Charlie would have hated all this fuss and bother over him. He was the most self effacing man I have ever met, and in the last year or more I confirmed that view, working with him on the ‘Honky Tonk’ CD. It was entirely about the music and the people who made it and the people who helped them produce it and get it out there and promote it. That’s what excited Charlie.
That’s not to say he was a pushover, for when Charlie had a view of what was what, he wasn’t going to shift from it readily. And he was very concerned that the CD had sold well – it has.
Charlie’s always been around as far as I can remember, from reading The Sound of the City, to discovering Louisiana music in all its beauty and variation on one 12” LP, to being introduced to a huge number of records from his Honky Tonk radio show, most of which are still resonant for me and many of which I bagged up and took 75p off a grateful customer for at the Rock On stall in Soho. As I said to him when some of his initial Honky Tonk picks coincided with tracks that we had put in the ‘Rock On’ compilation – ‘you played them, we sold them, Charlie’.
I probably lost touch with him for the longest period when I was producing punk rock records for Chiswick in the late 70s, but by the mid 80s we had reconnected and he was an essential part of the meetings that produced World Music, though he himself tended to put the term in inverted commas. I think it gave some offence to the purist in him. Regardless he carried the flag into the world of radio and continued to give a break to the best music that was around the scene, lending his unerring ears to it and championing it in that quiet declamatory way of his that was instantly convincing, mostly because he was mostly right and always committed and enthusiastic.
Through the history of the music business there have been ‘ears’, though not that many. People who could spot a great record a mile off without a following wind or a massive promotional campaign behind it. That was Charlie. But at the centre of his taste, it was ‘file under Pop’ or rather ‘file under this really should be popular’. He had an eclectic ear for sure and one that took great delight in the sound of a well-turned tune, a well crafted and delivered lyric and an emotional heart. My heart goes with you Charlie and thank you for all that you brought to my ‘ears’.
The Sound of the City book was a major influence for me. I picked up a copy when it was first published in early November 1970 at the Village Bookstore in Sausalito.
For me, it lifted the veil about American music from the 1950's. Before 'The Sound of the City', I'd never heard of doo wop, although I had several doo wop records, but did not realise that they were doo wop. Also, I did not know that Fats Domino, Little Richard, Lloyd Price, Huey Smith, Smiley Lewis, Frankie Ford and many others, all recorded in the same studio in New Orleans using basically the same musicians.
As I travelled across America with Skid Row, I started buying some of the records mentioned in Charlie's book [in the very few record stores that carried oldies at that time]. Prior to that, I had never heard of records like 'Diamonds & Pearls' by The Paradons, 'Gee' by The Crows, ''Work With Me Annie' by The Midnighters, 'Earth Angel' by The Penguins [I'd missed out of the London 45! ].
He wrote about the bird groups, the Swallows, the Pelicans, the Orioles, the Larks etc and groups with strange and exotic names like the Baltineers, the Turbans. and so on.
Without 'The Sound of The City', Rock On and Ace Records might never have existed!
He made his mark!
Charlie Gillett made a colossal impact by championing the best in music, in whatever style, through his books, articles, radio shows and record releases. He touched us all in so many ways, as evidenced by his recent ‘Honky Tonk’ Ace compilation (CDCHD 1242).
I readily recall a nervous debut radio appearance on ‘Honky Tonk’ in 1974 following the publication of my first book, ‘Walking to New Orleans’. Just before the news break, I asked what his first question would be. With a disarming nonchalance he said, ‘Oh, whatever comes into my head’. It was not quite the comforting response I was looking for, but it was typical of Charlie’s natural, informal approach. In fact, the best relaxant was that he was able to pose the right questions because of his vast music history knowledge.
I was delighted, of course, when he gave endorsements for ‘Record Makers and Breakers’, especially since my book was following unashamedly in the steps of his trailblazing ‘The Sound of the City’. Only a few months ago, he was recommending the long-published autobiography of Columbia Records’ John Hammond. I must share Charlie’s subsequent email: ‘Yes, isn’t that a fine book! Much better than Jerry Wexler’s, I’m sorry to say. Pity because Jerry was such a good writer, but he definitely pulled his punches in his own book’. The Hammond enthusiasm is contagious, isn’t it? And the criticism of Wexler’s volume is pithily correct.
Of Charlie’s many accomplishments, I have a soft spot for the way he broke the Jin recordings of Johnnie Allan’s ‘The Promised Land’ and Tommy McLain’s ‘Sweet Dreams’. In doing so, he took swamp pop out of the bayous into the big wide world. There will always be another Saturday night, thanks to Charlie.
Charlie was a constant in so many people’s lives that it is hard to believe he’s gone. I was in my late teens when I first met him. Having developed a retro fascination for the ill-starred Gene Vincent, certainly the strangest rocker of them all, I’d spotted a small ad in Record Mirror, a pop weekly of the day, placed by someone selling Gene Vincent 78s – real period pieces in content and format. The seller turned out to be Charlie, who at 25, had lived through the whole rock’n’roll shebang.
Charlie lived over the river in Clapham (in the same house in which he would spend the remainder of his adult life) and brought the records over to Chelsea where I was living at the time. We found we shared common interests in music and took it from there. He was tinkering with a thesis which would shortly form the template for ‘The Sound of The City’. Charlie became my constant mentor though I, along with several other recalcitrant protégés, would frequently let him down by not bothering to finish books he’d commissioned on our behalf and the suchlike. (I recall getting a call from Charlie’s discovery, the then unknown Ian Dury, who was basing a song on Gene Vincent and telling him I didn’t think I could help.)
Charlie was a truly selfless individual, always ready to believe the best in people and though our lives eventually took divergent paths, we stayed in touch over the years.
Unfussy and pragmatic, Charlie would have fought shy of the cloying eulogy - the mere thought would probably have brought out that beaming faintly ironic smile. Laid back but very firm in his beliefs, Charlie pretty much achieved all he set out to do in the world of music which was not to conquer it, but to improve our understanding and appreciation of its many strands. I believe music fans are the better for it.
For years I dreamed of a gold record and the opportunity to meet and tour with many of the big names, past and present, of the music industry. Charlies Gillett made that dream come true for me. Thank you Charlie for believing in "Promised Land". The world is a richer place for having had you my friend. RIP, your memory and your work will live on.