Charlie Watts, the longtime drummer for the Rolling Stones dating back to 1963, has died. He was 80.
Watts died in London on Tuesday while surrounded by his family. Watts had recently pulled out of the Rolling Stones’ upcoming tour, citing an undisclosed medical procedure.
“It is with immense sadness that we announce the death of our beloved Charlie Watts,” band publicist Bernard Doherty said in a statement to the Press Association. “He passed away peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family. Charlie was a cherished husband, father and grandfather and also as a member of The Rolling Stones one of the greatest drummers of his generation.”
Watts was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004 and survived operations to remove his lymph nodes and underwent radio therapy. In 2011, he told BBC 6 Music that he thought he was going to die following his diagnosis. His most recent procedure was undisclosed but was described as “completely successful.”
The Rolling Stones had previously announced that Grammy winner Steve Jordan would replace Watts on the U.S. “No Filter” tour.
Charles Robert Watts met Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones in the early ’60s and joined their band as their drummer, even doubling as a graphic designer who would work on their record sleeves for albums such as “Between the Buttons.” Richards once said they couldn’t “afford” Watts in the band, having already been part of the band Blues Incorporated.
But in time he would become one of the only members of the Stones, save for Richards and Jagger, to appear on all of the band’s studio albums. He lent a light touch and steady, rhythmic precision to countless Stones classics and has been universally regarded as one of the finest rock drummers. Rolling Stone named him No. 12 on a list of the all time greatest drummers from 2006, and he’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Stones and the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame.
Watts on the kit was never flashy, but he did have a stylish dress sense that emulated looks from the worlds of jazz rather than the rock stars of the era. And Vanity Fair in 2006 even named him to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.
Many of Watts’ influences as a drummer and performer drew from his love of jazz music, and he even played in combos up through 1962 and would later tour with his own group, the Charlie Watts Quintet, when he wasn’t rocking out. Dating to the ’60s, Watts has written and performed tributes to jazz great Charlie Parker, among other jazz idols.
Watts’ influence can be seen on the Rolling Stones in more ways than the music. He worked closely with Jagger in designing the look of the band’s stages during their 1975 tour of the Americas and hatched an idea to launch that tour with another idea borrowed from jazz legends, performing “Brown Sugar” in the back of a flatbed truck in the midst of Manhattan traffic. He would help design the stages again on numerous Stones tours up through the 2000s.
Richards has said that while everyone thinks Jagger and Richards are the Stones, the band would not be the same without Watts and his steady hand. That pull over the band is emblematic in Richards’ autobiography, in which he recalled an anecdote from the mid-1980s in which Jagger late at night called Watts’ hotel room and asked “Where’s my drummer?” Watts quickly got up, shaved and got dressed in a suit and proceeded to punch Jagger in the face, saying, “Don’t ever call me your drummer again. You’re my f—ing singer!”
Watts is survived by his wife Shirley, whom he married in 1964, and his daughter Serafina.