When Charlie Watts visited the New Orleans Jazz Museum’s “Drumsville” exhibit in July 2019, it was not as a dilettante.
An avid jazz student, collector, and practitioner, Watts already knew James Black, Baby Dodds, and other big names from New Orleans represented in the exhibit. He poured over the text, photos and related artifacts.
“Some people go by,” said Jazz Museum director Greg Lambousy. “He went section by section, very carefully. He really took his time and went through it all.
Tuesday’s announcement that Watts had died in a London hospital at the age of 80 took a heavy toll on fans and fellow rock icons. Ringo Starr and, via a video selfie, an unshaven Paul McCartney paid tribute to the man who fueled the other side of the great “Beatles vs. Stones” debate.
“We’ve come a little way to get here tonight,” Mick Jagger said at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, three songs in the Rolling Ston…
While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have indulged in all manner of shenanigans over the decades, Watts has kept a low profile on and off the stage. He had little use for the typical attributes of rock celebrity. He remained married to his wife for 57 years, the length of his time in the group. On tour, instead of ransacking hotel suites, he sketched them out.
Reserved, dapper, well-spoken and unabashedly British, he was a gentleman jazz drummer at heart who also occupied the drum chair of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll group. He always seemed totally indifferent to the antics of his band mates. In that sense, he was Keely Smith for Jagger’s Louis Prima.
And like Smith, Watts was essential to the act. He was versatile enough to color everything from “Gimme Shelter” to “Honky Tonk Woman” to “Miss You”. In “Tumbling Dice”, “Start Me Up” and elsewhere, her drums fell into the arrangement and immediately locked into the necessary groove. What he lacked in flash, he more than made up for in taste, sensation and swing.
Last week, the Rolling Stones announced that drummer Charlie Watts would not be performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this fall.
Watts and the rest of the Rolling Stones rocked the rafters of the Superdome five times over the decades. In a fitting tribute, the Stones’ tongue logo was projected onto the red-lit exterior of the Dome on Tuesday evening.
After a 1994 stop on the Voodoo Lounge Tour, another 25 years passed before the Stones returned to New Orleans. They were originally scheduled to play the 50th anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2019, before canceling so Mick Jagger could have heart surgery.
Instead, they added a Superdome stop to their postponed tour that summer. Monday, July 15, 2019 – the show had been delayed for 24 hours by the threat of Hurricane Barry – Watts, then 78, sat behind his modest battery that looked like a particularly primitive parliamentarian.
But for two hours, he held the Stones together and put exclamation marks on the songs.
Jagger introduced Watts as “fresh from Preservation Hall”. Watts, along with guitarist Ronnie Wood, had indeed made a pilgrimage to Preservation Hall that week. Watts took a tour behind the hall’s signature drums for an afternoon jam session with Charlie Gabriel on saxophone and Ben Jaffe on piano.
Jagger might as well have said that Watts was “fresh out of the New Orleans Jazz Museum”.
Months earlier, the band had arranged for a week’s break on touring the Big Easy. After Barry closed many local businesses, restaurants and music clubs, the Stones spent much of their time here at the Windsor Court Hotel.
But a hurricane, crossfire or whatever, wasn’t going to stop Watts from “Drumsville: Evolution of the New Orleans Beat” inside the Old US Mint.
Don McAulay, who is Watts’ battery technician on the road, organized the visit. Off the road, McAulay also looks after Watts’ expanding collection of historic drums and memorabilia.
In the months leading up to the visit, there had been discussions, Lambousy said, about the possibility of combining items from “Drumsville” and Watts’ personal collection for a traveling exhibition in Europe. But the idea never got beyond the discussion stage.
At the Jazz Museum, Watts had “Drumsville” to himself: the museum, like most businesses in New Orleans, was closed to the public because of Barry. But the staff opened it for Watts.
Watts was a jazz drummer in his early years.
“Drumsville” co-curator Bob Cataliotti guided the famous visitor through the exhibition.
“He was charming and witty,” Cataliotti said. “He went through it meticulously, reading all the labels and narrative panels and watching all the videos. He was clearly absorbed in the content.
But what impressed Cataliotti most was that, as they left a few hours later, Watts “expressed concern over whether the two young women of the museum staff would be safe on their way home to the approach of the storm “.
As a thank you, Watts invited the museum team to attend the Rolling Stones show at the Superdome as a guest; McAulay took them around the stage and a close-up of Watts’ drums.
When the Stones’ postponed COVID No Filter tour resumed this fall, they planned to make up for their missed Jazz Fest date with a standalone appearance Wednesday at the Fair Grounds between the festival’s two October weekends.
But it wasn’t meant to be. First, the news that Watts would miss the tour due to an unspecified medical issue. Steve Jordan, an esteemed drummer who powered Keith Richards’ side project X-Pensive Winos, would replace Watts.
Then, Jazz Fest 2021 was canceled due to the burgeoning delta variant of COVID.
For now, at least, the other dates of the Stones’ No Filter tour are still ongoing, starting September 26 in St. Louis. Because they had already planned to go on the road without Watts, his death likely won’t change that. The shows, assuming they are not victims of COVID, will now serve as tributes.
The Rolling Stones have survived previous personnel changes. Founding guitarist Brian Jones was fired in 1969, then died a month later. His replacement, Mick Taylor, resigned after a few years. The more durable Ronnie Wood then stepped in.
Bassist Bill Wyman left the band in the early 90s. Watts reportedly recruited his replacement, former Miles Davis and Sting bassist Darryl Jones.
Conventional wisdom is that Jagger and Richards, the band’s songwriting core and larger-than-life figureheads, are the only irreplaceable Stones.
But Watts, in his calm, modest and jazzy way, was just as essential.