Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – Charlie Gillett 1942-2010

Andy Childs | 19th March 2010

(photo by Roger George Clarke)

words by Andy Childs.

There surely can’t be anyone who is remotely interested in contemporary music who hasn’t been touched by the ears of Charlie Gillett. Apart from his achievements as a writer, music publisher, compiler par excellence, and record label boss, he managed, via his various radio shows, to do more than anyone could ever have expected to promote and champion and make accessible music from around the world. For that feat alone his status as a DJ will remain legendary, as important in his own way, some would say, as John Peel. I had the privilage of sitting in on one of Charlie’s Saturday evening GLR shows a few years ago and was energised by the man’s enthusiasm and passion for the music he played. No idle chit-chat while the records played – he sat swaying around in his chair, eyes closed, transported by the music he clearly loved and believed in. How such commitment, knowledge and talent could have been treated so cavalierly over the years as his shows were repeatedly cancelled and shuffled about from station to station by the dullards who control the airwaves must have been a source of irritation for Charlie, not that he ever showed it, but almost unbelievably it wasn’t until relatively recently when he was given a show on Radio 3 that he enjoyed a national audience.

My earliest memories of Charlie’s influence were the seminal book, Sound Of The City – one of the first books about popular music that a reasonably intelligent person could take seriously, and his essential Sunday lunchtime show on Radio London, Honky Tonk. If Charlie’s radio career had ended with Honky Tonk he would still have gone down in history as the man who gave the careers of Dire Straits, Ian Dury and Kilburn & The High Roads, and Elvis Costello a massive kick start. But fortunately that was just the beginning; he went on to write another book (about Atlantic Records), start Oval Records, form a publishing company (that had huge success with Paul Hardcastle’s 19) and eventually turn his attention and considerable powers of discernment to what, with his involvement, came to be known as World Music. I seem to remember him saying once that he pretty much abandoned U.S/UK contemporary music because he couldn’t find anyone that could really sing like, say, Aretha Franklin anymore.

For his ability to empathise with musicians from a myriad of cultures and backgrounds, his intuitive grasp of what makes a record really great and important, and his completely ego-less style of presentation and demeanor, Charlie was accorded immense respect by the people who meant the most to him. In a business full of people that regularly exhibit amazingly vulgar levels of narcissism Charlie often went to great lengths to praise and encourage artists and indeed other people in the music business who he deemed in it for the right reasons; he was always eager to find positive things to say and to see good in everyone and everything. This didn’t mean that he lacked rigour as a critic, but rather that he was very definite about what he thought was worthwhile and that deserved and needed support and encouragement.

One of my favourite features of any of Charlie’s shows was the ‘radio ping-pong’ game he played on GLR in latter years in which Charlie and his guest for the evening took it in turns to play records to each other that were in some way, and often very tentatively, connected. I think I heard more weird and wonderful music in those sessions than anywhere else on radio. One such regular guest was, perhaps surprisingly, Brian Eno, but their obvious differences in background were completely overcome by their mutual and unrestrained curiosity for new sounds and their infectious joy at hearing something amazing for the first time and being able to articulate and rationalise their emotions. I imagine that Brian speaks for many people when he says “I wish I’d found a chance to tell Charlie how much he meant to me and to music in general”. I shall really miss him – his passion for music, his total integrity and his gentle, self-deprecating nature: he was in many ways the complete opposite of a ‘media celebrity’ and I always found it a great pleasure to spend time with him. Being on the radio with him was like being round at a friend’s house and sharing record collections, with wide-eared and gleeful enthusiasm. He never let it become ‘just a job’ and it never felt, from my side, like ‘just another interview’.

It’s something of an indictment of us all to have to admit that we didn’t really appreciate someone until they aren’t there anymore but I fear that that is what can be said of Charlie. There is no-one with his depth of musical knowledge, taste, and charm to take his place on the radio and the impact of his passing on World Music and its well-being will surely be immense.

(with thanks to Brian Eno and Gareth Davies)