Why Charlie Watts Couldn’t See His Heroes Play
Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts recalled the “weird, silly” ban on American musicians playing in the U.K. that meant he wasn’t able to watch some of his heroes perform while he was learning to play.
A cross-Atlantic dispute that had been brewing in the early 20th century crystallized in 1935 when the British government introduced a general ban on American musicians performing in Britain, in a response to the perception that British artists were being harshly treated in the U.S.
While it remained possible for some exchange visits to take place, they remained highly restricted until the ‘60s, despite attempts at negotiation between the American Federation of Musicians and the U.K.’s Musicians Union, which noted that an environment of “mistrust and suspicion” persisted for decades.
“I just loved it,” he said. “I don’t know why. I suppose it’s like kids now, or when we were kids, listening to Jimi Hendrix; you suddenly think, ‘What he hell is he playing?’ … I heard Bird [Charlie Parker] and I thought, ‘That’s fantastic – I want to be that. … I want to do that in a club in New York.’ And I’d never realized quite how hard it all was to do that in a club in New York for nothing.”
You can watch a clip from in the interview below.
After Watts mentioned not having had the chance to see some of his favorite American artists, he explained that "we didn’t really have American players come to England. They did in the ‘30s, then it was banned, I think, until Big Bill Broonzy in 1954, I think … It was a very weird thing. It was silly. We missed out on people like Charlie Parker, who went to Paris – flew over England, [flew] back.”
He recalled that there were some examples of the ban being beaten in private, especially at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. “[Americans] used to go down there off hours, when no one was allowed to know,” he said. “The ‘50s and ‘60s were a great time for seeing people. There was a big transition… jump, R&B, then rock ’n’ roll … it was all one thing. I learned to play by watching people. It’s a not-very-correct way to learn, I suppose.”