Why Charlie Watts was 'the secret' and 'the glue' that held the Rolling Stones together for almost 60 years

'He is the motive heart of the band,' says Rolling Stones collaborator Sugar Blue about the band’s late drummer.

'He is the motive heart of the band,' says Rolling Stones collaborator Sugar Blue

Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts died on Aug. 24 at the age of 80. (The Rolling Stones/Facebook)

Charles Robert "Charlie" Watts, one of the greatest drummers of all time and the heartbeat that anchored the Rolling Stones for close to 60 years, died yesterday at the age of 80. 

The late musician, who's played on all Rolling Stones studio albums and every tour, as well as with the Charlie Watts Quintet, leaves a formidable legacy of sophisticated playing and impeccable timing that will reverberate for generations to come. 

One of the many Rolling Stones songs that shows off Watts's skill as a drummer is Honky Tonk Women, from 1969.

The secret

Grammy-winning music writer and York University professor Rob Bowman met Watts in 2002, when he was interviewing him for a Rolling Stones book. The two stayed in touch and would have long conversations about jazz, Bowman told Q guest host Falen Johnson.

[Charlie Watts] was an amazing, gentle, humble man with an incredible mind for jazz history.- Rob Bowman

What made the Rolling Stones' signature sound was indeed the fact that Watts swung, which very few rock drummers do, because by the late '50s, rock and roll musicians were playing straights, explained Bowman.

"Keith Richards used to say, 'He put the roll in the rock.'"

Keith Richards (L) and Charlie Watts performs with the Rolling Stones at the O2 Arena in London Sunday. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Parsing Watts's influence, he said, "He'd lay back on two and four, and that snare was always falling a little bit behind, which created a certain tension with Keith Richards's guitar.

"That was part of the secret of the Rolling Stones sound. But another part of it is Charlie was a jazz drummer," said Bowman, making it hard for bands covering their songs to sound "anywhere close to the Stones."

"Charlie locking in with Keith was the core of the band."

The glue

Another textbook Charlie Watts four-on-the-floor beat that showcases his talent can be heard on the unique classic Stones tune Miss You, off their 1978 album Some Girls.

To add some flavour to that beat and many others, the band often called on Grammy-winning blues harmonica player Sugar Blue, who's been called the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica and lent his skills to many acts over the years.

He was a very cool, laid-back guy who was conservative with his speech and movements, which made him stand out from his "rocky and, kind of, starry kind of [bandmates]," said Blue about Watts. "And when the music was on, then it was like lighting a firecracker."

[Charlie Watts] was the fire that set the Stones alight. … For more than 50 years, man, he was the heart and soul of that band rhythmically. He lit the fuse, you know, and the rest of it is fireworks.- Sugar Blue
Man plays drums.
Watts performs with The Rolling Stones at the Empire Pool in Wembley in London, U.K., Sept. 7, 1973. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The key to holding the band together was not just Watts's musical contribution, observed Blue, adding that his character was also important to the spirit of the Stones and lent a rock-solid and steadfast base to the band.

"When everybody else was going crazy and being nutty and being outrageous as the Stones could be, Charlie was behind his drum set being cool and saying, 'Hey, OK, let's play the music, y'all,'" Blue said. "Without him, they wouldn't have stayed together as long as they did."

"Charlie was the glue," he added. "We all lost a great spirit and a beautiful musician."

Hear Falen Johnson's full interview with Grammy-winning music writer and York University professor Rob Bowman and blues harmonica player Sugar Blue, near the top of this page.

Written by Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic. Interviews produced by Mitch Pollock.