CHICAGO (CBS Chicago/CBS News) — Charlie Watts, the drummer whose beat kept The Rolling Stones alive for six decades, has died.
Publicist Bernard Doherty said Tuesday that Watts “passed away peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family.” Watts was 80.
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“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,” Doherty said.
Bandmates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards each left tributes to Watts on Tuesday, using images rather than words.
— Mick Jagger (@MickJagger) August 24, 2021
— Keith Richards (@officialKeef) August 24, 2021
Watts had announced earlier this month he would not tour with the Stones in 2021 because of an undefined health issue. When Watts turned 80 in June, Jagger posted a birthday message and video montage of the drummer on Twitter.
Watts was a lifelong jazz lover, preferring Miles Davis to Elvis Presley. But Keith Richards used the records of Muddy Waters and other Chicago blues icons to give the Stones their name and much of their sound – and to convert Watts into a rock and roll drummer.
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The Rolling Stones, of course, have played in Chicago several dozen times. But their first visit to Chicago was not to play a concert, but to record at Chess Studios.
“They came here on their first tour of America and they recorded in Chess Studios. Chess Records was so seminal and so important to them that it was a dream come true when the first time they were in America they got to record at Chess,” said Ileen Gallagher, the curator of the touring “Exhibitionism” exhibit of Rolling Stones memorabilia that made a stop at Navy Pier in 2017.
“Chicago is the home of the blues and the Stones are a band because of the blues, so the fact that it’s here, it’s the way it should be,” said Chicago photographer Paul Natkin told WBBM Newsradio in a 2017 interview.
Chess Records was founded by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess in 1950. It is renowned as the recording home of Father of Rock and Roll Chuck Berry – who commuted to Chicago from St. Louis to record all his best-known hits – as well as R&B pioneer Bo Diddley, and blues icons Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and of course, Muddy Waters.
The Rolling Stones held a session at Chess Studios in June 1964. In his memoir, “Life,” guitarist Richards wrote that the band recorded 14 tracks in two days. The recordings included Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” – which became a hit for the Stones – as well as some blues and Berry covers, and an instrumental blues jam honoring the Near South Side street address of the Chess Studios, “2120 South Michigan Avenue.”
Richards also wrote that they encountered Muddy Waters on a ladder painting the ceiling at Chess. Seventeen years later in 1981, Waters would join them onstage at the old Checkerboard Lounge, at 423 E. 43rd St. in Bronzeville, for a concert that was memorialized on the album “Live at the Checkerboard Lounge.”
The Rolling Stones’ first Chicago show was at the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place in the fall of 1964, and they have played many dozens of shows since. They’ve played at long-gone venues such as the International Amphitheatre and the Chicago Stadium, and extant venues from Soldier Field to the United Center and what is now Guaranteed Rate Field – as well as the old Double Door in Wicker Park and the Aragon Ballroom in Uptown.
They most recently played to a sold-out crowd at Soldier Field in 2019. And as Lin Brehmer of WXRT radio recalled, Watts was as great as ever.
“And there was Charlie, what – 78 years old? Pounding the skins,” Brehmer said, “and he was phenomenal.”
Brehmer added: “One of the things that’s driving me crazy today is people saying, ‘Oh, what an underrated drummer.’ And if you paid any attention to the Rolling Stones, nobody underrated Charlie Watts.”
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Watts’ exact cause of death remained unknown Tuesday night, but he had been recovering from a medical procedure.