was very supportive of my endeavors outside the band. He listened and he paid attention to what I was doing and (what) people were doing outside the Stones.”
Before Ries left for rehearsal, he had a lot of communication with band members.
“It’s been difficult,” he said. “I spoke with Bernard a lot, Darryl, Chuck Leavell, Ronnie Wood. We’ve been texting. I sent messages to Keith and Mick with my condolences.
“I have my own connection to Charlie which is very special, but I can’t imagine what it’s like for Keith and Mick, going back more than 60 years. That’s like brothers. And Charlie was like the glue, a diplomat. I’ve never seen him upset.
“I’m not a Rolling Stone; I’m a musician who plays with them. They have a 60-year history that goes back so deeply. I’m feeling the pain and the shock of this, but for them, I can’t imagine.
“They’re almost 80 years old and this hit me the other day: It’s not exactly the same, but there was a period when the New York Yankees used to be Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, but that didn’t end when they were gone. They had many great years as a team after that. The Rolling Stones is not a baseball team, but the reality is that musicians don’t retire. We play until we die because what are we going to do? This is our love. And Charlie was passionate about playing, and Mick loves performing. Mick is not onstage dialing it in.”
And so they continue, launching their fall tour, despite the pandemic and their loss.
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