The music of the Rolling Stones wasn’t a big part of our household growing up in Chicago. I do remember hearing a handful of songs on the radio that I tried to sing when I was around four years old, like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” by the Beatles, “I Got the Feeling” by James Brown, and “Satisfaction” by the Stones. Later, “Angie” was such a huge hit that it ended up on Black radio. That was probably the first song I was hip to that I knew was the Stones.
Many years later, I was going out with a woman in Italy and she was playing the Steel Wheels record. I was listening to it and she says, “Isn’t this great?” and I was like, “Yeah, it’s okay.” But the more I listened to it, the more I thought, “Hmm, the way I play could really work with them.” It was years later when I actually got that call, and I came in and auditioned. It would have been May 1993, and we played through a bunch of the hits like “Brown Sugar” and “Miss You.” Then later, in October of that year, they asked me to come in and play through the songs they had written for Voodoo Lounge.
As a bass player, the first thing that I do when I play with a band is zero in on the drummer. While it would have been easy to look at Keith Richards and Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood standing in front of me, they were not my first concern. My first concern was “Let me see if I can lock in with Charlie.”
I started playing “Licking Stick” by James Brown. I was playing that bass line just to get a sound, and Charlie started playing and then we all jammed on that for a second. After we played that and maybe one or two songs, Charlie stood up and started pacing a bit. I remember thinking to myself, “Either that’s a really good sign or a really bad one.” But I felt like maybe he felt something. I remember leaving that audition thinking to myself, “If that felt as good to them as it felt to me, I think I’ll hear from them.”
It did feel to me like he was easy to play with. I definitely found out over the next months and years that there were certain things that I needed to learn when playing with him. But it felt good the first time.
I soon realized that, though we were playing in the rock & roll idiom, Charlie’s influences were quite a bit broader than that. Everyone knows he was a big jazz fan. You can certainly hear Papa Jo Jones in his playing. I know he loved all the swing and bebop guys: Dave Tough, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones … he was friends with Roy Haynes. I can’t say specifically which drummers influenced him but when he played a fill, that wasn’t a rock & roll fill. It wasn’t really straightforward. He also dug the Motown guys like Benny Benjamin and Al Jackson from Al Green’s band. He had all of those influences and all of those things went together into him creating this school of rock & roll drumming. He was also self-taught, so that creates a very particular kind of thing. If you’re self-taught, there’s less of a blueprint. It’s not easily copyable.
We talked about music constantly. All sorts of music. The thing about Charlie was that he was going to hear Miles well before I played with Miles. Charlie saw Miles in the ’60s. And then there were the blues guys. When you hear Charlie and the Stones talking about Muddy Waters, they’re not telling you some story that they heard. Instead from it’s when they were playing with Muddy Waters. I remember Charlie talking about what a cool and gentle guy Howlin’ Wolf was. He was pretty well-versed.
He collected famous people’s drums. For example, he had Dave Tough’s kit. He said, “History was made on that drum kit. That should be taken care of.”
I never met anybody who knew that much about clothes. Sometimes we’d be in Japan and he’d take me to his shirt tailor. He took me to his shoemaker in London and I had a few shoes made. I remember going into Huntsman of Savile Row with him and there was some material that was laying out as we went into the basement where the tailors were working. Charlie reached out and touched this fabric. When the guy came over to us, Charlie remarked about the gauge of the fabric. And the guy confirmed he was right. He looked at a jacket and said, “That’s from 1970.” And the guy said, “Yeah, that’s right, Charlie.” I thought it was brand-new. He was very well-versed in those sorts of things.
Pierre de Beauport, the longtime guitar technician with the Stones, said something apt about Charlie: “What an extraordinary example of a human being.” He really was extraordinary—very kind, thoughtful, and funny. They just don’t make them like that anymore. A true gentleman.
[as told to Lee Mergner]