Some of my earliest encounters with the music we now call Americana came courtesy of a then little known radio show presented by a true Unsung Hero of Americana.
Charles Thomas Gillett (20 February 1942 – 17 March 2010) was a British radio presenter, musicologist, and writer. He has also been responsible for opening many people’s ears to a wider range of music than they might’ve listened to without his shows to guide them.
Like a lot of our Unsung Heroes, Gillett wasn’t an obvious candidate to be a trail-blazer. Born in Morecombe in Lancashire and growing up in Stockton-on-Tees doesn’t provide an immediately obvious background for an innovative radio presenter. Add into those factors that he studied for an economics degree at Peterhouse College, Cambridge and you have, on the surface, all the makings of a civil servant or accountant rather than a pioneering rock and roll DJ – but Gillett had been a big music fan from a young age and the first indication that he might be more than his backstory suggested comes when he headed to Columbia University, in New York, to do his Master’s Degree – his thesis being “The History of Rock & Roll Music”. A particularly unconventional choice in 1965.
Gillett started his working life as a teacher but, in 1968, he made his first forays into music journalism, writing a weekly column for the Record Mirror while turning the background to his Master’s Degree Thesis into a book. ‘The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock & Roll’ was published in 1970 and was instantly hailed as a significant contribution to recording the history of music. It’s an absolute must-read for anyone interested in modern popular music. Charting the history of popular music from 1954 through to 1970 it packs a phenomenal amount of information into its pages. There are those that will criticise it from a modern perspective and point out that some of his facts and figures have, subsequently, been proved inaccurate but this is a book written at a time when archive information was scarce and there was no such thing as the internet. It is an amazing achievement for the time and remains very readable to this day. Significantly, it greatly improved Gillett’s standing as a music journalist and he would go on to write for a number of prestigious publications, including the New Musical Express and Rolling Stone. He would also go on to write a second well-received book, ‘Making Tracks: Atlantic Records and the Making of a Multi-billion-dollar industry’ but, while he could write well enough Gillett was, first and foremost, a music fan and he was always on the lookout for different sounds and different approaches to making music. Popular music was the gateway drug for him but he always felt there was more to be experienced in musical terms and this is what made him such a success as a radio DJ.
Gillett is probably most widely known for his promotion of what has become thought of as World Music, particularly through his Capital Radio show ‘A Foreign Affair’ and his subsequent World Music radio shows at the BBC, but he has never really received the recognition due to him as a pioneer for Americana music on UK radio. When we talk about DJs that have promoted Americana music the first name that comes to everyone’s mind is, of course, Bob Harris but, while Bob himself has always been a fan of the music, his active promotion of it came relatively late in his career. Charlie Gillett started playing Americana and country-influenced music via his Radio London show, ‘Honky Tonk’ in 1972 and was the first DJ to play demo recordings by UK acts influenced by this music, such as Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and, most famously, Dire Straits; Gillett’s admiration for their demo recordings and his decision to give the first airing to ‘Sultans of Swing’ would lead directly to the band being signed up and the launch of their worldwide success. He had been asked, at one point, to present The Old Grey Whistle Test but turned it down on the basis that he wouldn’t be able to be enthusiastic enough about music he didn’t personally like. For Charlie, it was always about what he enjoyed and that resonated with his listeners, who knew they could trust him to bring them music he knew his audience would appreciate – he was never going to be dictated to by playing lists. In 1974 he would set up his own Oval record label specifically to produce and release ‘Another Saturday Night’, the first compilation of Cajun music to be released in the UK, introducing the wider British public to the likes of Belton Richard, Rufus Jagneaux, Margo White and a whole host of other Cajun and Swamp Pop artists. It even produced a minor hit single, being the first time that Johnnie Allan’s version of ‘Promised Land’ had made radio playlists in the UK.
If you seek out the Ace Records compilations of ‘Charlie Gillett’s Radio Picks Honky Tonk’ (volumes 1 & 2), which started life on Gillett’s own Oval Records, you’ll see that he was playing the likes of Jesse Winchester, Delbert McClinton, Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Tom T. Hall and a host of others at a time when most of the British radio listening public would have been totally unaware of this music.
Gillett stepped away from radio work in 1978, trying to make his own Oval record label successful whilst, with his partner in the record company, Gordon Nelki, he managed Kilburn and the High Roads (Ian Dury’s pre-Blockheads band) and Lene Lovich as well as working on jazz-related projects. He returned to radio work in 1980 with his first stint at Capital Radio and increasingly pursued his interest in left-field music and gradually working further into African music and beyond, though he would still frequently play Cajun and other Americana. In 1996 his expanded and revised edition of ‘The Sound of the City’ was published, again to much acclaim, and he returned to broadcasting for the BBC. Soon after this, he would start to put out a regular annual compilation of World Music, the first in 2000 and continuing up until 2009 when his final compilation of tracks would be released during his lifetime. There would be one more, ‘Anywhere on This Road’ released posthumously. These albums highlighted his interest in the widest possible range of musical styles and it wouldn’t be at all unusual to find an Allen Toussaint track nestling alongside something from Tinariwen, or Seasick Steve and Salif Keita on the same album. He always wanted to bring something new to his audiences.
In his later years Charlie was plagued with ill health and in 2006 was diagnosed with Churg-Strauss syndrome, a rare autoimmune condition. He finally died in 2010, leaving the airwaves of the UK poorer for his loss. Charlie Gillett received many accolades and awards throughout his career but it’s unlikely that any would’ve appealed to him as much as that of having a Womad Festival stage renamed in his honour following his death.
Charlie Gillett was a great broadcaster, knowledgable and passionate about music, and his ‘Honky Tonk’ radio shows were the start of a lifelong love of Americana for me and many others.
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