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Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts dies at 80: Playing the drums was all he ever wanted

Kristin McGrath
USA TODAY

In the band that has come to embody rock 'n' roll’s untamed spirit both on- and offstage, Charlie Watts was the one who kept steady time.

Watts, the drummer who provided the backbone of the Rolling Stones’ songs for more than half a century, has died, his publicist said. He was 80.

Bernard Doherty said Tuesday that Watts “passed away peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family.” No cause of death was given.

“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," he added.

Earlier this month, Watts was forced to back out of the resumption of the Rolling Stones' No Filter tour this fall after having an undisclosed medical procedure. Drummer Steve Jordan was enlisted to replace Watts on the outing, which was scheduled to begin Sept. 26 in St. Louis. 

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Watts gave his blessing for the band to return to the road as well, saying he didn't want fans who have been holding tickets to be disappointed. 

Born Charles Robert Watts on June 2, 1941, in London, Watts grew up loving jazz music. Before playing the drums, Watts tried to learn to play the banjo.

“Yeah, I bought a banjo, and I saw all these dots in a book,” he told Down Beat in 1987. “Did you ever see a banjo book or a guitar book? I couldn’t have done that. Oh dear, all these little dot things.”

Watts turned his banjo into a makeshift drum by removing its neck and used it to hone his rhythm until his father bought him a set of drums, which he learned to play by listening to the jazz musicians he admired. He never took a formal lesson.

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Charlie Watts on the final show of The Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary tour in Washington, D.C.

After completing school, Watts found a job at an advertising agency and continued to play drums part-time for various jazz bands. When a friend persuaded him to join a newly formed band, the Rolling Stones, in January 1963, Watts figured the band would last three months at the most.

Within a few years, the Rolling Stones were one of the biggest bands in the world, leading the British Invasion alongside The Beatles. Despite the band’s star status and rebellious image, Watts was wary of his sudden fame. Throughout his career, he rarely gave interviews.

“Playing the drums was all I was ever interested in,” he told The Observer in 2000. “The rest of it made me cringe.”

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Drummer Charlie Watts during 'It's Only Rock 'n Roll (but I Like It)' in Los Angeles where the Rolling Stones kicked off a 50th anniversary tour in 2013.

While his bandmates reveled in their growing fame backstage, Watts had a family life back home. He and his wife, Shirley Ann Shepard, were married shortly after the Stones formed in 1964, and the couple had a daughter, Seraphina, in 1968.

Throughout his career in one of the biggest bands in rock, Watts never lost his love for jazz. He founded and performed with various jazz ensembles over the years, including the 32-piece Charlie Watts Orchestra, and released several tribute albums that honored his musical heroes.

In 2004, Watts was diagnosed with throat cancer. "I thought I was going to die when they told me I had it, which is what most people go through,” he told the Mirror in 2012. "You think, 'Ah, well, that’s it.' I didn’t know how to deal with it. The lowest point was the moment he told me I had cancer."

Watts underwent treatment, and, with his cancer in remission, entered his fifth decade of recording and performing with the band he thought would never last. In September 2005, the Stones released "A Bigger Bang," their most recent album of original music (the band released an album of cover songs, "Blue & Lonesome" in 2016). The "A Bigger Bang Tour" lasted two years (from August 2005 to August 2007), visited six continents and grossed more than $500 million. 

Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, Charlie Watts and Keith Richard in Los Angeles in 2013

Watts was gearing up to perform with the Stones again in North America in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic derailed those plans. Instead, the band performed their hit "You Can't Always Get What You Want" from each of their respective quarantines for the "One World: Together At Home" TV special in April 2020.

Throughout the years, Watts and his bandmates received eight Grammy Award nominations and four wins, including a lifetime achievement award in 1986 as well as best rock album for "Voodoo Lounge" in 1994. The band was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, and in 2016, Watts ranked 12th on Rolling Stone magazine's 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time list.

“It’d be nice to be rich and grow old,” Watts told Rolling Stone magazine in 1997. “I’d hate to be shuffling ’round Brixton Market in a pair of slippers. Then again, I’ll probably be shuffling ’round the garden."

Contributing: Charles Trepany