Joe Vitale Remembers Charlie Watts: ‘A Drummer’s Drummer’

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Charlie Watts drums for his second band besides The Rolling Stones, The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie, in the Casino in Herisau, Switzerland on January 13, 2010. Photo: Poiseon AG via Wikimedia CCA 2.0.

Legendary jazz and rock drummer Charlie Watts, a member of The Rolling Stones since the band’s inception in 1963, died on Tuesday, August 24, and fellow drummer and longtime fan Joe Vitale paid tribute to Watts in an exclusive interview just a few hours after the news broke.

“It is with immense sadness that we announce the death of our beloved Charlie Watts,” read a statement from his spokesman, tweeted by the band. “He passed away peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family.”

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Rolling Stones bandmates Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were among the first of dozens of musicians to pay homage to Watts in separate tweets on Tuesday.

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Joe Vitale on Charlie Watts’ ‘Backbeat From Hell’

Also a keyboard and flute player, first-generation U.S. Stones and Charlie Watts fan Joe Vitale built a resume that includes tours/sessions with Amboy Dukes, Joe Walsh, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and multiple sub-iterations, Eagles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Dan Fogelberg, Ringo Starr, John Entwistle, The Beach Boys, John Fogerty, and dozens more, plus solo projects by Stones Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Bill Wyman.

Vitale, now 72, has also written and recorded three solo albums (“Roller Coaster Weekend,” 1974;  “Plantation Harbor,” 1981; and “Speaking In Drums,” 2008) and scribed a wild memoir, “Backstage Pass: Stories From On the Road & In the Studio” (2008), with his wife Susie Vitale.

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Joe Vitale on the road in Europe with Crosby, Stills & Nash in fall 2014. Photo: Joe Vitale on Drums website.

Vitale, from Canton, Ohio, and this writer, raised in North Miami, Florida, and the Los Angeles area and a jazz and rock drummer since age 12 but a non-pro, first crossed paths in 1981. Vitale was recording “Plantation Harbor” with producer Bill Szymczyk at Bayshore Recording in Miami and various other studios including Rudy Records in L.A., and I was Editorial Director in the Media Relations department at Elektra/Asylum, his record label. My task then was to interview him about the album’s sessions and songs, then write the artist biography that would be sent in a press kit along with the album to record reviewers.

Fast-forwarding 40 years to August 24, 2021, Vitale and I were Zooming to talk about his experiences recording in Miami for two other related book projects, but we wrapped our session remembering Charlie Watts and his enormous influence over the past six decades. His style and sound were widely imitated, never duplicated.

“Charlie was the perfect drummer…a drummer’s drummer,” who laid down “a backbeat from hell,” Vitale said.

Here’s Vitale’s complete tribute to Watts:

Here’s a transcript, slightly edited for flow:

Stephen K. Peeples: …and Charlie Watts has left us.

Joe Vitale: I know. I was workin’ down the street here today, a real quick session, and had my phone on silent, and it lit up and I looked over at it and it was a friend of mine who said, “Charlie Watts passed away.” I was, like, stunned, because I didn’t know he was that ill. I knew he couldn’t make the tour, and Steve Jordan took over, but my God, I didn’t know he was that ill.

And nobody knows—you know, that’s their private family business—but nobody knows: Was it COVID? Was it heart attack? Nobody knows what he died of, and I’m sure we’ll find out. That doesn’t matter.

The point is that, man, I’ve known and listened and loved this man since 1964, man. I mean, that’s a long time. I got every Stones album that ever came out. You know all about it.

He’s the kind of guy that when, me as a drummer, I’d walk into a studio and sometimes the producer would go, “Alright, put on your Charlie Watts hat.” That’s how iconic his playing was. He was a human being, a great drummer, but he was also a style, and producers referred to him.

They also referred to Ringo and Bonham. Those are the three guys I ever got told, with all the great drummers out there, [producers] would say, “We need some Ringo drums… We need some Charlie Watts,” or “We need some John Bonham, some big stuff.” But Charlie Watts was always mentioned in styles, different styles, when you’re recordin’.

Peeples: How would you describe his style? When somebody says to you, “Put some Charlie Watts on it,” what do you do differently?…

Vitale: Play the song. He played the song, nothing fancy. If you’re gonna make a fill, make it count, or don’t play a fill. And [his] timing was perfect. His groove was so great. He really hardly did anything as far as, he wasn’t fancy, he didn’t try to show off. He just played drums. He was the perfect drummer! You could always count on the groove. Every once in a while, he’d throw in a fill, but it was the perfect fill. And you bein’ a drummer, if you ever played in a cover band, and they did a Rolling Stones song, it was awesome playing what he played, ‘cause it was perfect. What he chose to play for a fill was like, “Yeah, I wish I’d have thought of that.” He was a drummer’s drummer, man. He was great.

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Charlie Watts on the big screen, playing with The Rolling Stones at Hyde Park during the “50 and Counting…” Tour in 2013. Photo: Gorup de Besanez, via Wikimedia CCA 3.0.

Peeples: His track to “Get Off My Cloud,” for instance…

Vitale: Oh, God!

Peeples: When we’re 12- and 13-year-old drummers comin’ up, it’s like, “Oh, my God, I gotta learn that right now!

Vitale: Oh, immediately, I know! And the local bands and the cover bands I was in as a teenager, we played so many Stones songs.

Peeples: Now, one of the teenage bands in Miami got a hold of “Fortune Teller” and they played a killer version of that…

Vitale: Oh, man.

Peeples: Stones cover bands… But I think you hit on it—Charlie is a style unto himself.

Vitale: Yeah. He’s a style, man; you can tell, you know what I’m talkin’ about, being a drummer. He had that hi-hat thing where when the snare hit, he didn’t play the hi-hat [demonstrates]. He would just lift his stick [off the hit-hat on the 2 and the 4], because first of all, it physically left room to really smack that snare. Secondly, that’s all you heard from the drums for that split second was the snare.

It was a backbeat from hell, man; it was killer. He really had a feel.

I wish how you sometimes see online, they have, “John Bonham Isolated Tracks from ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’”…I’ve not found isolated tracks from Charlie, and I don’t know, maybe they don’t exist, but I’d love to just hear just Charlie.

Peeples: Yeah, I’m with you on that.

Vitale: You know what I love the most about him? I saw a photo of him from behind his drums not too long ago—it was a couple of years ago—and if you look down, there’s a Ludwig Speed King Pedal on that kit.

Peeples: (under his breath) Yessss.

Vitale: With all the amazing chain drive pedals, he’s got a Ludwig Speed King Pedal, which [drummers] we all grew up with ‘em, man.

Peeples: I still got mine!

Vitale: Oh, I got two or three of ‘em down there. Yeah, yeah, I know.

Peeples: Alright, Joe…

Vitale: Listen, awesome to talk to you…

Special thanks to Joe and Susie Vitale, and to Rory Aronsky for the transcript.

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Coda: Watts the Last Word

In this fascinating 2008 interview, Charlie Watts talks about his drumming style and how he developed the swing he brought to The Rolling Stones and his myriad jazz aggregations.


Stephen K. Peeples is a Grammy-nominated multi-media writer-producer and radio/record-industry veteran raised in Miami and Los Angeles. As of late summer 2021, he is co-authoring a book with John Van Hamersveld commemorating the forthcoming 60th anniversary of the pop culture legend’s iconic poster for “The Endless Summer” in 2023. Peeples is also developing an art book-biography of notorious Texas Artlaw Boyd Elder, as well as the backstage memoirs of Cindy Johnson and Jeri Jenkins of Home At Last, the Miami-based concierge service for rock stars recording at Criteria and Bayshore Studios. For more info and original stories, visit Peeples’ website and YouTube channel.


Article: Joe Vitale Remembers Charlie Watts: ‘A Drummer’s Drummer’
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Category: News and Reviews
Article Source: StephenKPeeples.com