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Charlie Watts, Unshakeable Rolling Stones Drummer, Dies At 80

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Charlie Watts spent nearly 60 years as a member of the Rolling Stones. As the band's drummer, he was known for his steadiness, not the type of guy to throw in a needless fill or an indulgent solo. Watts died yesterday. He was 80 years old. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: When Charlie Watts was a kid, he would make a fake saxophone out of a bunch of newspaper and pretend he was Charlie Parker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHARLIE WATTS: I mean, it's a life that I've always, in a Hollywood kind of way, loved - you know? - the smoky nightclub, 4 o'clock in the morning, Parker playing.

LIMBONG: Watts told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1991 that on the Stones' very first trip to New York City, the only place he wanted to go was the jazz club named after Charlie Parker called Birdland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WATTS: I mean, I didn't want to see anywhere else. That was it. I got to Birdland, and the rest of it was just waiting to go home.

LIMBONG: It's a telling anecdote because Watts didn't have the reputation for rock 'n' roll excess and flamboyance that his bandmates did. And you can hear that in his music. On songs like "Get Off My Cloud"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET OFF MY CLOUD")

ROLLING STONES: (Singing) I live on an apartment on the 99th floor of my block.

LIMBONG: ...Or "Jumpin' Jack Flash"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUMPIN' JACK FLASH")

ROLLING STONES: (Singing) But it's all right now. In fact, it's a gas.

LIMBONG: ...Or "Start Me Up"...

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLLING STONES SONG, "START ME UP")

LIMBONG: ...You can hear Watts do what's best for the song and nothing more.

Watts was born in 1941 in Wembley, north London. His first and arguably his main love in music was jazz. It was Gerry Mulligan's "Walkin' Shoes" that got Watts interested in playing drums in the first place.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERRY MULLIGAN'S "WALKIN' SHOES (WITH CHET BAKER)")

LIMBONG: As Watts bounced around playing drums for various jazz crews, he ran into Mick Jagger, who had a group of his own but needed a drummer. So he asked Watts. Watts said no.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLLING STONES SONG, "(I CAN'T GET NO) SATISFACTION")

LIMBONG: The Stones finally convinced him to join. And when he did, he gave the band its bones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLLING STONES SONG, "(I CAN'T GET NO) SATISFACTION")

LIMBONG: Watts wasn't much for the stuff that came with being in a massively successful rock band. He didn't like the spotlight, hated doing interviews. But he told NPR in 2012, knowing that he helped change the face of music and had countless adoring fans - that's not so bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WATTS: You know, I never play our records. But I love hearing them, you know, go on the car radio or something. It's very - I don't know. It does wonders for the ego, doesn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLLING STONES SONG, "(I CAN'T GET NO) SATISFACTION")

LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(I CAN'T GET NO) SATISFACTION")

ROLLING STONES: (Singing) That's what I say. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.