What distinguished Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts from so many of his rock ‘n’ roll peers?
His grace, for one. Unlike, say, the Who’s Keith Moon or Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, who were known to toss the odd appliance through an open hotel window, Watts was dignified, a gentleman rocker if ever there was one.
But his playing, too, was different. Watts, who died Tuesday at the age of 80, didn’t hit with the ferocity of Bonham, or occupy every empty space with a frenzy of fills like Moon. His style was restrained and tasteful — words not often associated with rock ‘n’ roll.
And that austerity, say fellow drummers, is what made Watts special.
“Charlie brought the roll to rock,” says Hugo Burnham, former drummer for the influential English post-punk band Gang of Four. “He knew how to swing and truly epitomized the less-is-more dynamic.”
Where many other rock drummers are aggressive, pushing the beat, Burnham says Watts was subdued — uncommonly so — content to serve the needs of the song, not his ego.
“Charlie was a . . . hair behind the beat, but still on it,” says Burnham, now an assistant professor at Endicott College. “And there was an unpredictability about his minimal fills. Like the great reggae drummers, you never quite know when it’s coming, but it’ll be a tiny bit different.”
Still at it more than 57 years after the release of their debut album, the Rolling Stones are set to resume their “No Filter Tour” in St. Louis next month. Watts, the group’s oldest member, had recently undergone a surgical procedure, and the band had announced earlier this month that he would not be joining them. He’s being replaced by Steve Jordan, a veteran of guitarist Keith Richards’s band the X-Pensive Winos.
Drummer Dave Mattacks, a onetime member of the eminent English folk-rock outfit Fairport Convention, said it was Watts’s understatement that set him apart. Mattacks, who has played sessions or shows with everyone from Elton John to Brian Eno, Joan Armatrading to Jethro Tull, said the greatness of the Stones drummer is often revealed in what he didn’t play rather than what he did.
“There are still a lot of musicians out there, on all instruments, who haven’t gotten past measuring players purely by their technical prowess,” says Mattacks, who lives in Marblehead. “Charlie would be the first to tell you that it wasn’t about his chops. He had a great appreciation for jazz — for [Duke] Ellington and for Post-bop drummers like Roy Haynes and Max Roach.
“There are a lot of drummers who play in time, but as Keith [Richards] said, ‘This music needs to roll,’ and Charlie had that slight bounce in his time feel. He imbued all those tracks with a sense of spring.”
Mattacks said people who would rank Watts low on a list of great drummers because he didn’t play dazzling solos at lightning speed are, well, numbskulls.
“I can’t bear that,” Mattacks said. “What is this, a [expletive] competition? It’s music. There aren’t many drummers who could do, or did, what Charlie did.”
Tom Arey, who plays drums for Peter Wolf and Vapors of Morphine, among others, said you only have to drop the needle on one of the Rolling Stones’ 30-plus studio albums to understand what Watts contributed to the band’s sound.
“Charlie kept everything really simple,” said Arey. “What’s hitting you when you listen to those Stones records is the feel, and that’s Charlie, playing the right thing at the right time.”
In his 2012 book “Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones,” Bill Janovitz writes about Watts’s quiet entrance in the song “Wild Horses.”
“He understands that the crack of that snare when it drops is going to hit you square between the shoulder blades and drop you to your knees,” Janovitz writes. “And then, almost as quickly, he drops out again, letting Mick and Keith carry that weight and open up their veins for you.”
Janovitz, who also fronts the Boston band Buffalo Tom, said Watts was the antithesis of a rock ‘n’ roll cliche. (Though hardly a teetotaler, Watts was not a hard partier like Richards, and remained married to his wife Shirley for 57 years.)
“The through line with Charlie is elegance,” said Janovitz. “The way he conducted himself personally, and the absence of pretension in his playing.”
At Berklee College of Music, the news of Watts’s death has folks in the percussion department rethinking their syllabuses for the fall.
“All my students are going to be listening to ‘Satisfaction,’” said drummer Jackie Santos, who parlayed a gig with Tavares, among others, into a professorship at Berklee. “Charlie Watts was a quiet storm. You don’t have to play triple forte. You can make a statement playing pianissimo.”
When Steve Wilkes heard that Watts had died, the Berklee drum professor said he and his wife drove to Newbury Comics in Norwood and bought the 50th-anniversary vinyl edition of the Rolling Stones album “Let It Bleed.”
“Charlie’s style can never be a thing of the past because when you create something so unique, it never goes out of style,” said Wilkes. “If you can make people move, nod their head, or grin, you’re swinging, and Charlie Watts was swinging.”
Mark Shanahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.