Another side of Charlie Watts
When a drummer takes temporary leave from an established band, the absence can sometimes make people think harder about the importance of that individual’s contribution. Roy Haynes wasn’t a downgrade in any sense when he depped for Elvin Jones at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1963, but it may have strengthened a recognition of what Elvin had brought — and would bring again — to the John Coltrane Quartet. Ditto Jimmie Nicol’s short stay with the Beatles on a tour of Australasia in the summer of 1964, replacing Ringo Starr, who was having his tonsils removed. (When George Harrison was given the news, he threatened to pull out too: “If Ringo’s not going, then neither am I. You can find two replacements.”)
I thought of those examples while reading this week that Charlie Watts won’t be with the Rolling Stones on their forthcoming US dates. He’s undergoing surgery for an unspecified condition. It’s worth recalling that Charlie was already a Rolling Stone when Haynes replaced Jones and Nicol replaced Starr; as far as I know he has missed not a single one of the band’s live appearances since joining them in January 1963.
Charlie’s adventures outside the band have always been worth following, from the extraordinary big band he brought to Ronnie Scott’s in 1985 to the adventurous and fascinating percussion project with his friend Jim Keltner in 2000. For the last month or so I’ve been listening to an album that happens to be celebrating its 25th anniversary this year: Long Ago & Far Away, in which his quintet — Gerard Presencer (trumpet and flugel), Peter King (alto), Brian Lemon (piano), Dave Green (bass) –– and the singer Bernard Fowler are joined by the London Metropolitan Orchestra to perform arrangements by Lemon, King and Presencer of 14 standards from the American songbook.
These are great songs, and they’re handled with the appropriate respect. The opener, George and Ira Gershwin’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You”, is even treated to its proper out-of-tempo introduction (what used to be called the verse): “How glad the many millions / Of Annabels and Lillians / Would be / To capture me / But you had such persistence / You wore down my resistance / I fell / And it was swell…”
Fowler, a long-time Stones backing vocalist who has also recorded with Tackhead and Little Axe, pitches his vocals perfectly, somewhere between Bobby Short and Luther Vandross, with a pleasant tone and a well controlled vibrato. His voice rests easily on arrangements which tend to the lush and romantic but never get close to kitsch. The rhythm section is elegantly discreet (you’re hardly aware of Watts’s presence, which is how it should be) and the horns decorate the music perfectly, Presencer with a tone almost as gorgeous as the late, great Joe Wilder’s and King adding a dash of bitters to the smooth cocktail.
No, these fine versions of “Good Morning Heartache” and “What’s New” aren’t going to replace those by Holiday and Sinatra. But the whole thing runs together seamlessly, the arrangers the opportunity to liven things up with “In the Still of the Night”, which borrows its momentum from the version Gil Evans arranged for Charlie Parker, the group joined by the congas of Luis Jardim and the horns playing what sounds like a transcription of part of Bird’s original solo before King peels off into a variation of his own. “I’m in the Mood for Love” is delivered straight until Fowler gives us an extract from King Pleasure’s famous vocalese version of James Moody’s solo, in unison with Green’s pizzicato bass. For me, the only slightly unsatisfactory moment derives from the decision to take Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” at ballad speed rather than at the insouciant medium-up tempo that best sets off its sophisticated irony.
I was going to write about this album anyway, with a recommendation to those who don’t know it to file it alongside Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely and Holiday’s Lady in Satin, to be played in moments when those two harrowing masterpieces seem too intense. Let’s wish him all the best with the operation, in the hope that we see him back on the bandstand — whether in a stadium or a boîte — before too long.
* Charlie Watts’s Long Ago & Far Away was released in 1996 on the Virgin label. The photograph is from the accompanying booklet, and was taken by Jack English.
You named my second fave Sinatra LP and my fave Billie Holiday LP. My old L.A. roomate Billy Bremner (Rockpile, not Leeds Utd.) was in a couple of the 1980s’ Charlie Watts ensembles and he said Mr. Watts was a true gentleman and a fine, generous musician.
Beautifully written as always. Thank you, Richard. These guys were giants. That said, having stood beside Mr Haynes at Randy Weston’s 76th birthday celebration at an ex-car sales cavern extreme West Side NYC April 2002, he is a very small man physically. Acoustics were bad, so I stood alongside the stage, unlike my late friend and fellow New Zealander who felt a bit large and white to be comfortable there. Cecil Payne, Frank Wess, and about every young post-Weston piano player was there. What a city it must have been in the Jim ‘n’ Andy’s era!
Great piece Richard as always. And a great album, which you’ve made me go to the shelves to dig out. I was in Johnsons clothes shop in the Kings Rd once when Charlie and teenage daughter (I assume) came in. A shop which was dedicated to iconic rock’n’roll leathers and jeans etc so clearly shopping for her not him. I should have left him alone but said “ Hello, how’s the shows at Ronnie’s going?” He mumbled: “Okay.” And I immediately thought, I should have definitely left him alone. Private he is and loquacious he’s not. He walked once round the rack of 501’s and then came up to me and talked about it for some minutes.
Re: “I Get Along Without You Very Well” just curious what mid tempo versions you feel express this sublime song best? I’m thinking Charlie has Sinatra’s or Chet Baker’s versions almost ‘without tempo’ in mind. But Jane Russell’s is high on my versions.
Weirdly, Petula Clark’s. I’ll check out Jane Russell… RW
Jane Russell as featured in’ The Las Vegas Story’ 1952 featuring the composer Hoagy Carmichael (as you probably know) I don’t think it’s available on CD but it’s there to watch on youtube.
Thank you so very much for writing this on Charlie Watts. He is the drummer I first took any real notice of. Always there, yet never loud. That is the way I love to hear drums played. I heard the Stones first album, when I was 11 years old, in a mate’s bedroom. When I left his house, I was solid gone. When I saw the original Jungle Book animated film, and Baloo the bear, said… “I’m solid gone.” It brought back the memories of the first time hearing Charlie Watts. Get well soon drummer man. “Charlie’s good tonight, ain’t he?”
Lovely post Richard. I’m sure that everyone who reads The Blue Moment will want to wish the heartbeat of the Stones a speedy recovery.
Those masterpieces can indeed be harrowing! Best wishes to the great Charlie Watts for a speedy recovery.
So who’s depping for Charlie? Hope it’s either Steve Jordan or Charley Drayton.
I should have mentioned that. It’s Steve Jordan.
The term great gets bandied about for musicians far too readily nowadays but Joe Wilder was certainly worthy of such praise. I’d refer readers to the short piece RW wrote about him on this blog a few years ago
Have only just seen this post – yes, lovely album, and I wish Mr Watts well. I’ve also enjoyed listening again to an earlier recording by his fine quintet, recorded at Ronnie Scott’s, Birmingham, ‘A Tribute To Charlie Parker With Strings’; superb playing from the much-missed Peter King.
Nice to see your mention of Bobby Short – we don’t hear nearly enough about this great singer (and pianist) these days; one of the finest-ever custodians of the American songbook.
Back in the 90s, and during a previous life, there was a slightly maverick District Judge who sat at Swindon County Court (where I very occasionally plied my trade) and who had a signed pic of Short prominently displayed on a shelf behind his desk. I noticed said photo on my first appearance before him (having recently bought the excellent ‘Late Night at the Cafe Carlyle’ on a whim in an HMV sale). The appointment didn’t go very well but, as I got up to leave, I managed a ‘Nice photo of Bobby’ before I left. No doubt purely by coincidence, he went easier on me later that day in my next appointment before him.