He turned down offers to present music shows on television because he felt he couldn’t do justice to the role if he didn’t believe in the music, and especially, the musicians. For Charlie was a friend to musicians; he loved the idea of people coming together from all around the world, without a care for political allegiances or differences, and celebrating the simple thrill of making great music.
His life in bringing music that we would probably never get to hear anywhere else was defined by a series of coincidences, coupled with doggedness for knocking on doors until they eventually opened.
After graduating from Cambridge with a degree in economics, Charlie took his Masters at Columbia University in New York. He was working in an office, and after hours, attempted to transcribe his mammoth thesis. With no typing skills at all, he began to laboriously tip-tap on a typewriter, until a colleague took pity, and offered to type it up for him.
Three years later, back in London and teaching at Kingsway College, Charlie received a letter from America, from a man whose name he didn’t recognise, at that time. The secretary who had helped him with his thesis had passed it to her manager, who by a mind-boggling coincidence had just started a publishing company, and offered to turn Charlie’s thesis into a book. Thus was published Charlie’s much respected ‘The Sound Of The City: The Rise Of Rock And Roll’. It’s a serious work, but never dry, and always entertaining, covering modern music’s path from the rhythm and blues roots of the 1940s, through soul to rock, and touching on the early stages of psychedelia and the progressive rock emerging from the late 60s.
The positive reception given to ‘The Sound Of The City’ helped Charlie get a show (and a fee of eight pounds each week) on BBC Radio London, and in 1972, he was given free rein on his show ‘Honky Tonk’ to play pretty much anything he wanted. At a time, when the pirate stations had been silenced, and before the birth of commercial radio in the UK, the influence of Charlie and Honky Tonk was enormous. Those escaping the granddad tones of Jimmy Savile on Radio One found joy and passion at large on Radio London, where Charlie not only played all sorts of music from all sorts of origins, he also spoke about them, and introduced them, with eagerness and warmth. He had a splendid radio voice, clear and lively, but with a maturity that many of his contemporaries lacked.
This was World Music before the term had been invented. There would be Amos Milburn, followed by Ronnie Hawkins, and then J.J.Cale. You knew he had chosen these records and was playing them to the audience just as a friend may do when excitedly turning up at your door with a new album for no other reason than a hope that you may share his enthusiasm.
After leaving Radio London, and (typical of Charlie’s singularity) starting a record label with his dentist, he managed Ian Dury’s Kilburn & The High Roads, and Lene Lovich.
Further stints at Capital Radio, the World Service, and back at BBC Radio London, consolidated Charlie’s position as a wonderful innovator, and inspirational broadcaster.
Though illness slowed him down, he never lost his zeal for bringing great music, from around the world, to a wider audience.
Charles Thomas Gillett was born 20th February 1942 & died 17th March 2010.
Terence Dackombe, March 2010