Watts, who achieved fame as a member of one of the world’s biggest and most enduring rock bands, was a dedicated family man behind his on-stage persona.
Joining the Stones in 1963, he was described as the heartbeat of the band, remaining a member until his recent death at the age of 80.
The Stones have played at the highest level, remaining on-trend for almost 60 years. Watts never missed a gig throughout his long career with the band, with his last live performance being on 30th August 2019 in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. Alongside lead singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards, Watts had played on every Rolling Stones’ album since joining the band.
Watts’ death on 24th August saw a massive outpouring of grief, not only from his family and friends, but also from many music industry greats and legions of fans.
Where did it all begin?
Watts was born in London in June 1941 to lorry driver Charles and factory worker Lillian Watts. At school he enjoyed music, art, football and cricket. He became interested in drumming at 13, inspired by the American drummer, Foreststorn “Chico” Hamilton.
According to media sources, Watts made himself a makeshift drum kit at 13 out of a “cannibalised banjo and Meccano”. His first instrument had been the banjo, but he was said to be “baffled” about how to play it and couldn’t get the finger movements right. Eventually, he removed the neck and converted the body into a snare drum.
He bought his first jazz record at 13, Walkin’ Shoes, by Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker’s quintet. Jazz remained his favourite music genre throughout his life.
His parents bought him a drum kit in 1955, when he was 14. After leaving school, he attended Harrow Art School until 1960. His first job on leaving art school was as a graphic designer for advertising company Charlie Daniels Studios.
Accompanying local bands at gigs in clubs and coffee shops in the early 1960s, he gradually made the transition from jazz to rhythm and blues, which he admitted to finding “strange” at first.
In 1961, the British blues musician Alexis Korner invited Watts to join his band, Blues Incorporated. Although he played regularly, he maintained his day job with Charles, Hobson and Gray – another advertising agency.
In 1961, Charlie Watts met Shirley Anne Shepherd at a rehearsal of Blues Incorporated. Born in September 1938, Shirley was a sculpture student at the Royal College of Art. They began dating long before Watts joined the Rolling Stones and hit the big time. Little did either of them know that it was going to be a lifetime love story, spanning almost six decades.
Jagger was an occasional vocalist for Blues Incorporated, but was looking for a drummer for his own band, the Stones. Watts would chat to the late Brian Jones, one of the original Rolling Stones, along with Jagger and Richards, in the summer of 1962, while hanging out at London’s rhythm and blues clubs.
They invited him to join the band numerous times, but it wasn’t until January 1963 that he finally agreed. Before they became famous, they were reportedly making so little money that they couldn’t afford to pay him!
Earning regular money from his gigs with Blues Incorporated, Watts was planning his wedding to Shirley by this time. However, he carried on playing with the Stones, charging an initial fee of £5 a week.
In an interview, Richards said the other band members sometimes went without food to pay him, as they desperately wanted to hang onto him. Watts still preferred his day job as a designer. In an interview, he once admitted he “didn’t think rock and roll would last five minutes”.
He finally gave up his day job when the Stones signed their first recording contract in 1963. Six months after Watts joined the band, they had their first hit single, Come On, which reached number 21 in the UK charts in June 1963.
However, it wasn’t until April 1964 that the band had their first number one hit album called The Rolling Stones. Suddenly, they found global fame, reaching the top of the UK and Australian album charts, climbing to number 11 in the notoriously tough-to-crack US charts and making the top 50 in France and Germany.
Watts married Shirley on 14th October 1964. By this time, he was making a living with the Rolling Stones. The following month, they had a number one single, Little Red Rooster, followed by another number one album, called The Rolling Stones No 2, in January 1965.
Watts was the first Stone to “tie the knot”. For this reason, his marriage was kept secret initially, as it was felt it would upset the band’s young female fans. In fact, the wedding was so secret that he didn’t even tell Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham! Watts later said he “figured that the fewer people who knew, the better”.
As the band took off in a big way, the musicians were increasingly in demand for live gigs, recording sessions, interviews and tours. Despite getting swept up in the excitement of being a rock star, Watts never wavered in his love for Shirley.
During the Stones’ first trip to Australia in 1965, Watts reportedly spent all his earnings on long-distance phone calls home to Shirley every day, avoiding the lure of the party lifestyle. Disinterested in the high-octane life of a rock star, Watts would return to his hotel room alone after the gig.
He enjoyed sketching and made a point of drawing his various lodgings and hotel rooms, keeping a diary of his drawings, once saying he had drawn every bed he had slept in on tour! Comparing his lodgings in the 1960s with the hotel rooms of the 21st century, he explained it was a visual reminder that just went “on and on”.
Despite the obvious temptations, he never cheated on Shirley in 57 years of marriage. He often said the secret to their successful marriage was the fact he “wasn’t really a rock star”.
In order to avoid the limelight, the couple lived a quiet life in Halsdon Manor, near Dolton. Freely admitting he didn’t have all the “trappings” of rock star life that many of his peers had, his only luxury was four vintage cars.
Unlike his band mates, he normally succeeded in staying out of the tabloid newspapers. He said he “wasn’t interested” in doing interviews, or in being seen. The only reason he agreed to do interviews was because he loved what he did and wanted people to go and see the band.
Describing Shirley as an “incredible woman”, Watts admitted his one regret was that he had spent a lot of time on the road in his younger days. He felt he hadn’t been at home enough. However, Shirley reportedly said he was a “nightmare” when he first came home after a tour, to such a degree that she would tell him to go back out!
Becoming a father
Shirley gave birth to the couple’s only child, daughter Seraphina, in March 1968. Watts wished to keep his private life just that, so the couple kept Seraphina out of the spotlight when she was a child. Very few photographs of her appeared in the newspapers and her upbringing was kept as normal as possible.
She grew up to marry lawyer Nick Watts and the couple had a daughter, Charlotte, making Watts a grandfather. Charlotte, who went on to become a model, described her grandpa as being very “humble” about fame. “He’s not all over the place, he’s just so cool,” she said.
Throughout Charlie and Shirley’s 57-year marriage, there were no embarrassing scandals, no arrests and little drama. It was the total opposite of the rock and roll lifestyle you would expect. His precisely drummed rhythm and quiet demeanour gave rise to the impression of a workmanlike musician, who was never flamboyant. In fact, he once admitted, “I don’t like leaving home – I never have – but you can’t be in a band and not play!”
According to biographer Robert Greenfield, who wrote A Journey Through America with The Rolling Stones after covering their 1972 US tour, the band members were invited to the famous Playboy Mansion.
Rather than talking to the glamorous models surrounding him, Charlie was more interested in Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner’s games room. Despite women throwing themselves at the band, his loyalty to Shirley never wavered.
End of an era
The Rolling Stones are one of the most prolific bands of their generation, releasing 121 singles, 63 studio and live albums, 77 music videos and a host of compilation albums, reissues and boxed sets.
As well as drumming for the Stones, Watts still harboured a passion for jazz and continued to play in various jazz bands in his spare time including the Charlie Watts Tentet, the Charlie Watts Quintet and the Charlie Watts Orchestra.
In June 2004, Watts was diagnosed with throat cancer, but was later given the all-clear. In 2012, the band celebrated their 50th anniversary with momentous live gigs.
Watts continued to shun the limelight in later life, preferring to spend his time on the stud farm he and Shirley ran. He was an animal lover and they had recently adopted a rescue greyhound, Suzie, from Forever Hounds Trust.
Following his sudden death, Watts’ band mates described him as the “backbone of the band”. His driving rhythms were the heartbeat of the world’s most enduring rock and roll group. Always humble, he had reportedly earned £165 million during his long career, but he simply described himself as “just very lucky”.
The rest of the Rolling Stones knew better. He was the creative energy that helped stop them from getting stale. Dancing to a Rolling Stones’ song means dancing to Charlie Watts’ perfect rhythms.
His sudden death came two weeks after he revealed he was having an emergency operation. Although the details weren’t specified, he said he would be unable to join the band on the rescheduled dates for their No Filter tour. It had been due to open on 26th September in St Louis, Missouri.
Even in poor health, he still had a dry sense of humour, reportedly saying, “For once, my timing’s a bit off.”
When Watts’ operation was revealed in early August, the Rolling Stones hoped he would be back and fighting fit ready for their massive 60th anniversary celebrations in 2022. They planned on releasing their first album of new and original songs in 17 years.
Now, the late star leaves the wonderful legacy of his music, and a lifetime of memories with his devoted wife.
After meeting in a recording studio 60 years ago, the couple shared a lifetime of happiness … proof that a meeting really can change your life.