In the fall of 1994, Chad Smith was in the middle of a soundcheck at the Rose Bowl, where the Red Hot Chili Peppers were about to open for the Rolling Stones, when his drum tech started gesturing to him with his head. “I look over and he was giving me one of those [motions], like, ‘Hey, look over here,’ and I look by the monitor desk and Charlie Watts was standing there. It was a warm Los Angeles afternoon, and he’s in a perfect suit. I’m like, [mock-sheepishly] ‘Ah, shit, Charlie fuckin’ Watts is watching me …’ “
As it turned out, the Stones drummer wasn’t there to offer any kind of critique. He just wanted to talk drums. “I finish, I go over: ‘Charlie, nice to meet you.’ [Imitating soft English accent] ‘Oh, man, you sound great.’ ‘Oh, wow, thank you.’ And I had a green-sparkle drum set at the time. He says, ‘Oh, is that a new one?’ And I said, ‘No, the company makes them.’ And he goes, ‘I’ve got one; [jazz drummer] Mel Lewis has one like that.’ That was his thing; he connected with the color of the drums.”
For Smith, the moment perfectly captured both the late Stones drummer‘s low-key demeanor and his discerning aesthetic sense, the way he knew exactly what he wanted out of his instrument both visually and sonically. It would take nearly 25 years, but Smith, a longtime Stones fan, eventually got to enjoy some more extended face time with Watts — and soak up decades’ worth of drumming lore — when spent a day with him in Oxnard, California, touring the headquarters of the DW drum company and interviewing him for the Drum Channel. Smith took some time on Wednesday to reminisce about that magical day, and to reflect on Watts’ unassuming mastery behind the kit.
I did have a chance to spend a whole day with [Charlie]. … This company DW, he plays their snare drums and I also do, and I got a chance to hang out with him. We went through their factory, [me and] him and Jim Keltner, another very good friend of his and another amazing drummer. And then I got to interview him for about an hour and a half, and, you know, Charlie Watts, he’s known to be kind of reserved and he doesn’t do a lot of interviews that I know of, but he was gracious and he wanted to talk drums. And mainly, all he wanted to talk about was jazz: … [saxophonist] Gerry Mulligan and, “I heard Charlie Parker and I wanted to go to New York and do that.” …
We went out to lunch at this little restaurant that the president of the company, Don Lombardi, takes everybody to. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall place. It was in the afternoon and it was probably around Tuesday or Wednesday and there’s like six people in there and we walk in. And, you know, I’ve been with other recognizable people, and you see [people] pointing and the whole thing, but it was interesting to see — first of all, he was impeccably dressed, as he’s famous for, beautiful linen light-blue suit and his shoes were not the same color as his shirt but matched in a really tasteful, classy way. He looked super cool as he always did. And drummers kind of have a reputation as the gruff guys in the background and the knuckle-dragging drummers that [mock-caveman voice] hit stuff for a living. Charlie wasn’t that; he was smart and articulate, but he was really interested in everything, and he was very good friends with Keltner and wanted to know how his family was, and what he was playing on and what new instrument ideas [he had]. He was just very curious, which I found enlightening because he could just sit back and say, “Hey, this is what I do and that’s it. I’m good.” He seemed really youthful in that way.
But all the people at the restaurant, like the busboy, would come over: “Can I get you a new small plate?” And the guy would come over with the water, like everyone in the restaurant wanted to be around the flame, and he was very gracious to all of them. Super, super nice, and seemed very authentic. No airs and no put-ons, just talking to the people [at DW who were] making the shells and the edges of the drums, and wanting to know what their thought process was about how they’re making these beautiful instruments and always so complimentary. He just kind of flowed with this grace.
And again, he just wanted to talk about all things jazz. He was a collector of drum sets of drummers like Elvin Jones and Mel Lewis and he would acquire their instruments and he’s like, “I never see them. … They’re in my storage somewhere, but I get them because I want it to be known that these instruments are taken care of.” So there’s a warehouse full of drums, like, amazing drums, that Charlie Watts has, and he’s not a collector like, “Oh, I’m going to try to collect this one, and sell this,” or anything like that. He just wanted them to have a home and be taken care of. I found that really nice and sweet and kind.
And he told me, he said, “Chad, I see so many drummers who want to play fast and a lot of notes, and that’s great. I marvel at that. But the most important thing is your ears, to be a good listener.” He says, “All the great jazz players, because they improvised so much, you had to be a great listener. And I learned that really young.”
The [John] Bonhams and those guys, there was more of technique thing … and Ginger Baker with his long drum solos. I don’t think Charlie Watts ever did a drum solo, did he? He was [in] a supportive role: “This is what I do; this is my part in the band. And I know how to do it, I do it well, I make it feel good. …”
[And] he kept playing forever. Ringo Starr, also an incredibly amazing musician, but you gotta remember, [the Beatles] stopped touring in 1966. The Stones never really stopped, and kept making records, so we’ve had this full spectrum [of work].
Going back to what I was saying, he was curious. Even the Chili Peppers, [he’d ask], “What are you listening to?” or “What do you like?” Interested in new things, but not trying to copy [them] — just being open to that influence and it’s going to seep into your playing. … And I think that that’s why [his playing was so adaptable to various eras]. To me, it didn’t sound like [the Stones] were trying [to play current musical styles] in a premeditated way. It was just, “This is how we do it” — still Mick Jagger, still Keith Richards, still the Stones, and still Charlie. Like “Miss You,” four on the floor? They weren’t doing that in 1965, 1970, but it was great! It didn’t sound like some disco rip-off. It was the Stones doing that because they liked it.
What a body of work. I really love the Mick Taylor–era Stones, the Exiles, and Sticky Fingers. … I mean, you put “Brown Sugar” on, and you’d have to be dead not to dance to that. It’s amazing. And again, nothing fancy, but just the feel of it. … A Charlie Watts backbeat, it’s where you place it. Fast or slow, he was great. He could play those ballads so great: “Wild Horses,” and, I don’t know, name me a Rolling Stones song that doesn’t feel great. You can get lucky once or twice and make a recording, but to do it for 58 years playing so many iconic hits, to me that just speaks for itself, his body of work. And that’s what’s so great, that we’ll always have that, the legacy of that, and we’ll be able to listen to that music forever. That’s a beautiful gift.
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