CHARLIE GILLETT : 20 February 1942 - 17 March 2010
Few people can have opened so many ears to such a variety of musicover the last four decades as Charlie Gillett, the author and radio disc jockey, who has died aged 68. Charlie wrote the first serious history of rock'n'roll and went on to become a central figure in drawing together the confluence of international sounds that became known, to the benefit of many artists whose work might otherwise have remained in obscurity, as world music.
The radio was Charlie's medium, and from Honky Tonk, his 1970s Radio London show, to his weekly BBC World Service broadcasts in recent years, he nurtured an audience whose loyalty to him and belief in his integrity were unshakeable. He was never polished in his presentation – "I'm not very good at reading scripts," he once said, "and I wouldn't be very convincing introducing a record that I didn't personally like" – but his listeners knew that if Charlie had chosen to play a piece of music, it would be worth hearing.
His discoveries were numerous, from Johnnie Allen's Cajun version of Chuck Berry's Promised Land in the early 1970s, through Youssou N'Dour and Salif Keita to Mariza, the young singer of Portuguese fado music who went from appearances on Charlie's show in 2001 to sellout concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Throughout the last decade he compiled CD anthologies, presenting the best of new music from around the world. The most recent, last year's Otro Mundo, included contributions from Armenia and Mallorca.
The best-known story, however, concerns a recently formed south London group who approached Charlie with their demo tape one day in 1976. He liked what he heard, and chose one of the songs, Sultans of Swing, to play on Honky Tonk that Sunday. By the time the tune had finished, his little studio had taken calls from half the A&R men in London. Dire Straits were on their way to global success, and they never forgot their debt to his willingness to trust his instincts.
Charlie was born in Morecambe, Lancashire, and brought up in Stockton-on-Tees, Cleveland, where, at the age of 16, he saw Buddy Holly and the Crickets on their only British tour. Educated at Grangefield grammar school, he excelled as a quarter-miler on the athletics track and as a footballer, and his love of sport never left him. While camping in north Wales one summer, he met Buffy Chessum, then 15. Some years later, after he had studied economics at Peterhouse, Cambridge, they made contact again, and in 1964 they were married.
They spent the following year in New York, where Charlie studied for his MA at Columbia University. The history of rock'n'roll became the subject of his thesis, long before popular music became an acceptable topic for academic study. Returning to England in 1966, he taught social studies and film-making, another lifelong enthusiasm, at Kingsway College of Further Education, now Westminster Kingsway, in central London, while Buffy gave birth to their two daughters (followed later by a son) and he spent the evenings turning his thesis into a book.
Attempting to find a niche in journalism, he wrote for New Society, Anarchy and the soul music magazine Shout before securing a column in Record Mirror, in which he could express his enthusiasm for rhythm and blues and early rock'n'roll. But it was when The Sound of the City was published in the US in 1970, to great acclaim, that his reputation was established. The book looked beneath the surface of the first 15 years of rock'n'roll, tracing its antecedents and making thoughtful, typically unpretentious assessments, not just of the musicians but of the fledgling industry and its visionary hustlers. Its avoidance of received wisdom inspired countless authors to pursue its themes in the subsequent decades.
Four years later Charlie produced Making Tracks, a serviceable history of Atlantic Records. But writing books, it turned out, was not his true vocation. Honky Tonk was heard for the first time in 1972, and over the next six years it became compulsory Sunday listening for the kind of music lover to whom the intimate music of JJ Cale or Bobby Charles spoke louder than the pumped-up sounds of Led Zeppelin or Yes, and who were thrilled when Charlie played demos by Elvis Costello or Graham Parker.
Wisely, he turned down an offer to present BBC2's The Old Grey Whistle Test, realising that he would have little to say to musicians for whose work he cared nothing. The intimacy of radio suited him better, and he became a series consultant to Radio 1's well-received The Story of Pop. In 1972 he was also part of the writers' collective that founded Let It Rock, a monthly magazine.
It was in the mid-1970s that he and his dentist, Gordon Nelki, formed a partnership which led them to manage Kilburn and the High Roads (whose lead singer was Ian Dury) and to start a label and publishing company, Oval Music. Their successes included Lene Lovich's Lucky Number, Paul Hardcastle's 19 and Touch and Go's Would You...? Later he acted as a music consultant to film companies and advertising agencies.
In 1979 he moved from BBC Radio London to Capital, the city's commercial station, and began to feature music from around the world. Sacked in 1983, he was brought back by public demand and stayed until 1990. In May 1995 he returned with a show on GLR, Radio London's successor, and began his World Service series in 1999. He was also a regular presenter of Radio 3's World on 3.
In recent years he contracted a disease of the autoimmune system that forced him off the air and finally ended his Sunday-morning kickabouts on Clapham Common with players from an assortment of African and South American countries. It was followed by a stroke and, last week, a heart attack outside his home. He is survived by Buffy, their daughters Suzy and Jody, their son Ivan, and two grandchildren.