Shirley Watts, who was married to Rolling Stones drummer Charlie from 1964 until his death last year, has died after a short illness, according to a statement from her family. She turned 84.
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The statement read: “It is with great sadness that Seraphina, Charlotte and Barry announce the death of their beloved mother, grandmother and mother-in-law Shirley Watts. Shirley passed away peacefully in Devon on Friday 16th December after a short illness surrounded by her family.
“She will also be sadly missed by her sisters Jackie and Jill, and her brother Stephen. Now forever reunited with her beloved Charlie.”
The couple became a symbol of marital stability in the freewheeling rock world, even as Charlie drummed for a band that was the most famous bawdy band in music history. His low-key demeanor always contrasted with that image, rarely more so than in his domestic habits – which to him always meant Shirley, whom he met in 1961 when both were students at the Royal College of Art and married, at first secretly, three years later.
The marriage was a kiss of death for pop stars in the early 1960s and Watts initially kept the marriage a secret even from his bandmates, who were furious when they first found out.
“He didn’t want the band to know because he was scared of Andrew and stuff,” said longtime Stones bassist Bill Wyman in Paul Sexton’s recent Watts biography, “Charlie’s Good Tonight.” “So they kept it a secret for about three weeks, [then] the press released it. He still denied it for the first few days, and then he admitted and that was okay.
As for the audience, Wyman recalled Charlie being confronted by a reporter from England’s Daily Express. “I emphatically deny being married,” he replied. “It would hurt my career enormously if the story got around.” However, Shirley decided not to lie. “We’ve wanted to get married for about a year, but just didn’t dare,” she said. “The months went by and we decided that we could no longer live apart. I am very happy to be Charlie’s wife. It’s just great.”
Watts wasn’t exactly the heartthrob type and the marriage was never an issue after that. The pair got in trouble when Charlie battled substance abuse surprisingly late in his career, in the 1980s, but told Sexton several years later, “Now, thankfully, thanks to my wife, I’ve stopped [using] everything.”
Born Shirley Ann Shepherd, she studied sculpture at the Royal College of Art, where she met Watts, who was studying graphic design while also working as a part-time jazz musician. Their only child, daughter Seraphina, was born in 1968 and the family moved to a rural house in Devon (and lived in France during the band’s tax-free years), where Shirley established a world-class horse ranch. She became a renowned breeder and show person of Arabian horses.
“She’s an incredible woman,” Charlie says in the book about Shirley. “The only thing I regret about this life is that I was never home enough. But she always says when I get off the tour that I’m a nightmare and tells me to go back.
Indeed, the old friend of the family, Tony King, says in the book, “Shirley always kept him in line. He was never allowed to get too big for his boots when she was around. She would call it very soon. She didn’t hesitate to say something to pull the rug out from under his feet.
“I remember her writing me this brilliant letter in the early days when they were touring America, around Altamont time,” he continued, speaking of the band’s exciting 1969 US tour.
She said, “Charlie came home on the weekend, full of conceit that she was a member of the Rolling Stones. So I let him clean the oven.”’
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