Charlie Watts’s Sense of Style and its African-American Jazz Influences

The article below was written shortly after the death of Charlie Watts in 2021, and it was gathering dust, when I noticed recently that Christie’s was auctioning off his collection of books and jazz memorabilia, including a 1959 concert poster for a performance by Count Basie, and then I saw a quote by Mick Jagger saying how much he missed him. Also, I’d come across Jason Jules’s book about the great dress sense of African American artists and musicians in the 20th century, Black Ivy: A Revolt in Style, which explores the significance of a way of dressing that Watts hugely admired, along with the music. So I figured it was time to let this little blog out into the world.

We know we’ve lost a legend with the passing of Charlie Watts, whose evolving yet ever dignified style can no more be replaced than the beat of his drum. That the Rolling Stones drummer preferred jazz piano and tailored suits to electric guitars and sequined shirts is well known, yet the legend still fascinates with its very human paradox. For lovers of the Stones who thrilled to Jagger’s gyrations and longed to be one of them, it remains hard to fathom that a man who played so successfully and essentially in one of the greatest rock bands of all time chose to remain, in Sue Lawley’s words on a 2001 episode of Desert Island Discs, “a little apart from it all”.

From around 1965 onwards, umpteen photos of the band members declare the apartness of Charlie Watts – an apartness never of comradery or love, but an apartness of personality registered in expressions on his face and in his clothes. So, as we investigate the inimitable style of Charlie Watts, we must take in the whole man, heart and all, and ask what his clothes said about how he saw the world, who he was, and how his attire synced up with that unique drumbeat. For, like the rest of the Stones but unlike so many cautious men, Watts used clothes to reveal his personality and passions, rather than hiding behind his apparel to keep his individuality a thing unknowable and safe from ridicule.

Because the point has been missed in countless articles on Mr. Watts, this crucial similarity with Mick, Keith, and Ronnie (and, previously, Brian, Bill and Mick Taylor) is well worth underlining at the start. All the Stones have fantastic flair, they’ve just expressed it in very different ways. They’ve worn their hearts on their literal sleeves just as they always have played their music with verve, and that vital understanding of each other’s personality has been crucial to their magnificent longevity. The so-called excesses of the 1970s and 1980s encouraged most of the band members to turn up for a gig in colourful gear, and Watts dabbled in the fun when he had to for appearance’s sake, but he knew the fashions of those eras were largely lost on him, did not jibe with the strings of his inner bow.

His heart was elsewhere, imagining previous eras when the music got that swing. Just listen to Watts talk about his dreams in a 2002-03 interview for According to the Rolling Stones: “New York was the home of what I dreamed I wanted to be, which was a black drummer playing in 52nd Street. Of course, I’m not black and the scene had gone by the time I got there, but New York was still a very hip jazz centre.” In a 2012 interview for GQ, Watts again returned to his dreams. “I always thought I was [saxophonist] Lester Young or something. I’ve always lived in that dream world. I still do. I still imagine that I’m playing in a club in New York – the Apollo or somewhere in Chicago. It’s what I love. I collect jazz things.”

Watts’s comment is all the more intriguing when we consider that he was responding to the GQ interviewer’s remark, “You say the old English style suits you now, and yet you were wearing double-breasted suits in your twenties.” Often called “the quintessential English gentleman”, Watts, however, did not hesitate to explain his double-breasted tastes by looking across time and space to an America in the aftermath of World War II, and not a white America. While African-American rhythm and blues gripped the souls of the other Stones, Watts, by his own admission, possessed a lifelong fantasy world almost entirely inhabited by suave, “very hip” black jazz men.

That these men deeply influenced his playing style is beyond dispute. Dave Barbarossa, former drummer to Adam & the Ants and Bow Wow Wow, says Watts’s “fills, transitions, had a lot of swing. These he would have got from a jazz background. His back-beat was crafty, minimal, very tasteful, never too much, but always enough to get your feet tapping.” Never too much, always enough – restraint and power walked hand in hand for Watts. “Most of the music I love to play on record is by black American musicians, 40s and 50s stuff,” he said in another interview. “A lot of white bands to me are vastly overrated.”

As Alphonso D. McClendon argues in Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation, African-American jazz musicians donned their suits, ties and pocket squares with a brave panache that required them to stake their careers on whether they could get away with manifesting such style. They rebelled in those suits, just as they rebelled in music that declared they had every right to stand centre stage and be admired and respected at the same time that fellow African-Americans were living down south in a kind of apartheid hell. “The adoption of exclusivity through appearance and behaviour . . . transformed jazz artists into idols and public figures, despite difference of culture,” McClendon says. “Male musicians transformed the suit by adding their hyper-individuality and cultural style, creating the modern-day dandy.”

We need to clock the hyper-individual assertiveness of those suits if we are properly to appreciate Watts’s own style. His dress sense did not directly descend from the early nineteenth-century attentions of Beau Brummell, who took five hours daily on a dressing regime that produced the essence of English understatement. Chief influencer to the Prince of Wales, Brummell was no rebel. By way of contrast, black musicians whom Watts praised –such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Chico Hamilton, Johnny Dodds, Jelly Roll Morton, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus, Dexter Gordon and Duke Ellington (dubbed “the Aristocrat of Jazz”) — could not but be rebels in a racist land, merely by claiming the right to dress and play their music with attention-absorbing style, and, to an unknowable degree, be desired.

Another of Watts’s heroes was Billy Eckstine, whom Watts described in According to the Rolling Stones as “a fabulous crooner and the first artist I ever saw”. In his GQ interview, Watts returned to the forgotten African-American star: “I fell in love with a lot of Hollywood – well, pop singers at the time, like Billy Eckstine, who favoured really distinctive collars on his shirts. Wonderful-looking man as well.” That Watts characterised old classic Hollywood by naming a black man who appeared in a couple of films is startling, but then Eckstine did have a high-roll collar named after him, the “Mr B collar”, worn with large, long jackets that flirted with the zoot-suits favoured by Hispanic- and African-Americans in the 1930s and 1940s (until they were outlawed). Eckstine reportedly sold more tickets than Sinatra at New York’s Paramount Theatre in 1949. However, a 1950 photograph of him in Life magazine surrounded by adoring white women, one of whom buries her smiling face into the upright chest of his jacket, “offended the white community”, in Tony Bennett’s phrase, and forever shot down Eckstine’s rising star.

The buried, smiling face of one woman was a far cry from, as Watts put it, “girls screaming” at Rolling Stones concerts and pursuing them madly afterwards. What attracted Watts to African-American jazz musicians was the bold, disciplined freedom of both their play and their dress – a “hyper-individuality” that can only be recognised within the context of the time-tested rules of correct men’s attire as well as all that jazz. Bounded by the rules, small gestures can be noticed – such as a tie-pin, a brightly striped tie, a quirky cufflink, an unusually shaped collar – yet all is safely supported by the romance and glamour of historical tradition, a tradition that the besuited African-American jazz musicians were keen to slip into and extend.

Citing his Savile Row tailor’s refusal to comply with his request for a notch lapel on a double-breasted suit, Watts remarked, “There are things no good men’s tailor will do. . . . It’s a hundred years of making a suit a certain way, and I love the tradition of that.” For men like Watts, all is unattractive chaos without such rules, a world devoid of subtlety, nuance, inflection. Instead, it’s all in-yer-face, mouth wide open and tongue hanging out.

Watts was forever praising Jagger for his ability to keep large audiences entertained as few front men in the history of rock music. But whereas Jagger never stopped inventing movements on stage, the Stones as musicians had to stick pretty much to the songs as written. And so, with all their unruly exhibitionism, the Rolling Stones could not give themselves the freedom-of-the-moment invention possessed by jazz musicians making, or making up, their art. “I’ve always been in love with people who improvise,” Watts once said. The former graphics designer who thought he lacked the talent to become a painter, the drummer who had no interest in writing songs for his rock band but later formed a jazz band of his own, did, in truth, adore spontaneous invention – but only within traditional boundaries created to ensure that what resulted from that invention was in the best of taste.

Improvisation according to historical rules, whether in getting dressed, making music, or playing cricket (a sport he loved), enabled for Watts the creation of a kind of complexity and depth impossible in a rule-free world. The business of getting dressed – which Watts admitted took him twice as long as most people – was obviously, genuinely fun for a man with a precise eye for colour and line. Photos of Watts over the years declare his love of richly patterned ties, distinctively collared shirts, and suit fabrics strongly striped or in eye-catching shades. Watts clearly relished possessing beautiful things with interesting textures and found their creation engaging. He had an untold number of bespoke shoes (no two pairs alike) that he insisted on polishing himself. Most were made for him at George Cleverly in Mayfair’s Royal Arcade, where, as he told GQ, he would often meet the actor Terence Stamp, who had “really beautiful, proper film star style”.

Watts likewise owned dozens of bespoke suits, admitting in one interview that merely the sight of a new swatch of fabric could stir his desire to have another one made in a process that, as per usual, would have taken at least twelve weeks and require three fittings (though, as a regular customer, he probably got away with fewer fittings). Frequenting both Savile Row’s Huntsman and Chittleborough & Morgan over decades, Watts knew a strong British shoulder and a wider lapel suited his slender frame, and he looked fantastic in wide-striped double-breasted. Both Watts and Jagger early in their careers had suits with roped shoulders and sharply defined waists made by Tommy Nutter, as did all the Beatles except George Harrison. But while Jagger and the Beatles put aside three-piece elegance in the 1970s, Watts never did, his continued patronage of “Chittleborough & Morgan at Nutters” a hallmark of his appreciation for one of the strongest silhouettes Savile Row has ever seen.

Watts was inducted into the multipart procedure of having a bespoke suit made by the same person who taught him to love fine menswear, classic Hollywood films and the mellow voices of Sinatra, Astaire, and Eckstine. That was the same person who bought him his first drum kit: his father, Charles Richard Watts. Growing up in Wembley – Jagger liked to introduce him on stage as “the Wembley Whammer” — Charles Robert Watts would accompany his father on visits to a Jewish tailor in the East End, and there the two would have pondered together the choices of suit fabrics, buttons, pockets, trouser styles and linings. In the 1940s, London was rich in men’s tailors who could have made suits for most income levels. Still, that Watts’s father was a lorry driver and loved bespoke suits may well indicate that he was able to envision himself looking as good as a duke or a movie star. The father had no trouble passing down that dreamy passion to his only son, inculcating along the way the vital lessons that quality needs to be savoured and takes time.

It’s worth remembering that, in the early 20th century, working-class lads would often take exceeding trouble to try to dress as well as their supposedly social superiors. In the 1950s, the Teddy Boys and later the Mods proved they could not only outdress the upper classes but create entirely new fashions that thrilled a generation. British men’s fashion had been upsetting the appearance-led class structure throughout the 19th century, when British men were reputedly the best-dressed men in the western world, and many an ambitious young man knew that he required a good tailor in order to succeed. If his suit looked bespoke, if his silhouette had a demonstrable waist and fitted well, then he just might be mistaken for a chap who had gone to the right schools and all that tosh.

“Most of the aristocracy, who could afford to have shoes made, would have the gardener or butler wear the shoes first, to break them in,” Watts told GQ, and he clearly identified with the gardeners and butlers. “When the shoes got comfortable, they were taken away.” For Watts, owning all those shoes and suits assured him not only that he looked his very best, providing invaluable protection in the glare of cameras, but also gave him the recurring satisfaction of being able to contemplate at length and handle to his heart’s content what would have seemed impossibly out of reach to his father or his childhood self. Watts loved collecting things, “jazz things” belonging to his idols, vintage cars that he could not drive, and the suits, shirts and ties of the Duke of Windsor, former Edward VIII. The possession was enough.

Just as spiffy suits enabled African-American jazz musicians to assert their right to belong in the world of bright lights and stardom, so good tailoring assisted the rise of many a working-class British man in the early 20th century. The boundaries of race and class could be transgressed by a jacket and tie then, as is impossible now, when even the richest are happy to appear in public in baggy tracksuits. Watts in his later decades truly missed the old world and its standards. In a Classic Rock interview given a few years ago, he lamented that “not many people are interested” in well-tailored clothes, “and the general public don’t care anymore”.

Watts never stopped caring about the visuals. As a young man, he had no drum lessons and absorbed all he knew by observing other bands’ drummers performing in all their pizzazz. Once he could afford to buy the best and then passed through the lengthy processes of going bespoke, Watts was incapable of not cherishing the clothes and shoes made with the finest materials by some of Britain’s most skilled craftspeople. Watts confessed in the same interview that, in the 1980s, when he had dealt with a brief drug addiction by turning to alcohol “rather heavily”, it was his desire to fit into his bespoke suits that helped save him from another addiction. “I ballooned a bit and, God, I couldn’t get some of my trousers done up! That was it. I stopped everything. I lived on nuts, peanuts and sultanas. That’s all I ate for months.”

It has oft been said that a bespoke suit can serve as a suit of armour, hiding some of one’s physical flaws while accentuating one’s attributes. The overall impression created is of a body fitter and stronger than the actual one inside the three-dimensional canvassed wool superstructure. No wonder a good suit gives confidence. Keith Richards’ anecdote from his memoir deserves repeating yet one more time: Very late one night when the Stones were on tour, a drunk Mick Jagger rang up a not sober Charlie Watts and demanded, “Where’s my drummer?” He received no answer:

About twenty minutes later, there was a knock at the door. There was Charlie Watts, Savile Row suit, perfectly dressed, tie, shaved, the whole fucking bit. I could smell the cologne! I opened the door and he didn’t even look at me, he walked straight past me, got hold of Mick and said, “Never call me your drummer again.” Then he hauled him up by the lapels . . . and gave him a right hook.

As Watts well knew, that suit cost a lot of money and could have been irreparably damaged by a silly brawl with his middleclass mate who had offered insult. Yet what that money bought was worth so much more to the Stones drummer than the garments themselves. On that as on so many other occasions, his careful, deliberately crafted appearance gave Mr. Watts the priceless assurance of personal dignity, of class that could not be bounded by any class structure, born of an adherence to and a dedicated esteem for a long tradition of manners and style that produced a great number of classy gentlemen. He knew his own worth and he looked it.

Cindy Lawford