After nearly thirty years as the rhythmic backbone of the Rolling Stones, drummer Charlie Watts is still a man who prefers not to lead but to be led. "I'm big on letting people do what they want, which doesn't make for good bandleaders," he admits in a disarmingly soft voice, running a hand nervously through his silvery, slicked-back hair. "If I had led the Rolling Stones, they wouldn't have gotten anywhere. We'd still be running around trying to find an amp, thirty years later."
Watts, who turned fifty on June 2nd, has stepped out to center stage only twice in his career. The first time was in 1986 with the debut of the Charlie Watts Orchestra, a big big band featuring more than thirty of England's finest contemporary jazz musicians. This year, Watts is back in the spotlight as author, illustrator and bandleader of From One Charlie. . . . The box set, which honors alto-sax god Charlie Parker, includes a reprinting of Watts' rare, early-Sixties children's book, Ode to a Highflying Bird, and a disc of newly recorded music inspired by the book and performed by the Charlie Watts Quintet.
As the title playfully implies, From One Charlie . . . (which was issued in the U.S. by Continuum Records) is Watts' way of repaying a long-standing debt of inspiration to Parker and his generation of be-bop pioneers. In the late Fifties, when the other future Stones were digging blues Buddhas like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, the teenage Watts had pledged his allegiance to jazz cats like Parker, Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon. He used to sleep in his favorite suit to get the same rumpled look he saw in photographs of Parker. He also spent long afternoons with his boyhood chum David Green, who plays bass in the Quintet, listening to Parker records, especially those featuring trumpeter Red Rodney. Appropriately, when the Charlie Watts Quintet performed in New York in June to promote the box set, Rodney jammed with the group on Parker's "Relaxin' at Camarillo."
Like I said to David after rehearsal," Watts says, "there we were, sitting at home when we were fifteen, playing those bloody records. And here we are in New York, playing with the guy and being asked whether we want him to join us for one number or two!"
Watts was an aspiring graphic designer when he wrote and illustrated the original Ode to a Highflying Bird in 1960. It was done as a children's book exercise for his portfolio, with a play-school-style narrative of Parker's life ("Soon everybody was digging what Bird blew. . . . His nest was made") and simple, whimsical drawings (Parker as a little brown bird with sunglasses and a tiny sax). But it was actually published four years later in the wake of Watts's success with the Rolling Stones, by the same company that issued the Stones' monthly fan magazines. The limited run sold out, and except for the deliciously droll cartoon strip he drew for the back cover of Between the Buttons, Watts gave up his art career.
Last year, Mark Heyward of the British label UFO Records offered to reprint Ode and suggested that Watts make a record to go with it. That led to the idea of cutting some Parker-inspired music and the formation of the Charlie Watts Quintet, which features David Green along with saxophonist Peter King (who played in Watts's big band and wrote the five original tunes on the Charlie disc), pianist Brian Lemon and fiery teenage trumpeter Gerard Presencer. Actually, Watts plays jazz a lot like he plays rock & roll — simple but swinging, with minimal flourish — and the Quintet cooks solidly in the Parker tradition, with a relaxed but respectful air.
"I'm not breaking new ground here," Watts says frankly. "It's almost too restrictive for Peter or young Gerard. It's within the bounds of Parker. But it's a book, we've interpreted the book musically, and within that can come wonderful music."
Aside from possibly recording From One Charlie . . . live with the Quintet (singer Bernard Fowler read the narrative in New York), Watts does not envision ditching his main gig for a full-time jazz career. "I don't really love rock & roll," he says. "I love jazz. But I love playing rock & roll with the Stones."
That said, he professes near-total ignorance about the group's future. He doesn't know for sure if Bill Wyman is in or out of the group. "Either Bill wants to leave, or Bill has left," he says. "We won't let him." When asked about the status of negotiations for a new Stones record deal (the band's Sony Music deal expired with Flashpoint), he just shrugs his shoulders and says: "I leave it up to Mick. I'd help him, but he rather enjoys that position, hanging with those sorts of people. And he's good at it."
And although he can't envision going out on another mammoth tour like the 1989-90 Steel Wheels trek, Watts long ago learned to never say never again. "I said no thirty years ago," he says. "Nobody believes me anymore.
"That's why Bill can't leave," he adds with a dry chuckle. "The Stones, it's like joining the army. You can't get out."
From One Charlie . . . is available from Continuum Records, 380 Ludlow Avenue, Cranford, NJ 07016.
This is a story from the September 5, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.