I had just passed my thirtieth birthday when I got my own radio show in March 1972, being set loose to play pretty much whatever I wanted, Sunday lunchtime on the BBC’s local FM station, Radio London. Just 45 minutes at first, it was fairly soon extended to an hour and then to two hours, broadcast every week until 31 December 1978.
For a while, all I wanted to do was play every great record with rock’n’roll in its blood, many of them rarely, if ever, heard on British radio, and most of them emanating from the southern states of America. In those days, pop music in the UK was played on medium wave stations and this show on FM radio might easily have remained a well-kept secret if it had not been championed by John Collis, radio correspondent for London’s weekly listings magazine Time Out. When John heard the rumour of the show he called up a week or so ahead of the first programme to ask what I was planning to do; it soon became clear that he needed some kind of identity for each programme in order to be able to justify mentioning it on a regular basis.
So I began with a programme of records made in New Orleans and Louisiana, and returned to that region several times, as well as moving west to Texas and even further out to California, north to Memphis and Chicago, and often grouping records with particular themes. I can no longer remember how I ran across every track included here, but probably as many as half of them were tips of one kind or another, while many of the others had been unearthed during the previous five-year period when I was working on a history of popular music, called The Sound Of The City, which traced the emergence and evolution of rock’n’roll out of independently-recorded R&B and country music in the late 1940s and early 50s.
As the grapevine spread, listeners started to get in touch to tell me about records I seemed unaware of, not only obscure originals from the 1940s and 50s, but current artists too. I had a pretty frosty attitude towards a lot of current British pop, even though much of it was made by people my own age and with similar tastes. I never did play T Rex, Roxy Music, Wizzard or Slade but was thrilled to make room for JJ Cale, Jesse Winchester and Delbert McClinton. No coincidence, most of them were from the American South too.
Among the regular listeners were many people who knew far more than I did, some of them dedicated to finding every possible piece of information about the records they liked best – dates and locations of when and where they were recorded, names of any and all sessions musicians and which little label released the record first. Such people can be notoriously possessive of what they have discovered, but I was lucky to be befriended by Bill Millar, John Anderson, Ray Topping, Errol Dixon, Rob Finnis and others, who between them managed to make up for my woeful ignorance and gave me a much better education than I ever had in school or university. As far as I was concerned, Honky Tonk was a shared forum and bulletin board for the music we all revered. One of the greatest surprises was that the programme drew an audience of real live musicians in London, who liked this kind of music themselves, and some of them began to submit their demo tapes.
By Charlie Gillett