“Charlie [Watts] never changed over the years. When I first worked with the Stones, on Sticky Fingers, I wasn’t really noticing the individual personalities in the band. They just struck me as strong, innovative characters, searching for something in their sound and their groove. But as I got to know them, I realised that Charlie was just a wonderful, wonderful person.
“After many years I could never figure out why he was in the band, because he was not like the others. The rest of them were all frontmen, as it were – though I’m sure Mick wouldn’t agree. Even Bill had this persona. Charlie was just this quiet man at the back, but he was the one holding it all together.
“His energy was intense. I’ve worked with drummers who go through their drum heads after one session, because they hit them so hard. But while Charlie was not a heavy hitter – his touch was lighter because his background was in jazz – he had this ability to hit them the way they should be and get a very loud tone.
“Most drummers hit the hi-hat at the same time as the snare, which is a very normal thing to do. But Charlie would always lift his hand off the hi-hat, so there would just be the snare beat alone. Nothing around it, which was a dream to record. That, in itself, made his drums sound louder and more powerful. I didn’t figure that out until I was working on Some Girls with them, but it was terrific to discover.
“Excuse the pun, but he was so in tune with his drums. There was one session when I got there before anyone arrived. I was sitting down at his drumkit and decided to tune the snare up a little, so I literally did a half turn on two of the lugs. When Charlie came in that night, he sat down and hit his snare drum. And after the first hit he just stopped and looked up in shock. I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ He said, ‘Someone’s touched my drums!’ It was such a minimal thing, but he knew the response so well. It was amazing that he could immediately pick up on such a small change.
“Charlie was No 1 when it comes to drummers. What he did for the Stones’ music, no-one else could do that. That’s why Steve Jordan is in the band now, because he just emulated Charlie. He learned how to play by watching and listening to him. A lot of drummers I’ve worked with have said, ‘I want to sound like Charlie Watts.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, good luck there, mate. You don’t sound anything like him.’ It’s all in the style. They think they have it, but Charlie had so many subtleties that made such a difference when it came to the big picture. Coming from a jazz background, his playing had dynamics in it. It wasn’t just thump-thump-thump. He was extraordinary.”
As told to Rob Hughes