13 Nov 2022

Paul Sexton: the authorised biography of Charlie Watts

From Sunday Morning, 10:40 am on 13 November 2022

Drummer Charlie Watts was known as the quietest member of the Rolling Stones, renowned for his impeccable timing - he didn't think of himself as a rockstar. He was a lover of jazz and fine tailoring.

Paul Sexton interviewed Charlie Watts a dozen times before Watts' death and is the author of Charlie's Good Tonight: The Authorised Biography of Charlie Watts.

Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts

Photo: AFP

The book's title is taken from a remark by Mick Jagger during a live concert captured on Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!

Watts was the most modest man he ever met in the business, Sexton tells Jim Mora.

“The complete opposite of most other rock musicians that you would meet, somebody who didn't really consider himself to be in rock and roll, never expected to be in rock and roll.

“As a lot of people will know he came from jazz and that remained his lifelong love.”

He didn't rate himself particularly highly as a drummer and wouldn’t accept compliments, he says.

“Keith Richards would, in every interview I've ever done with him, and that is many, many times. He would never fail to tell me how lucky he felt having someone like Charlie Watts to work with.

“And you'd relay that to Charlie and you just go ‘don't be silly’.”

But he extracted drive, power and, most importantly, swing from his 7-piece kit, Sexton says.

“His style was to play across the beat, rather than on it, and it does, if you listen closely, there's a subtlety about this, to the Stones recordings, it does give them a different feel.”

Watts’ jazz background gave the Stones a swing lacking in most of their contemporaries, he says.

Watts was also famous for his fastidiousness, which made his brief meltdown in the ‘80s all the more surprising Sexton  says.

"He was genuinely horrified by what he'd done. It was almost like a Jekyll and Hyde situation, somebody else kind of came along and took over his body for a couple of years.

“And that's not to justify it or to sort of try and sweep it away at all, but he was bemused by it, were talking about everything.

“You know, they were all drinkers, of course, in the old days, but we're talking about heroin now.

“And he just snapped in some strange way having been so abstemious for 25 years already by that point, more or less. He just seemed to think, you know what, maybe I'll just try everything.”

Charlie's Good Tonight: The Authorised Biography of The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts book cover

Photo: supplied/harpercollins.co.nz

During this period when the Stones weren’t touring Watts put a big band together.

“He said later that if he had not been indulging at that point, he would not have had the confidence to put that thing together.”

The big band was a great success and embarked on a US tour during which Watts cleaned up, Sexton says.

“Typically, with no fuss, no bother, no rehab, no publicity.  He just got straight and brought it back from the brink.”

Watts was a complicated and deeply private man, he says.

“Keith said to me in his recent conversation, that he really remained a mystery. And that's with someone that he was extremely close with.

“No one got to know absolutely everything about Charlie Watts.”

The Stones’ rhythmic back line shared a somewhat impassive appearance.

"Among the quotes that I found from interviews that he did in those relatively early days, the one that a lot of people have mentioned, and certainly stood out to me was when he told one of the weekly music papers in the UK, ‘I'm not boring, I just got a boring face’.

“I think this is one of the great things that bonded him with Bill Wyman in those early days, because they both look very bored at the stage, as if they'd rather be anywhere else.

“And it is misleading, because, what Charlie's actually doing is being extremely professional and brilliant at his job, he just doesn't happen to look particularly excited about it.”

Watts eccentricities are legend, he says. He owned a fleet of cars but never learned to drive.

“He never needed to learn to drive. But he had this fascination with cars and developed a fleet of them that he just loved to sit in.

“People find that strange, but it's another side of his distinctly OCD character that Charlie had and was kind of proud of in a way. He would just put on one of his favourite suits, and then go and sit in the car and just enjoy the whole vibe of it.”