Charlie Watts Championed Me

It’s a meeting I will never forget

Charlie Watts (Art: Ron Hart)

Meeting one’s heroes can be an iffy proposition. The image one has of what he or she ought to be can often conflict with the person’s true persona. And when that creates a negative impression, it can taint one’s feelings forever.

That brings to mind a fleeting encounter I once had with the Rolling Stones and their late great drummer Charlie Watts in particular. It transpired one summer morning whilst I was living in St. Thomas Virgin Islands nearly 50 years ago. I was a kid at the time, but thoroughly transfixed by the general mystique of rock ‘n’ roll. Sadly, living in the V.I. at that time didn’t offer much opportunity to see anything but calypso concerts, and it certainly precluded the possibility of mingling with the mainstream music establishment. 

It’s not that we didn’t have occasional visitors from the mainland. Steve Boone, the bassist for the Lovin’ Spoonful, brought his boat down after the band’s break-up and he actually became part of out little gang, albeit someone who was considerably older than the rest of us. I remember seeing Janis Joplin sitting by herself at an outdoor cafe and hearing my bad boy buddy Tommy Hackett claiming that he nailed her. I once spied Ed Cassidy and Randy California from the band Spirit hanging out on the stairs of one of the clubs we used to frequent. Another venue we would go to featured Boffalongo, the group that later evolved into Orleans, as their housebound. We’d hear them play a song they wrote called “Dancing in the Moonlight” every evening.

Still, nothing came close to my encounter with the Stones. 

It began one morning when my dad and I were driving down Main Street in the island’s busy capital city, Charlotte Amalie. That’s when I noticed a longhaired guy who looked uncannily familiar standing on the sidewalk. He had an unmistakable presence and natural charisma, but I just couldn’t place how I knew him. Then it occurred to me — it was Charlie Watts. Naturally, I didn’t expect to find him in my own hometown,  but as soon as I jumped out of the car to catch up with him, I realized that’s in fact who it was. 

 

VIDEO: The Rolling Stones Montreux Jam ’72

By the time I backpedaled along the sidewalk, he had gone into one of the many gift stores that littered Main Street, so I waited patiently for him to emerge. When he did, he was accompanied by Bobby Keys, the Stones’ erstwhile sax player. 

I quickly introduced myself and inquired as to what had brought them to the island. He told me that they were taking an overnight respite for a bit of R & R in the midst of their current tour. Keys seemed anxious to get on with their jaunt, so we parted ways. However I also wanted to find out where they were staying in hopes I could hang with them later on. 

Once I got home, I decided I’d call every hotel on the island in order to discover their whereabouts. Amazingly enough, the first place I called, which happened to be just down the road  from where I lived, had one Charlie Watts registered there. 

Presumably, no aliases were needed. 

Naturally, I wasted no time in making my way to the hotel. I went out to the beach, looked around and quickly spied several Stones ensconced on the far end. Unsure of how to approach them, I grabbed a lounge chair and contemplated my next move. That’s when I saw Mick Jagger making his way towards his compatriots. Without a second thought, I jumped up and walked towards him, intercepting him as he attempted to stride by. Mick looked at me suspiciously, but he really had no choice but to acknowledge me. I made some small talk and joined him as he proceeded towards his bandmates’ encampment.

Charlie was there, along with Keith Richards and Mick Taylor. (Bill Wyman was vacationing separately in Arizona.) I was surprised how clean-cut they all looked, especially Micks Jagger and Taylor, what with their neatly groomed hair and pale British complexions. Keith, however, was another story entirely. With the blond streak in his hair and a skimpy leopard print bikini bottom. he looked as mean as his public persona suggested.  He quickly noticed me, me perched against a palm tree, clearly intimidated and at a loss for words.

Keith Richards (Art Design: Ron Hart)

“What have we got here, a Pinkerton guard?” he asked with a sarcastic smirk.

“Yeah, right,” I shrugged, not really knowing how to reply. 

Yeah Right!” Richards replied in an obvious attempt to mock me out and embarrass the hell out of me at the same time. 

That’s when Charlie came to my rescue.

“He’s alright,” he said to the others, and with that, I felt somewhat assured. He proceeded to generally hold court, sharing stories with the others about past exploits and generally acting the role of the group’s ad hoc emcee and discussion leader.

I was content to merely listen in, and after everyone dispersed, I chatted with Mick Taylor for a bit as Keith plopped like a fish in the waves, Mick Jagger and his new wife Bianca walked off towards their room, and Charlie reclined on his lounge chair and drifted off to sleep. That’s when I was left to marvel at the fact that a member of the most famous rock and roll band in the world could be left so seemingly alone and unperturbed. 

That was the final image I had of him, asleep on a lounger, on a sunny summer afternoon on a beach in the Virgin Islands. It’s a slight snapshot at best, one that pales in comparison to his public persona as the propulsive power driver behind the Rolling Stones. 

Nevertheless, image is everything, and it was a gracious and good-natured impression he gave me that day. I hope he’s resting as easy now as he was on that afternoon.

 

VIDEO: The Rolling Stones on The Dick Cavett Show, July 1972

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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