One of my favorite musicians, from my favorite band, has passed away. Here is something I wrote in 2012 about Charlie’s playing.
December 3-4, 1969, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, Sheffield, Alabama
LP Sticky Fingers April 1971
Single June, 1971 US, charting at number 28
Recording the White Man’s Blues in the Deep South.
Keith and Mick stood at the same microphone at Muscle Shoals, lights dimmed, splitting a fifth of bourbon, and simultaneously sang the melodies and harmonies on the three songs that they had recorded over three days, “Brown Sugar,” “You Got to Move,” and “Wild Horses.” That’s your rock ‘n’ roll fantasy right there, pal. A six-piece band working in a tiny converted coffin factory across from an Alabama graveyard, on an eight-track recorder, with no computer editing or Autotune, record three songs, representing 30% of one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll records of all time. “Wild Horses” is often referred to as a country song, but it is simply a crushingly honest Stones ballad that just happens to have a country twang to it. But the chord progression and melody could just as easily lend itself to a jazz standard interpretation or a soul treatment. Indeed, Arthur Alexander, Ray Charles, or James Carr could all have made “Wild Horses” more R&B than country…..
[Excerpted — jumping now to Charlie part.]
….. Every player on the recording is emotionally invested in the song. This includes the stoic Charlie Watts. Charlie’s playing might in fact be the most dramatic element of the song. Look, Charlie had been on the road too. No one in the band had a more stable domestic life than he. It would be perhaps more painful for him to leave home than anyone else. All this “backbone of the band,” “just doing his job” stuff, like he’s punching a clock, collecting a paycheck — dependable Charlie, and so on — is just all lazy cliché. All you need to hear is how Charlie chooses his entrances and exits on “Wild Horses” to understand how much of an emotional punch he lends this music. No drummer commands an arrangement like him, coming in and dropping out at just the right moments. 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. And then, almost as quickly, he drops out again, letting Mick and Keith carry that weight and open up their veins for you. And just as the singers are at their most vulnerable, who is there to pick them (and you) up? Charlie, like James Brown’s Fabulous Flames, behind him all the way.
The second time Charlie enters, he rolls the snare drum in earlier on the verse than the first time he entered, when he came in at the chorus. Now he enters at the halfway point of the verse. He leaves space, an impossibly drawn-out beat number two. A deep breath.This is Charlie at his most Zen-jazz. How does he manage to lay out of that middle-eight section (at 3:00)? This is the most “up” part of the song. Most drummers would be pounding through that part first and foremost. But instead, counterintuitively, he waits until the next verse. The six-note drum fill going into the last chorus (at 5:07), is one of the most devastating of all Charlie’s fills. This is an emotional song – lyrics, music, and yet, Charlie’s choices are what provide the song the most drama.
The whole band, for all the egos and tension, knew when to leave the right space. No one is looking to showboat here. Bill, in particular plays no more notes than necessary, a less-is-more economy that makes the impact of the song that much more dramatic. “We want a soft warm lovely sound from you, Wyman,” Booth quotes Keith as saying. “Stop donkeyin’ about.” There is a killer note on the bass (at about 1:33,) where Bill seems to unintentionally land just below the intended note and slides bluesily to match the actual note, like a soul singer would.
Despite the deep emotion of the recording, the session, as described by Booth, sounded like the musicians were having a good time, fueled by cocaine, pot, beer, and Jack Daniels. Keith made a passing observation: “Gram Parsons gets better coke than the Mafia. From some Black Panther dentist in Watts.” The band had different terms for mistakes that can kill a good take. “Clams” is a common musician term. But the Stones had a whole glossary. Ruining one otherwise good take of “Wild Horses,” Keith announced, “I accept the Golden Prune.”
“Lights out, mouths shut,” said Mick. Then they laid it down.