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Drum roll: remembering Charlie Watts, a gentleman of rock 'n' roll

We honour the understated cool of arguably the best-dressed member of the Rolling Stones, who admired good style as much as he enjoyed music, and recall a special commission that came to our design studio in Long Eaton

The late, great Charlie Watts was known for his style and love of jazz, as well as his day-job as drummer with the Rolling Stones, one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time. He was also the consummate English gent as was witnessed some years back by an event at a famous music venue in London’s Soho.

Ronnie Scott's jazz club was in financial difficulties in the 1980s. There was nothing unusual there. Ronnie and his partner Pete King were on top of the music, but hopeless with finances. Charlie Watts came to them with a solution. He would put his jazz side-project, the Charlie Watts Orchestra, into the club for a week, guaranteeing a full house every night. Ronnie and Pete were grateful, but 25-piece big bands are notorious money pits. They would barely break even, said Ronnie. Charlie elaborated. He would pay the bands' wages and travel. The club could keep all the ticket sales, thus letting it live to fight another day. It was just one of many instances over the years that cemented Charlie’s reputation as a true gentleman.

‘CHARLIE WAS NOT ONLY A HUGELY ACCOMPLISHED ROCK DRUMMER, HE WAS ALSO A JAZZER AT HEART’

When the sad news broke that Charlie Watts, founder member and bedrock beat of the Rolling Stones for almost six decades, had died aged 80, it prompted us here at Sunspel to reminisce about happier times with one of the great rock 'n' roll clothes horses. Specifically, we recalled when we worked on a unique, performance-based request from the dapper and meticulous musician. Of which more anon.

Charlie Watts was not only a hugely accomplished rock drummer, he was also a jazzer at heart. You could hear that in his playing. He could take a lumpen 4-4 beat and make it swing and drag or speed up the pulse of a song, setting up a tension usually lacking in popular music of the time. His heroes were, as you might expect, iconic jazz drummers, but not the flamboyant likes of Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa.

‘CHARLIE ONCE SAID: ‘[I HAVE] A LOVE OF JAZZ THAT GOES BEYOND PLAYING IT—THE LOOK AND LIFE OF IT’

In keeping with his own playing and personal style, he preferred the masters of understatement: Philly Joe Jones, Chico Hamilton, Roy Haynes, Billy Higgins. There was something in him of Dave Brubeck's rhythmic engine Joe Morello, too, who was economical in the extreme, but who gave a sense of great reserves of power under the bonnet. Charlie not only enjoyed the music, he strove to emulate the style of the players as they appeared on the covers of albums from labels Blue Note, Impulse, Riverside and Verve. As he once said: ‘[I have] a love of jazz that goes beyond playing it—the look and life of it.’

‘HIS STYLE WAS ULTIMATELY TO BE FILTERED THROUGH AN ENGLISH SENSIBILITY BASED ON SAVILE ROW TRADITIONS’

A famously dapper dresser, his first sartorial inspiration was the razor-sharp, buttoned-down Miles Davis group of the late ’50s and early ’60s (‘If Miles Davis had a green shirt on an album cover, we all had to have a green shirt,’ he once said). He also admired Art Blakey's jacket/shirt/tie formality behind the kit, the elegance of Duke Ellington, the nonchalance of Dexter Gordon and the West Coast cool of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, whether in his immaculate T-shirt, cradling his horn, or his Ivy League "sport" jacket and slacks.

These stylings, though, were ultimately to be filtered through an English sensibility based on Savile Row traditions. Initially, Charlie used a tailor on Madison Avenue in New York for his suits but soon found “the Row’s” Tommy Nutter, something of a maverick in the conservative tailoring business (he dressed Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's Batman). Later, the well-dressed Stone embraced the highly structured profile created by Huntsman of Savile Row, although he still frequented Chittleborough & Morgan at Nutters, also on the famous street of tailors, which continues Tommy's legacy of elegance with just a touch of rock 'n' roll.

'WHAT HE FAMOUSLY DIDN'T DO WAS ALTER HIS "LOOK" OR LOSE HIS POSITION AS THE BEST-DRESSED STONE' 

He liked to patronise the very best clothing and accessory companies, which is why his shoe cupboard contained mainly hand-made George Cleverlys. He did step out of his comfort zone occasionally, admitting to owning several Prada raincoats and some Ralph Lauren, but mostly he stayed with venerable British brands and tailors. In his later years, he embraced the waisted jackets, tight jodhpurs and polished boots of a country gentleman, donned when riding out at the Arabian horse stud he owned with Shirley, his wife of 57 years, in Devon.

What he famously didn't do was alter his "look" or lose his position as the best-dressed Stone. He managed to resist spending much time elaborate clothing like his band mates, in the ’60s – ‘I thought the clothes were horrendous,’ he later admitted. When he grew a modish beard in the ’70s, he declared the process ‘exhausting’.

‘I MOSTLY WEAR SHORT-SLEEVED SHIRTS OR T-SHIRTS [WHEN I AM ON STAGE]. I USED TO PLAY IN JACKETS WHEN I WAS VERY YOUNG’

Equally tiring was playing in the sort of clothes he loved to wear off-stage, especially the three-piece suits, of which he had dozens. He found it hard to emulate legendary drummer Art Blakey and his collar-and-tie approach for two hours at a stretch, especially on tour to places such as South America. As he told GQ magazine: ‘I mostly wear short-sleeved shirts or T-shirts [when I am on stage]. I used to play in jackets when I was very young.’

Charlie had a problem, though, because traditional T-shirt cuts are quite constricting. The Rolling Stone's beatmaster found he wasn't getting the freedom of movement he was seeking. It transpired that fashion designer Oliver Spencer, whose clothes Charlie often wore, is a big fan of Sunspel and suggested to the band’s long-serving stylist William Gilchrist that we might be able to help. And of course, traditionalist Watts would have been happy to use a UK enterprise that could trace its roots back to 1860.

‘DESIGNER OLIVER SPENCER, WHOSE CLOTHES CHARLIE OFTEN WORE, IS A FAN OF SUNSPEL AND SUGGESTED THAT WE MIGHT BE ABLE TO HELP ADDRESS THE DRUMMER’S PERFORMANCE T-SHIRT NEEDS’

Under Gilchrist's guidance, we designed a performance T-shirt for the Rolling Stone, based on a medium size (Charlie was quite a slight figure, so even that would have been quite loose). Debbie Smith, one of our garment technologists who was involved in creating the item, says: ‘The main difference to our standard triple-zero block was that we inserted an extra side-panel. So instead of one seam down the side, there were two, making it much roomier. He also liked his T-shirts to be shorter than the standard ones.’ Probably so he didn't end up sitting on them, again restricting his ability to lean forward while playing.

Although famous for our Sea Island cotton, we used Supima cotton, with its extra-long staple fibres that give it a super-silky feel, for these T-shirts. It’s also very durable, a must for rock 'n' roll. ‘It’s a high quality yarn,’ says Debbie. ‘The cotton is grown in America, spun in India and at the time it was knitted and dyed in the UK.' Charlie, by all accounts, was delighted with the results and the whole band wore Sunspel for Glastonbury in 2013 and the South American tour of 2016.

‘CHARLIE, BY ALL ACCOUNTS, WAS DELIGHTED WITH THE RESULTS AND THE WHOLE BAND WORE SUNSPEL FOR GLASTONBURY IN 2013 AND THE SOUTH AMERICAN TOUR OF 2016’

The last order we received was for 18 of Charlie's drumming T-shirts, two each in nine colours ranging from "Intense Red" and "Clear Night Blue" to vibrant "Yellow"

On the Rolling Stones’ live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, Mick Jagger famously says to the audience: 'Charlie's good tonight, isn't 'e?' With a little help from Sunspel, Charlie was sure he could be good every night.

Charlie Watts, 1941–2021

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