Former art student and notable Arabian horse breeder Shirley Ann Watts, who met Charlie Watts before he joined the Rolling Stones, and who went on to have one of rock’s longest marriages, has passed away. Age-wise, she belonged to the 84-year club.
“Shirley died peacefully on Friday 16th December in Devon after a short illness surrounded by her family,” her family announced Monday. The Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood was among those mourning her.
“We will miss you so much, but take comfort that you are reunited with your beloved Charlie,” Wood wrote on Facebook.
Charlie and Shirley Watts were married for over 50 years until Charlie died in 2021, while Wood, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards all had many wives and girlfriends. In the mid-1980s, Charlie Watts had a heroin addiction that, according to him in retrospect, nearly destroyed his marriage. Otherwise, he was considered so dedicated to his wife and daughter Seraphina that the media largely ignored him.
“I’ve always wanted to be a drummer (and) as long as it’s comfortable with my wife, I’ll continue to do it,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1996.
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Charlie and his family had a 600-acre, 16th-century estate in Devon. When he wasn’t on the road or in the studio, they were better known for their Polish Arabian horses and their work saving animals than for the drummer’s unique role in rock history. There was an equal chance that an article on Watts would appear in Arabian Horse World as in a music magazine.
Contrary to Charlie, his wife seemed friendly with Jagger and Richards and enjoyed listening to Stones’ music around the house. Shirley, however, was conflicted; she told Vanity Fair in 1989 that the band’s drug use had damaged her life “very, very deeply” and that she generally had little love for the rock star world.
“It was quite appalling being pitched into the life of the Rolling Stones,” she said. “I got lost for about 25 years and I’ve never been able to cope. There’s been lots of anger, much of it deep. I like the people in the group — up to a point. But I’ve always hated how rock music and its world treat women, particularly the Rolling Stones‘ attitude. There is no respect.”
Shirley Ann Shepherd met her future husband, a member of the London blues and jazz scene that featured Jagger and Richards, in the early 1960s when she studied sculpture at the Royal College of Art. They began dating before Watts joined the Stones in early 1963, and they wed the following year when the band had already become as successful in their hometown as the Beatles.
“She was so funny and clever, and she had the most infectious laugh you’d ever heard,” Charlie Watts said of her when interviewed by The Guardian in 2000. “And I loved the world she was in, art and sculpting. I just admired Shirley very, very much.”
Their decision to tie the knot was the source of the most controversy surrounding their union. At the time, rock stars who got married were seen as terrible for business because they turned off young female followers. John Lennon of the Beatles was one of the many musicians who avoided answering questions about his family life when interviewed by the press.
Without informing the other Stones, the Watts married in Bradford and had a quiet lunch at a nearby pub. According to Paul Sexton’s “Charlie’s Good Tonight,” a 2022 biography of the late drummer written with his family’s cooperation, Charlie Watts initially denied reports that he was married, saying that “it would do a great deal of harm to my career if the story got around.” But Shirley happily confirmed the news, saying they could not “bear to live separately any longer.”
Neither Charlie nor Shirley enjoyed the spotlight, yet they occasionally found themselves in it. The customs agents at the Nice airport in 1971 detained Shirley Watts after she allegedly attacked them because they had singled out her husband. Polish government officials reportedly mistreated two Arabian mares at a state-run farm, prompting her to threaten legal action against them in 2016.
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Shirley Watts also had a tough time with alcoholism, but she overcame it with the help of many hours spent carving horses and canines. After Charlie bought his wife a half-Arab stallion, the couple discovered a mutual love for horses that led to raising hundreds of Arabians.
“I much prefer my life here with the horses. I love the hunt. The sense of power one gets on a horse,” she told Vanity Fair. “It’s a very ancient instinct. When you hear the hounds — they call it the music — when you hear the hounds’ music, it’s bloodcurdling, it’s so thrilling. And it affects both you and the horse. There’s nothing like it. It’s dangerous. It’s exciting.”
She added, with a laugh, “It sounds rather like a rock ‘n’ roll concert.”
Shirley Ann Watts, a former art student and notable Arabian horse breeder, died. She met drummer Charlie Watts before he joined the Rolling Stones and had one of rock’s most durable marriages with him. She was 84 years old.
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