Shirley Ann Watts, a former art student and prominent breeder of Arabian horses who met drummer Charlie Watts well before he joined the Rolling Stones and with him formed one of rock’s most enduring marriages, has died. She was 84.
“Shirley died peacefully on Friday 16th December in Devon after a short illness surrounded by her family,” her family announced Monday.
While Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood all have had multiple wives and girlfriends, Charlie and Shirley Watts remained together for more than 50 years, until Charlie died in 2021. Their only known crisis happened in the mid-1980s, when Charlie Watts struggled with heroin addiction, a time he would later say nearly cost him his marriage. He was otherwise regarded as so devoted to his wife, and daughter Seraphina, that journalists essentially left him alone.
“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.
When Charlie wasn’t touring or recording, he and his family lived on a 600-acre, 16th century estate in Devon, where they were better known for their Polish Arabian horses than for the drummer’s singular place in rock history. Stories about the Watts were as likely to appear in Arabian Horse World as they were in a music publication.
According to Charlie, his wife had warm relations with Jagger and Richards and, unlike him, would play the Stones’ music around the house. But Shirley herself expressed ambivalent feelings, telling Vanity Fair in 1989 that the band’s drug use affected her life “very, very deeply” and that she otherwise had little use for the rock star world.
“It was quite appalling being pitched into the life of the Rolling Stones,” she said. “I really got lost for about 25 years and I’ve never been able to cope with it. There’s been lots of anger, much of it very, very deep. I like the people in the group — up to a point. But I’ve always hated the way rock music and its world treat women and particularly the Rolling Stones’ attitude. There is no respect.”
Shirley Ann Shepherd was born in London in 1938 and was studying sculpture at the Royal College of Art in the early ‘60s when she first saw her future husband, who at the time was part of the emerging blues and jazz scene in England that also included Jagger and Richards. They were already dating when Watts joined the Stones early in 1963, and married the following year, just as the band had established itself as second only to the Beatles in local popularity.
The biggest scandal about their marriage was their decision to get married. Rock star weddings were considered bad business at the time, a turnoff to young female fans — the Beatles’ John Lennon was among those who hedged when reporters asked him about his domestic life.
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, telling the Daily Express 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 liked drawing attention to themselves, but at times they did so anyway. Shirley Watts was arrested at the Nice airport in 1971 for attacking customs officials. In 2016, she threatened to sue Polish government officials over the alleged mistreatment of two Arabian mares at a state-run farm.
Shirley Watts also endured a battle with alcoholism, one she helped overcome by hours of sculpting horses and dogs. The Watts’ shared interest in horses grew from collecting figurines to raising hundreds of Arab horses, a passion that began after Charlie purchased a part-bred stallion for his wife.
“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 primeval 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.”