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RIP, Charlie Gillett Updated: March 27, 2010

Terrible news spread around the world of music on March 17: British radio broadcaster Charlie Gillett died of a heart attack at the age of 68.

"A mountain has disappeared, and the landscape's been re-arranged. It'll never be the same again" 
- Quote from Andy Morgan, former manager of Tinariwen

Charlie was a giant in the music world.

Best known over the past 20+ years in the field of world music (he was there at the "birth" of that sometimes controversial term), he first became known for his groundbreaking and classic 1971 book, The Sound of the City, which had evolved from his Columbia University thesis and which traced the origins of early rock & roll from its American R&B (and country) roots. He later found his niche as a radio broadcaster, primarily on the BBC for almost four decades. In between, he started his own record label, kicked off the careers of several now world-famous musicians, and over those years, earned the respect and love of fans, musicians and others in the music world.

There has been a massive outpouring of tributes to him around the world. What is most remarkable to me among the many tributes, is the overwhelming appreciation of him as a person, and for his remarkable character and goodness. It's cited almost as much as his musical contributions, which were themselves quite spectacular.

Fellow BBC DJ Mark Lamarr wrote:

He was still my greatest champion and hero to the end, but it was no longer just as a great DJ or great writer, it was as one of those all-round superb humans that it turns out you only get to know once or twice a lifetime.

No-ones perfect but some get so close that it would nit picking to use any other description.

And fRoots magazine publisher Ian Anderson, himself a huge figure in the British world and roots music, remarked that:

I can only think of one or maybe two other people I've ever encountered in the "music business" over the last 40+ years about whom nobody ever, ever, has a bad word.

Musically, there were of course so many appreciations. I happened to particularly like this one:

I donít quite know how he kept his ears forever open, but he did. And somewhere in that simple sentence is what defined him. His passions were so real that he could cry uncontrollably when Presley died; and yet were so understated that he hardly ever strayed from the edge of the dance floor. He might not have danced; but his heart was dead centre in the rhythms of the evolving story of the music.

He could listen without prejudice; he could hear without preconceptions.

Photo above of (a young) Charlie with Ben E. King taken from fRoots website


On this page:
  • Bio: links to a fine obituary and Charlie's own 2001 account of his career
  • Radio shows: some radio tributes, recordings of some of his old shows, interviews and more, including musical selections played at his funeral.
  • A tribute from a Toronto friend of his
  • My own appreciation of Charlie
  • A brief appreciation of his life on the BBC World Service, including comments from Afropop Worldwide's Banning Eyre and me.

On another page:

Photo at right from Charlie's website by Philip Ryalls


An excellent account of his life & career in this obituary from The Times of London

A 2001 interview with Charlie on the fRoots website in which he discusses his career

In Canada, there seems to have been very little notice of his passing. Ken Stowar of CIUT FM had a personal recollection on air, and David Dacks, also of CIUT, wrote an appreciation of Gillett on Exclaim.

Photo at right by Philip Ryalls

Radio tributes, etc.
Some tribute shows; some replays of his old programs; some interviews with him. Note that most BBC shows are available to listen online for a week after their original broadcast. Some of the original shows have been removed... "Expiry date" is listed below.

Some of Charlie's old radio shows:

"Charlie Gillett's World of Music"
Charlie broadcast this show over the BBC World Service for a number of years. Shorter and more tightly focused on "world music" than his 2 hour programs, it was the way many people around the world came to know him.

This program, originally from Feb. 2009 played "mountain music" from around the world: Ukraine, Peru, Turkey, the U.S., Kyrgystan, Tibet, and Tuva. Overlaid are occasional reader tributes. The original forum thread on this episode, including Charlie's comments, is posted here.   Online until end of day Mar. 28

On radio with Ry Cooder
Two old radio shows from Captial Radio from around 1982/83. The second show is with Brad of the group The Specials

Sun Records Documentary.
A 1973 documentary by Charlie on the famous Memphis record company. Documentary is the first hour of the show. (Online through Mar. 27)

The Sound of New Orleans
Another classic Charlie documentary, this time from 1976, also covers the first hour of this show. (Online through Mar. 28)

Some tributes to him:

A Saturday night tribute. (Click the "listen" icon under "DJ Ritu")
Charlie's old Saturday night radio slot broadcast a 2-hour tribute to him. A number of guests who knew Charlie well talk about him, and play their selections of "Charlie's Island Discs". 
Online until 2am, Mar. 28

The Strand
BBC World Service program broadcast a 1 hour tribute to Charlie on Mar. 27. (Online until Apr 3)

Mark Lamarr
One of Charlie's own favourite radio shows was Mark Lamarr's "God's Jukebox". His March 27 show features sections honouring Charlie and Alex Chilton who died on the same day as Charlie
(Online until Apr. 3)

Mariza: "Smile" (Video)
The fado star, whose career Charlie helped, performs the song in honour of her friend.

The following are not on the BBC, and have no expiry time set:

Two shows are archived on Far Side Music, a website run by Paul Fisher, a Japanese music expert. There is a recording of Charlie's May 12, 2001 Radio London show on which Paul Fisher was his Radio Ping Pong guest. He also did a Mar. 24, 2010 tribute to Charlie, along with guest Howard Male.

A recording of one of his 1977 "Honky Tonk" radio show from 1977 with Ian Dury as guest. (Link is at the end of the obituary).

A recording from one of his shows on Capital Radio in the 1980's, with the theme, "Letters". Linked on this page (Linked at end of article)

Also, watch a little video of one of his last radio shows, featuring live performance by one of his favourite groups, Fad Freddy's Drop. Click in the upper right sid, "Ray Ray", in session, World on 3.

A 2007 video interview with him as he discussed his career and Oval Records business.


Music from Charlie's funeral (on YouTube)

Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou, The Homeless Wanderer
Read Charlie's take on her music

Leadbelly, Midnight Special
A few years ago, Charlie posted on his forum:
"If you really want to annoy me when I'm gone, play Joan Baez at the farewell... But if you want to make me happy, have somebody sing Midnight Special, the first song I learned to play (but never well enough to dare to do it in public)"

Johnnie Allan, The Promised Land
Charlie recounted the first time he heard this Cajun version of Chuck Berry's hit while he was in Louisiana looking for music for his brand-new Oval Records: "We're playing pool in a bar and the juke box is just playing whatever it's playing, and suddenly this version of Promised Land comes on which nearly makes me push my cue through the baize."

Mbilia Bel, Eswi Yo Wapi
One of the frequent contributors to Charlie's forum, Howard Male co-hosted a tribute linked on the "Far Side" link above closed that show with this song."As I thought it was such a perfect and joyous piece of music to go out on."

A personal appreciation of Charlie from Virginia Brooks:

When I heard of Charlie's death, the first person I called was Virginia who I knew had been a friend of Charlie's for many years. I know how hard Charlie's death has been for  her, but asked her if she would like to write some of her thoughts about hear late friend. This is what she sent me:

Charlie's death, like Charlie's life, alters our lives absolutely. Charlie was a gentle humble man who followed his heart in the music he introduced to his audience. He could not be bought with fame or fortune. His soothing voice was backed by a profound knowledge of his greatest passion, music... all kinds of music... but for many it was his interest in promoting music of the world that got so many hooked on his various radio shows. And for him radio was the medium he loved. I LOVE radio... I will always love radio and it's a measure of Charlie's genius to have one foot in radio and the other in the internet.

It was my great fortune to meet Charlie in Zimbabwe in 1987. I had been traveling the country using public transport and when I heard this handsome gentleman checking out of the hotel at the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, I approached him with the idea of hitching a ride back to Harare. He and his wonderful wife Buffy welcomed me to join them. This is the kind of guy he was. In Harare we haunted record shops and clubs in the townships for the latest hits. We were to meet up with Buffy at a selected spot but she wasn't there. I believe it might be the only time that I saw Charlie truly distraught, for Buffy was his great strength and counsel. We exchanged phone numbers... no email back then. So when I returned to London glowing with this new found world of music, I phoned Charlie and begged him to take me to Sterns music store so I could buy 10  of his top recommendations. No problem... off we went. (I ended up buying bought 25, not 10!) The rest is history as they say.

Whenever I passed through London, which was often over the next 20 years, I popped in to see Charlie and Buffy at their big old house where Oval Records had begun in their basement. I always left with music suggestions and warm feelings for a man whose schedule was jam packed. The amount of time he spent listening and researching what he heard is staggering. And I was always impressed that Charlie found time to eat well and stay fit with exercise. It was a cruel blow for him to be struck down with ill health at such a young age.

As the tributes pour in from around the world, it is clear that Charlie always found the time to listen, learn, encourage, and share his vast vast knowledge with friends, family as well as with complete strangers. I remember speaking with him when the Saturday night show ended and there was simply no one to fill his shoes; the show was replaced with dance music and he was sad about that fact.

The wonderful thing about a life like Charlie's is that he has not taken his spirit with him. His spirit lives as surely as the tracks we play... Youssou n'Dour, Mariza, Ian Dury, Mavis Staples, Johnny Cash, Chango Spasiuk... His spirit lives in the example he set in the way we treat one another: with dignity and respect, without prejudice, without judgment. His is a great legacy and though I think he did know that he was much admired, there was never the slightest hint of arrogance for what he had achieved. I will be forever grateful to the hand of fate which led me to Charlie, and ultimately to the radio show I presented and dedicated to him here in Toronto in November 2009. I sent the playlist to Charlie and received his affirmation.

My appreciation of Charlie:

The piece below is adapted from one I wrote in May, 2006 after Charlie left his long-running weekly Radio London show, "Sound of the City" due to health problems.  He did keep up his weekly half hour World Service show, and later shared the 2 hour "World on 3" BBC Radio 3 radio show with two other DJs. In January of 2010, he left that show following a stroke. Ironically, about a year ago, Charlie found the original version of this page I had written in 2006, and emailed me to let me know he was still doing those other shows (which of course I listened to regularly, so I updated the page to reflect that).

In 1972, while living in Tokyo for a year, I found myself at times trying to find a balance between two cultures. One way I connected psychologically with "back home" was through the music I knew from there: American R&B, rock & roll, soul, and the like. The only place to hear that music was the American Forces radio station, which didnít quite fill the gap. (Or, perhaps more accurately, had its own gaps).

I not only wanted to hear the music, it was a time when I was interested in learning more about the music, its artists, its roots; just where did it all come from? Improbably, it was in Japan where I found and bought a book entitled Sound of the City, written by British writer Charlie Gillett.

The book had its origins in Gilllet's Columbia University Masters Thesis ("I wrote the thesis just as a way of rationalising to myself that I hadn't entirely misspent my youth listening to records to no purpose.Ē), and it became perhaps the first serious exploration into how rock & roll had evolved out of its origins in the rural, regional musics  (especially black music) of the U.S., and was ultimately born in the midst of the new dynamics of the post-war urban environment in the U.S., in places like Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Memphis, etc. 

The book is now recognized as a classic -- still in print, it's sold more than 250,000 copies.

A few years later, Gillett wrote another book, Making Tracks, an excellent profile of Atlantic Records, one of the most influential and innovative post-war American record companies.

However, those were his last books, and although I greatly admired his knowledge of, and taste in music, I lost track of him for the next 15 years or so. In that time, I eventually found my way to a different kind of roots music: music from Africa and elsewhere in the world. It was music that was not always easy to find (although at least here in Toronto, we had shows like "Global Rhythms" and "Karibuni" on CIUT FM), and not easy to learn much about. I needed the equivalent of a world music Sound of the City.

However, in the mid-90's, the Internet became a source for this kind of information, and one day, to my great shock, and even greater pleasure, I found that Charlie Gillett was doing much the same thing for world music as he'd done for R&B and rock & roll; BUT now on radio and the Internet rather than publishing.

He had a weekly radio show on the BBC's Radio London, which was available online, and frequently archived which I listened to almost every week for many years. The show was unique among all the radio shows I've listened to on the radio or online for its eclecticism and his wealth of knowledge, joy and humour. He played music from around the world, and his real love (like mine) seemed to be African music, but he played anything he thought was good and interesting, and if he thought so, then it was probably worth listening to (and perhaps buying). He continued to play American country and roots music, along with the music more widely considered "world music". (It was on one of his shows that I re-discovered, and learned to appreciate Johnny Cash). I was happy to find we also shared dislikes (English folk music, and I laughed and agreed when he was appalled that his studio guest Mariza, whom he had championed for many years, selected Frank Sinatra as one of her picks!)

That Mariza segment was from my favourite feature on most of his shows: his "Radio Ping Pong" segment where he invited guests to the studio. They would chat, but more importatnly, they played musical selections inspired by and in reaction to the other's picks. There were some great moments. One of my favourite programs of all time was his Christmas Day broadcast with Mavis Staples.

For a number of years, several of those shows (including Mavis's) were available on the Mondomix website; they are no longer, but I'm hopeful they will be restored.

Charlie has championed a number of Canadian-based artists; most recently Kobotown, and among his favourites who were also his studio guests were Lhasa, who of course tragically died herself in January, 2010, and K'Naan.

He first began playing (and raving about) K'Naan when he was virtually unknown in Europe. In fact, the first time I contacted him was after his first play of K'Naan's music in 2005. I wrote just to point out the correct pronunciation of K'Naan's name. He (understandably from its spelling) pronounced it like "ka-nahn" He wrote back, thanked me, and encouraged me to post comments in his website forum. I've done so occasionally, but have also used it as a source of information regularly for years).

He continued to play K'Naan (and picked him as his "Bright Hope for 2006"), and finally had him as a guest in May of 2006. The same night, K'Naan was playing a concert in London, however, during the broadcast, Charlie told K'Naan that he wasn't feeling well, and would have to miss his show. It turned out to be his last Saturday night show. He ended up in hospital with an auto-immune condition, and he finally decided that he had to leave the show for health reasons.

It was a huge loss to me and many others around the world; although he kept up his World Service show, it wasn't the same. He was later able to share a new program, "World on 3" for the past couple of years which captured a lot of the spirit of his earlier show.

However, now there will be no more Charlie on radio or elsewhere.

While I will greatly miss him, I am very appreciative of what he offered: wonderful music and a wonderful spirit.

And my condolences to his wife, family, friends and to all those who knew him personally.

I understand he had been working on his memoirs, which apparently might be advanced enough that they can be published at some point.

Photo above: my very-well used copy of Charlie's first book. Note the 95 cent price tag on the spine.

BBC World Service on Charlie

For many years, Charlie did a half-hour world music program, "World of Music" on the BBC World Service, which attracted listeners and fans from around the world. Late on the night Charlie died, the arts correspondent was putting together a piece on him. It may be because he couldn't find many people in the UK to talk to at 1 or 2 in the morning that he looked for some North Americans to talk about Charlie. So the piece features some comments from Banning Eyre of Afropop Worldwide and me.

Click here for a 5 minute mp3 clip

On the next page, read a small number of the tributes posted on Charlie's forum