Charlie Gillett: Broadcaster and author who championed world music
Friday 19 March 2010
Over the last four decades, the radio presenter, author and music publisher Charlie Gillett was one of the most influential people in the British music industry, a feat he achieved without a national media profile and no trace of an ego. He typically downplayed the excellence of The Sound Of The City – The Rise of Rock'n'Roll – the authoritative book he first published in 1970, and one which has sold 250,000 copies and has remained in print ever since, a rare feat in a market littered with cash-ins and remaindered titles. He made light of the part he played in the careers of Ian Dury, Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, Darts, and most famously Dire Straits, whose demo of "Sultans Of Swing" he aired on his legendary Honky Tonk show on BBC Radio London in July 1977, the first step on their way to a record deal with Phonogram and worldwide success.
He was generous to a fault, in his dealings as the music publisher of Lene Lovich and Paul Hardcastle, as the co-founder of Oval Records, and as the compiler of collections such as Another Saturday Night, the introduction to cajun music issued in 1974. Not content with helping musicians and songwriters, he also encouraged other broadcasters and writers like myself and took as much pleasure in our endeavours and successes as he did in his. Most of all, he was an early, fearless and constant champion of World Music – a term he helped coin at a meeting in a London pub in 1987 – and, since 2000, assembled beautifully-sequenced double CD overviews of the genre on a yearly basis.
His shows on the BBC London stations and Capital Radio, and more recently on the BBC World Service and Radio 3, introduced artists like King Sunny Ade, Youssou N'Dour, Salif Keita and Mariza, and he must rank second only to John Peel in the pantheon of great British radio mavericks. Indeed, it was an indictment of the powers-that-be at the BBC, that, apart from occasionally deputising for Bob Harris and presenting three short series of Without Frontiers on Radio 2, Gillett did not broadcast to the whole of the UK and the rest of the world until the last decade of his life.
However, his profile and popularity increased through the online availability of his programmes. His loyal audience, many friends and fellow broadcasters loved the "silver fox", who was given a Sony Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991, won Best Specialist Music Show at the Sony Awards in 2002, and was presented with the John Peel Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music Radio by the Radio Academy in 2006.
Born in Morecambe, Lancashire in 1942, he grew up in Stockton-on-Tees, Cleveland. He was a keen runner and footballer but his passion for music became the defining feature of his teenage years. In 1958, he saw Buddy Holly and the Crickets, an occasion he recalled with fondness, unlike his impressions of seeing the Velvet Underground in New York in 1966. He disliked them intensely and remained suspicious of rock'n'roll as an attitude rather than a sound for the rest of his life. He had gone to the US after studying economics at Peterhouse, Cambridge to do a Master's degree at Columbia University, New York, where he submitted a thesis on the history of rock'n'roll music which formed the basis for The Sound Of The City.
"I wrote the thesis just as a way of rationalising to myself that I hadn't entirely misspent my youth listening to records to no purpose," he recalled. "When I came back from America I tried every way I could to get either into the press or radio, and trying to get people to accept the idea of a book about popular music. I got rejections across the board."
From 1966 he taught social studies and film-making at Kingsway College Of Further Education in central London, and two years later began writing a column for Record Mirror. Following a long gestation and the eventual publication of the critically-acclaimed The Sound Of The City, Gillett completed a history of Atlantic Records, Making Tracks, published in 1974.
By then, he had turned down the opportunity to replace Richard Williams, the first presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test, the BBC2 television programme which turned Bob Harris into a household name.
"I would have had to be talking to people like Yes, and Emerson Lake & Palmer or whatever, and really I couldn't imagine what I would say to them," he admitted. "I thought: I want to be in charge of what I'm doing. So there have been one or two things that I have said no to, which most people in my position wouldn't have done, and I've never for a second regretted."
Rather, from March 1972 until the end of 1978 he was his own man and presented Honky Tonk on Sunday lunchtimes, mandatory listening for music cognoscenti. In 1974, he and Gordon Nelki, his dentist, launched Oval Records, named after the tube station nearest to the presenter's London home, whose basement served as its headquarters.
Released with the catalogue number Oval 1000, the cajun version of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" by Louisiana singer Johnnie Allan became a turntable hit and justified the time and energy spent visiting the US and acquiring the masters for Another Saturday Night. However, their tenure as managers of Kilburn & The High Roads, the pub rock group fronted by Dury, didn't go as well though they maintained a strong relationship with the singer and the Stiff label he signed to in 1977. Costello, another artist whose demos Gillett gave airtime to, also went to Stiff, as did the decidedly quirky Lovich, who scored a Top 3 single in the UK with "Lucky Number" in 1979. Oval issued several reggae singles and re-released albums by the Sir Douglas Quintet and Barbara Lynn, but their tie-up with A&M in the late '70s resulted in some of the worst singles of the so-called new wave, by The Secret and Shrink.
Gillett had a lifelong obsession with backroom talent, the session musicians, producers and operators behind hits and obscure records, and small, independent labels, especially from the Southern States of the US. His and Nelki's successes as music publishers were delightful throwbacks to the golden days of regional hits, and included the 1985 worldwide hit "19" by Paul Hardcastle in 1985 and the Top 3 single "Would You...?" by the David Lowe project Touch And Go in 1998. For several years they nurtured the talent of both writers, along with Jimmy O'Neill, who went on to front Fingerprintz and The Silencers, and Kevin Armstrong, who played with David Bowie, and also worked with Jah Wobble's Invaders Of The Heart.
In 1980, Gillett joined Capital, the commercial London station then covering much of the musical spectrum. When his show was axed three years later, management received so many complaints that he returned with an even freer hand and launched the pioneering World Music programme A Foreign Affair.
However, that ended in 1990 and he spent a baffling five years away from the London airwaves. He returned on the BBC station GLR with a Saturday-evening show featuring many World Music acts and the occasional '70s favourite of his like Charlie Dore performing live, and playing "radio ping-pong", a one-hour segment during which Gillett and his guest chose every other record. With guests like Damon Albarn, Brian Eno and Don Letts, this proved an endearing, illuminating feature. I still treasure his quizzical expression when my "opening serve" by Les Surfs, a '60s vocal group from Madagascar, sparked off a discussion about the yé-yé genre and continued with me giving him the occasional EP from that era whenever we met.
Four years ago he was diagnosed with Churg-Strauss syndrome, a disease of the auto-immune system. After many fine broadcasts, including several from the WOMAD festival, he retired from what had by then become BBC London 94.9 in July 2006. The following year, he began presenting World On 3 on Radio 3 and was still recording a half-hour show for the BBC World Service until he suffered a stroke earlier this year.
"I am the kind of presenter who thinks on his feet," he said. "I'm not very good at reading scripts. I wouldn't be very convincing introducing a record that I didn't personally really like. You would hear it in my voice. I am a maverick DJ in the sense that the mavericks are the ones who just play what they want to play regardless of whether record companies are banging on their doors saying this is what we want you to play. I quite like the word 'maverick'."
Charles Thomas Gillett, radio presenter, author, musicologist, music publisher, label owner: born Morecambe, Lancashire 20 February 1942; married 1964 Buffy Chessum (two daughters, one son); died London 17 March 2010.
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