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The Great Charlie Watts

By M. Burke Koonce, III


News of the death of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts upended the music world this week. Tributes poured in from fellow occupants of the rock and roll pantheon—Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Sir Elton John to name a few—as perhaps this was the most significant rock and roll death since George Harrison was lost to cancer almost 20 years ago. When guitar great Eddie Van Halen died last year, I was surprised and pleased the New York Times ran an obituary. For Charlie Watts, it would have been unthinkable if there had not been one. Charlie Watts was a Stone.

That’s why for me this has been more than a mere upending. I loved Van Halen just about as much as anyone my age, but I am a Stones freak. This has been like the passing of an old friend because, even without knowing him personally, he was one.

He was the most relatable of the Stones, by far. One could dream about being able to move like Mick Jagger, party like Keith Richards or play guitar like Ron Wood or Mick Taylor, but only in the same way one can dream of dunking a basketball like Michael Jordan (for me, an impossibility). It was a little easier to dream about being a seemingly normal person like Charlie seemed to be on stage with the Glimmer Twins—a well-dressed guy playing repurposed jazz while all hell broke loose around him. In virtually every Stones concert I attended, and there were many, there was a moment in which Jagger would do or say something so preposterous that Watts would just shake his head and grin. And in every single Stones show, when Mick introduced him as “Mister Chaaarlie Wattssssss!” the crowd responded with thunderous applause, offering up thanks for being the adult in the room, above the madness, keeping the time, and really, keeping the train on the track. It wasn’t so much that he was above it all, it was that his presence, his cool, allowed it all to happen.

He was the son of a truck driver and a homemaker, born in war-torn London in 1941. First trained as a graphic artist, he came under the spell of Charlie Parker and jazz and became a sought-after drummer in the London rhythm and blues club scene in the early 1960s. When Stones founders Jagger, Richards and Brian Jones finally scraped enough money together to pay him, he joined the band and moved into a flat with them.  Can one imagine what living in that place must have been like? Not just playing but living with The Rolling Stones? I don’t think there are too many people that could have done that and not gone insane, no matter how much fun it might have been.

My other favorite Charlie, Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway fame, is fond of saying that temperament is more important than intelligence when it comes to investing. Maybe the same is true for rock and roll? I wonder what kind of investor Charlie Watts might have been. Well, actually, one doesn’t have to wonder—the man did pretty well for himself.

In addition to being one of three members of the Stones who appeared on every one of 30 albums (10 #1s) across 58 years, he also collected fine automobiles (although he did not drive), drum kits, and was a well-known breeder of Arabian horses. He also remained married to the same woman, Shirley Ann Shepherd, from 1964 until his death. While great timing can make both a drummer and an investor look good, perhaps it’s patience that counts even more.

There’s a great interview with Watts in the 1990 Stones documentary 25 x 5, in which he is asked about being in The Rolling Stones for 25 years. “It’s absurd,” he said with a wry smile. “Work five years and 20 years hanging around.”

He also once said he didn’t expect the Stones would last more than three weeks, which became three months, which became three years, which is when he stopped counting. Paul Tudor Jones might have said it this way: let your winners win.

If that’s not the life of an investor, I don’t know what is. Being prepared, showing up and paying attention are all part of the job, but what really counts is the way one performs perhaps one in every five years. Every once in a while, the world will appear to veer off its axis, and the way an investor responds to the world during these episodes will be the difference between success and failure.

Charlie did this through his natural temperament but also through his attention to his craft and his continued curiosity about it. Multiple tributes this week mentioned his childlike awe of the work of not just his jazz heroes Parker and Duke Ellington but of his open-mindedness. He didn’t even like rock until Keith Richards made him listen to Elvis Presley again, and he spent decades reaching out to musicians in cities he was touring. He also knew what he was good at—jazz and swing rhythms—and made his band better by being himself instead of pretending to be John Bonham or Keith Moon (both of whom he happened to outlive by 48 years). Charlie wasn’t perfect; ironically, after his rowdy bandmates had begun to calm down in their forties, he began to develop his own problems with drugs and alcohol, but after an intervention by Keith Richards (I mean, really?) he went cold turkey. He had the self-awareness to see he had made a mistake and the discipline to correct it.

He also did it with style. While Mick and Keith paraded around in boas, Charlie sported Saville Row suits. Reportedly, he owned hundreds of them.

I have no idea if Charlie Watts ever bought a single share of stock in his life but based on the evidence, he was a man of great patience and of near-imperturbable temperament, who took a long-term view and tended toward quality. He was capable of recognizing great talent and willing to put his skills to work in a way that would benefit the group, though he insisted on getting paid and once knocked his famous lead singer out when he was annoyed. He probably would have been successful at a lot of things but being a pretty good investor doesn’t sound like a stretch.

When Van Halen died, there was an element of sadness about a life cut relatively short. Watts was 80 and had lived an extraordinary life. In this case, I suppose I just mourn the passing of time. I miss the cassettes on which I first heard the Stones. I miss the lazy afternoons and sometimes raucous evenings listening to him hammer away on Gimme Shelter and Midnight Rambler. It makes me sad to think I’ll never hear him play live again. But when I think about how much he enriched my life through his music, it makes me smile. Like Red said in The Shawshank Redemption, “I guess I just miss my friend.”

RIP Charlie. Watts that is.

Burke is the firm’s Investment Strategist. Based in the Raleigh office, Burke works closely with the firm’s Chief Investment Officer helping develop investment strategy and communicating with clients.

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