First two panels of the 'Between the Buttons' strip, drawn by Charlie Watts.

Charlie Watts was a British jazz musician and drummer, most famous as the drummer for The Rolling Stones. As an art student, Watts wrote and drew a picture story, 'Ode to a Highflying Bird', which paid tribute to jazz legend Charlie Parker. It was sold in 1965 as a book, capitalizing on his rock star fame. Watts also drew comic strips for The Rolling Stones' 1966 U.S. tour program and the back sleeve of their album 'Between The Buttons' (1967).

Early life and career
Charles Robert Watts was born in 1941 in Bloomsbury, London, as the son of a railway lorry driver. As a child, he showed a gift for drawing as well as drumming. He studied at the Harrow Art School (nowadays Harrow campus at the University of Westminster). After graduation, Watts initially worked in a London-based graphic design studio, the Charlie Daniels Studios. In his spare time, he drummed in jazz and R&B bands, including Blues By Five and Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated. In this latter band, Watts met Brian Jones.

The Rolling Stones
In 1963, Watts, Brian Jones and other college students formed a blues rock band, eventually named The Rolling Stones, after the Muddy Waters song 'Rollin' Stone'. Mick Jagger became the lead singer, Keith Richards and Jones guitarists, Bill Wyman the bassist and Watts the drummer. That same year, The Beatles became a national sensation. They presented themselves as a straightforward rock band and while they had cover material on their repertoire, the majority of their songs were originals. By 1964, The Beatles became a global hit machine, prompting The Rolling Stones to change their image. They kept covering blues numbers, but also began writing original songs. While the Beatles had a charming, family friendly public image, the Stones went for a more dangerous reputation. They were very open about their drug use and wrote lustful lyrics, long before other bands dared to say so. Riots broke out at concerts. Moral guardians and parents protested. The scandal and catchy hit songs gained them a worldwide audience too, and made them direct rivals of The Beatles. Fans argued which of the two bands were better, but ironically both groups were always on good terms with each other. John Lennon and Paul McCartney even wrote the Stones' first hit song, 'I Wanna Be Your Man' (1963). Both bands always praised each other in the press and deliberately didn't release new singles and albums on the same day as the other.

While the Beatles split up in 1970, the Rolling Stones never did. They kept touring and releasing new songs and albums even in the 2010s. Soon they broke a record as the longest-running band of all time, not counting the Dutch jazz band The Ramblers, the Flemish comedy band The Strangers or the U.S. soul group The Temptations. The Stones are famous for having almost the same line-up as when they first started. Brian Jones drowned in his swimming pool in 1969 and was replaced by Mick Taylor until 1974, when Ron Wood succeeded him for the rest of the band's existence. Bill Wyman left the band in 1993. Thanks to their longevity, the Rolling Stones achieved a legendary status. To many rock fans, they perfectly illustrate everything what's great about the genre, including most of the clichés.

Since the Stones have been part of pop culture for more than half a century, it's not surprising that they inspired many graphic artists. Some worked directly for the band. Bob Gibson was house cartoonist of the fanzine The Rolling Stones Monthly. The poster for their TV concert film 'Rock 'n' Roll Circus' (1968) was designed by Alan Aldridge. Various artists have illustrated album covers and/or inside sleeves, including Steven Thomas ('Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!', 1970), Andy Warhol ('Sticky Fingers' [1971], 'Love You Live' [1977]) and Guy Peellaert ('It's Only Rock 'n' Roll', 1974). Mark Marek drew the comic strip 'Dirty Work Out', printed inside the sleeve of 'Dirty Work' (1986). Ralph Bakshi's studio made the animated music video for 'Harlem Shuffle' (1985), of which most designs were done by John Kricfalusi. In 1966, Malky McCormick approached the group with a cartoon he'd drawn of all the band members, which they all signed.

Cover to 'Rock 'n' Roll Comics' #6 by Scott Jackson.

In 1972 Belgian cartoonist Wally Van Looy made a one-shot comic about the band, 'Brown Sugar'. Peter Pontiac illustrated the covers for bootleg lyric books, including for Stones songs. Dutchman Danker Jan Oreel drew 'Big Deal' (1987), a comic book about The Stones, which Mick Jagger himself appreciated. The Rolling Stones were the subject of the 6th issue of the 'Rock N' Roll Comics' series by Revolutionary Comics in December 1989. It contained story artwork by Andy Kuhn, Ken Landgraf, Dean Hsieh and Teri S. Wood. Personality Comics released three comic books about The Rolling Stones in 1992. In 1995, Marvel Comics published a comic book to accompany the 'Voodoo Lounge' tour: 'Rolling Stones: Voodoo Lounge', written and drawn by Dave McKean, with Karl Bollers, Mort Todd and Tom DeFalco as editors. The French publishing house Petit à Petit released a graphic novel ('The Rolling Stones en BD', translated in English as 'The Rolling Stones in Comics', 2010), featuring anecdotes about the band written by Ceka and drawn by 19 artists: Martin Trystram, Patrick Lacon, Dimitri Piot, Kyung-Eun Park, Domas, Clément Baloup, Dominique Hennebaut, Amandine Puntous, Lapuss', Bast, Patès, Filippo Neri, Anthony Audibert, Bruno Loth, Aurélie Neyret, Sanzito, Sarah Williamson, Joël Alessandra and Mao Suzy-Heng. Naturally, the Stones have also been caricatured, for instance by Chuck Death, Marcel Gotlib and Sebastian Krüger. The Frenchmen James and Boris Mirroir gave a comical account of the Rolling Stones' formation in the comic book 'Backstage - Pierre qui roule' (Audie, 2011).

'The Silent Stone', from: 'The Rolling Stones in Comics', with story art by Patès.

Career within the Stones
Within the band, Charlie Watts was the odd one out. He was always more interested in jazz and blues than actual rock. Even when he joined The Rolling Stones in the early 1960s, he carefully held on to his daytime job for several months, until the group became a success. Watts never tried to be trendy, nor outrageous. He always wore regular, fanciful clothing and let the others, especially Jagger, Richards and Jones, bask in the media attention. He didn't adapt the rock 'n' roll lifestyle either. From 1964 until his death he was happily married to the same wife, with whom he had a daughter. Even when The Rolling Stones visited the Playboy Mansion in 1974, Watts let the others have fun with women, while he played pool with chief editor Hugh Hefner. Except for tobacco, alcohol and heroin, his drug use has been limited. Only in the 1980s he was in serious danger of becoming a junkie, but he quit these vices without intervention. Watts was basically too normal and dull for the average journalist. He also said he didn't like touring all that much. In his hotel room he usually passed the time sketching.

From: 'Ode to a Highflying Bird'.

Career outside the Stones
Outside his activities within The Stones, Watts has played in boogie woogie and jazz bands, like Rocket 88 and his own group, the Charlie Watts Quintet. He designed the cover of Rocket 88's album, 'Rocket 88' (1981) and of 'From One Charlie' (1991) by the Charlie Watts Quintet.

Ode To A Highflying Bird
During his university days, Watts wrote and drew a children's book, 'Ode to a Highflying Bird'. Originally intended for a class project, it's a biography about one of his musical heroes, Charlie "Bird" Parker, who, in reference to his nickname, is depicted as an anthropomorphic bird. The story is drawn in a simple graphic style, with narration handwritten above the images. In 1965 the book was noticed by the publisher of the fanzine Rolling Stones Monthly. Although it had nothing to do with the band, he encouraged Watts to publish it. Around that time John Lennon had also published a book with illustrated poems and stories, 'In His Own Write' (1964), later followed by 'A Spaniard in the Works' (1965), which all became bestsellers solely thanks to his media fame. So, on 17 January 1965, 'Ode to A Highflying Bird' was published as a 5 by 7 inches 36-page book. As expected, it instantly sold out. In 1991, it was reprinted as part of the Charlie Watts Quintet album 'From One Charlie...' (1991).

Comic strip by Charlie Watts for the Rolling Stones' 1966 tour program.

1966 U.S. tour comic strip
In 1966, Watts made a comic strip for the Stones' U.S. tour, printed inside the concert program. Titled 'It's The Same Old Story (If Not The Song)', it shows Mick Jagger singing on an ever growing platform. While adoring fans keep growing, the platform rises into the sky. One man keeps criticizing the group, no matter how popular they get. Watts intended it as a commentary on the relativity of show business. The drawing is nowadays in the collection of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum.

Between the Buttons
In 1967, the band released their album 'Between the Buttons'. On the back cover, Watts drew another comic in the same vein as the one from the year before. The panels show people cheering for the band, while others keep changing their opinion about how good/bad they are. The speech balloons contain condescending commentary such as: "All head and no bread!" and "Is that a boy or a girl?". Once the group gets famous, the former critics now suddenly start to like them: "You know, they ain't so bad after all." Lyrics from the title song appear as captions underneath each panel. Wyman addresses the readers with the message: "Between the Buttons"! To understand this little rhyme, you must tap your foot in time. Then the buttons come much nearer. And the Stones you see much clearer."

Charlie Watts passed away in 2021, at age 80. 

Most of Watts' published comics were released to the public between 1965 and 1967. While they are definitely amateuristic, they remain charming curiosities made by a world famous rock artist. Other musicians who've illustrated their own album covers are Serge Buyse, Kurt Cobain, Def P, Daniel Johnston, Lucia Pamela, Schoolly D, Urbanus, Dallas Tamaira and Adam Wallenta.

Back cover of the 'Between The Buttons' record, containing Charlie Watts' comic strip.

Series and books by Charlie Watts in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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