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Until recently, when the internet has made it possible for listeners from Nempnett Thrubwell to New Orleans to tune in to his BBC London Live radio show, Charlie Gillett was a world music DJ who had a great reputation but most of our readers couldn't hear. Now you can - and lots do - listen to him worldwide on the net and the BBC World Service. But Charlie's not just the guru of world music radio (and assembler of occasional state-of-the art world music compilation CDs like World 2000 and The World's All Yours) of course. His Sound Of The City was one of the first major books about popular music from the rock 'n' roll era, his compilation Another Saturday Night was a major factor in breaking Cajun music in the UK, and less well publicised is his role as a manager and publisher in the music biz mainstream. I thought it was time we heard the whole story, beginning of course with The Sound Of The City which had been his M.A. thesis from a mid-'60s year at Columbia University in New York.
"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. I was working in America in an office, and in the evenings, when I'd finished my official work, I was typing my thesis out. A woman came and stood in the doorway for a little while, then she came over and said 'Gimme that. I can't bear to see you go finger, finger, finger, finger.' And three days later she handed me this immaculately typed thesis for which she accepted nothing more than a box of chocolates."
"I came back to England in 1966 and spent the next three or four years teaching social studies and film making at Kingsway College. We'd already got two kids at that time, and I had the temerity after supper to sit down with the typewriter on my knee and bang out something towards the idea of a history of rock 'n' roll, rhythm & blues, all that. About two or three years into this process I get a letter from America, from a man whose name I didn't recognise. He said 'You won't know me, but it was my secretary who typed your thesis. I've since left that company and I'm with so-and-so, and we've formed a book publishing company. I wondered if you've ever thought of turning that thesis into a book.'"
"I sent him the manuscript of where I was at the time. He wrote a really nice letter back saying, 'Well, as I said, I would like to turn that thesis into a book. What you've got here isn't a book, but with a bit of work I think we can turn it into one.' So we then worked on it a couple of years more, and that turned into Sound Of The City.
"When I first encountered Charlie at the 1968 London Blues Convention, he was on the bill as an 'expert', but I can't now remember what had got him to that status.
"Well, when I came back from America I tried every way I could to get either into the press or radio, and trying to get people to accept the idea of a book about popular music. I got rejections across the board."
Charlie got a few breaks from New Society and Anarchy, and eventually struck up a relationship with Tony Cummings' soul magazine Shout! "I came up with this idea that I could start to serialise where I'd got to, writing Sound Of The City, chapter by chapter. If I printed it straight onto the Gestetner, all he had to do was run it off. He was really happy because it saved him a whole load of secretary time, and I was really happy because it gave me feedback then, from the experts who were reading this thing, correcting me left, right and centre. All my career, I've been amazed at the tolerance of my ignorance and mistakes by everybody. Everybody just accepts my good intentions and says 'You didn't get this right', while there are other people who make one mistake and everybody jumps on them like a ton of bricks. I've shamelessly used the fact that there are people who know more than me, but will generously share their knowledge, expecting nothing back except that they've set the record straight."
"Somewhere along the line, I was still trying to get into the NME and the Melody Maker and all those, and I wrote to the Record Mirror because I noticed that at the back they had a kind of classified ad section with people selling old Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis 78s: this was '68, I think. I wrote to the editor and said 'You have nothing in the editorial of your paper that deals with that audience, who are clearly buying your paper for those ads. I could do a column for you for them.' And the guy called me up and said 'Do you want to come in and we'll talk about it?' I went in, wondering what else I could say to persuade him, and he said 'When can you start? Next week?' So when people ask me how do you get started in this game, it's my advice that you have to somehow see something that nobody's doing that you could uniquely do. That's almost my only philosophy.
"Everything changed when Sound Of The City came out, in America first in 1970, and 1971 here. Charlie was soon involved in television; a music panel show with Michael Parkinson; a series of artist profiles including B.B. King, the Drifters, Labi Siffre and Gilbert O'Sullivan; an early arts review programme. Then he got a call from Michael Appleton offering him a presenter gig on The Old Grey Whistle Test.
"In normal circumstances one would have said yes, but a parallel thing had happened where BBC Radio London had started up. I listened to it a couple of times and couldn't understand why it was so bland. So I wrote in my Record Mirror column, saying 'Why aren't they playing" two or three soul records that I was besotted about at the time. During the week a voice rang up and said 'My name's Robbie Vincent. I'm a DJ on Radio London. Why don't you come in with these records you think we should be playing and we'll see what the listeners think of you.' So he had me come in and he acted as a devil's advocate on air saying 'Well, should we be listening to this?' and asking listeners to call in. And lots of listeners called in and said it sounded great."
"I came off the air and the head of the station said 'Have you ever thought about going on the radio?' I said 'Only since I was 15!' So in a couple of months I had my own show. When Michael Appleton said 'Do you want to be on Whistle Test?' I thought 'Not really. I want to be in charge of what I'm doing'. On the Whistle Test I was going to have to be talking to people like Yes, and Emerson Lake & Palmer or whatever, and really I couldn't imagine what I would say to them. So there have been one or two things that I have said no to, which most people in my position wouldn't have done, and I've never for a second regretted.
"Charlie presented the influential Honky Tonk on BBC Radio London from March 1972 until the end of 1978, during which time his support and broadcasting of demos by then-unknowns was most famously responsible for the career breaks of bands like Dire Straits. After a year off, he moved to London commercial station Capital with a show called Undercurrents.
"There was some really interesting stuff on independent labels which Capital Radio wasn't covering. I did an hour's show on all independent labels, whatever I could find. And then that was a bit restricting so they said I could do a two-hour show. That was then The Alchemists, which was a variation on what I'm doing now. The crucial turning point was people like Joe Jackson coming in and playing salsa, and King Sunny Ade."
"In the '50s I had a cousin who had been in Ghana and Nigeria and came back with yellow label Decca 78s, and I did like it but didn't connect it to the other stuff that I liked. It was a sort of exotic other thing. And in 1973 I played Manu Dibango's Soul Makossa five times! It was one of those records. I didn't know anything about it. It wasn't a novelty record, it was much more, an amazing, powerful dance record. And I played Tabou Combo on Honky Tonk - it was one of those tracks that was about seven minutes long and I played a lot of it. But as I say, I hadn't joined it up. The seed was there. The guys out of The Beat, in 1982, said 'We were listening to African music as we were making the Beat's records'."
"I was sacked in 1983, and very surprisingly to me there was a strong reaction from the audience, so they decided to bring me back, but not doing the same thing. That was when I came up with this 'I don't know about foreign music, but the audience does, so if I jump into the deep end, they will help me out with what I don't know'. That was A Foreign Affair. Later I changed the name to A World Of Difference or City Beats - I don't remember which was which - I think it was still being called A World Of Difference when it all ended. The last day of 1990 was the last day at Capital.
"Charlie's '80s residency on Capital's airwaves was a major catalyst and important neighbourhood noticeboard, without which the whole evolution of world music in the UK would have been very different. Indeed, within months of leaving Capital (the expression 'jumped before he was pushed' may be appropriate), Charlie won the Sony Gold Award for being the best UK broadcaster of the previous year. But apart from doing in-flight programmes for British Airways and occasional guest appearances or deputising for others, it wasn't until May 1995 that he returned to full time broadcasting on BBC Radio London's successor, GLR (now metamorphosised into BBC London Live).
"I rang the head of GLR and introduced myself and said 'I was just wondering if there was any chance of me coming in', and she said 'What, you'd be interested in being on GLR?' and I said I'd be very interested. She said 'But you're on Kiss' and I said 'Once, I went on Jonathan Moore's show at 3 o'clock in the morning for an hour, does that count?' No, no, it's Jazz FM then', she said. And I said 'Twice. I did two shows sitting in for Ian Anderson. I don't think that counts.' So a couple of months later, there I was on GLR. The fact was that when I went off the air at Capital not a single radio station got in touch with me. And it has generally been the case." Early on in his radio and writing career, Charlie had also eased into the management, recording and music publishing side of the business.
We jump back to 1971
"Sound Of The City came out and I was completely astonished by the positive reaction to it, especially in America. I had just written it trying to sort out things for myself. I wanted to get the sequence of what happened and why, and the fact that it seemed to me that the roots of American popular music were black. Having had that as my reason for writing Sound Of The City, I kind of got it out of my system. And it was so difficult writing a book, so stressful and exhausting, and all the time you're pushing this boulder, thinking 'Nobody's going to be interested in this.' When they said, as a result of all the positive reaction, 'What are you going to do next?' I came up with what I thought was an answer which would result in them saying, 'We're not going to do that'. I said 'I would like to meet the people of Atlantic Records. Their story is fascinating and covers the same period, and if you pay my expenses so that I can go there and meet everybody that I have to talk to.' But they said yes, and paid me $3,000, which was a lot of money in 1972."
"I went out there and did the interviews, came back and I'd just finished writing when a friend of mine, Gordon Nelki, who was my dentist at the time, said 'What else could you do?' I said 'I suppose run a record label' - this was 1972. And he said 'What's entailed in that?' and I said 'I don't really know. But what I would put out on my record label if I had one is some of the music from Louisiana that I've been playing which you can't get here.' 'Oh' he said, 'well, why don't we start one up?' So we went down to New Orleans and Louisiana and had some really funny, absurd negotiating debates with people and then met the wonderful Floyd Soileau of Jin and Swallow Records in Ville Platte. In New Orleans, before we got to Ville Platte, 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. It was what we now know as Johnny Allen's version of Promised Land. I looked and I found what was playing and worked out it was B28 or whatever, and it's on Jin Records, which is the label we're going to go to, which is wonderful. So when I'm walking in the door and he's putting his hand out, I'm saying 'Have you got Johnny Allen's Promised Land?' He said 'Yeah, yeah, calm down. What are you interested in that for? It's a B-side.' I said 'I heard it in New Orleans. It's got to be on our album.'"
"He agreed a fee of something like $20 a track and a very reasonable royalty and said 'Just take away as many 45s as you want. Let me know the ones that you want the tapes of, and I'll supply them.' So we spent ages putting this compilation together out of all that. And of course I didn't have any contacts in the industry as such. We got turned down by a couple of people and I don't know what we were going to do next."
"Meanwhile I'm playing records on the radio still, and a couple of people tell me I've got to go and see this band called Kilburn & The High Roads. It took two different people a couple of times, and eventually I went to see them. This was Ian Dury's group. And I was absolutely knocked out by them. I came back and said to the listeners, 'You have to go and see this group. They're just extraordinary.' I went to see them again, and the third time I took Gordon as well. It was the days when the same band would play two sets with a gap in the middle, and in one of the gaps the singer hobbled over to us and said 'Oy. You keep saying these nice things about us, why don't you manage us?' So I turned to Gordon and said 'Did you hear that?' and he said 'Yeah, why not?' So that was the next 18 months of our lives spoken for, which was horrendous, basically."
"What we did was get a deal for them with Warners, a label called Raft. We persuaded Raft to make an album and on the day, literally, on the day we walked in with the finished masters the guy said 'I'm really sorry, the label's been closed down'. So we then shopped this album - it wasn't a very good record, it didn't represent the magic of the band, unfortunately - and in our shopping around we drew a blank except at relatively recently formed Virgin, where the two A&R guys were Simon Draper and Jumbo Vanrenen. And Jumbo particularly liked The Kilburns. We went back to Ian and he said 'I don't want to be on a label with a bunch of hippies. They've got Hatfield & The North, that's going to be very confusing. I want to be on a label with Max Bygraves!' And they went off and signed up to Pye Records. We went back with our tails between our legs to Virgin, who we really liked, and they said 'Haven't you got anything else' and we said 'Well, we've got this compilation of stuff we did from Louisiana' and they said 'Wonderful!' So that's how Another Saturday Night came out, two years after we'd put it together."
"It took another four years before Ian surfaced, but when he did he deliberately put There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards, a song that we published, on the B-side of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. It was the first song that made any money for us - 10,000 each for us and the writer."
"We found Lene Lovich and placed her with Stiff Records, and Lucky Number was literally the next single on Stiff after Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. That was a Top 3 hit in Britain and sold half a million here and all over the place, so that made quite a bit too. And then in 1981 Gordon and I were in the basement of my house, which is where our office was at the time, and somebody just came down the steps and put a cassette through the door and went away again. That was a group called Direct Drive, whose keyboard player turned out to be Paul Hardcastle. 11 records later, 19, which we published, sold nearly 3 million in the world, in 1985."
One of those will keep you ticking over for quite a while. "It really does, for such a small operation. Plus I'd bought a house in 1969 for so low a price that my mortgage was less than my paper bill, and I only have a paper a day That allowed me to do all these things getting paid incredibly little. 8 for doing my Record Mirror column and another 8 for doing Radio London, only earning 25 a week, or something insane, but with a very low mortgage and a very understanding wife, you can just get away with it. Then we had a couple of Top 10 things in the late '80s, one was Carey Johnson, and we put out something called The Jack That House Built by Jack 'n' Chill. And the most recent one was Touch & Go."
I wonder if, through his experiences of how the mainstream makes hits, Charlie's approach to his role as world music DJ shows a different perspective to others. Most world music radio presenters are forever struggling to balance the deluge of material with severely restricted hours. There are so many CDs arriving, you perhaps manage to air one track off each and that's it. Charlie, unusually, will take one track off an album and play it six weeks in a row.
"Very rarely six weeks in a row. The one disadvantage that I never anticipated about making a living out of my hobby is that I don't really get a chance these days to live with and enjoy an album and get besotted by it in the way that I used to before I became professionally involved. So if there's a track I really, really like, I haven't represented that by only playing it once. It's partly my obligation to this record for pleasing me so much. It definitely is also affected by which track people respond to when they call in during the show: 'What was that?' and so on."
"I continue to get the greatest enjoyment from setting two or three records alongside each other which have no generic relationship yet feel as if they enhance each other - they may come from different times and places but share a sound, an emotion, a detail. While some of these are records I discover as I pick my way amongst the packets that come through the door in a daily avalanche, and others are remembered from records filed away on my shelves, some are introduced by my guests who bring their different points-of-view on a regular (more or less bi-weekly) basis."
"Momo Wandel Soumah is a very good example. One place I have in the system of things is to be like a stage in a relay. Lucy Duran brought it on to my show and that was the first time I heard it. It came on at about seven minutes to the hour, and the track is 7 minutes 40 long, and I thought 'Alright, I'll play about three or four minutes of this and then fit in three minutes of another record', but there was no way to stop that record playing all the way out. I had to have a copy of that myself, and it turned out that Lucy herself had been introduced to it by Katharina Lobeck. Katharina gave me a copy that I was then able to play again, and the reaction really came in the second time I played it. And that is sometimes the case, that the audience doesn't necessarily get it as fast as I do. So then on and on it goes. It's not six weeks in a row, it's six times in a period of four months, which is in some ways even more effective. When I played Krok, that song which starts with a ticking clock, that was similar. Every time I played it."
"I'm also aware that even though this audience has proved to be remarkably open-minded towards the unknown, each of us can only take in so much unfamiliar material before it all begins to blur. So in addition to going back to 'oldies' as a comfortable reference I also use the repeat plays of newer releases as a place where people can in effect recover their breath from all the new stuff."
"When we first got interested in the '80s, we coincidentally had the benefit of the emergence of Youssou N'Dour and Salif Keita in particular, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. There were a number of very, very charismatic genre leaders who - having in effect been discovered by us, as it were - did actually mean something outside that. Johnny Walker played Salif Keita on Radio 1 at the time. The world music scene is missing a newer generation of these type of people. Is this a responsibility for the people like myself and Andy and Lucy, now she's there on Radio 3, to somehow can you do it as a conspiracy, 'these are the people to go for'? I don't think so. It's a more natural process than that. But until then the people who are outside this circle are just left with confusion. There are too many different names."
In sorting out this confusion, there has long been a symbiosis between fRoots as the main magazine, and Charlie and the other key world music radio presenters. People's ears are perked by something on the radio, then they can read about it in our pages and they've got the purchase information and more background. It works the other way round as well - radio fleshing out the written word so that a writer's enthusiasms get the aural dimensio
"The case immediately springs to mind where Jenny Cathcart wrote the fRoots article about Viviane N'Dour, so I pursued Viviane's record and played it, and through that Max Reinhardt and Rita Ray heard it and put it onto their Shrine compilation. Then they were part of the panel that resulted in her headlining at the Barbican the other day, which is a lovely chain of events."
"It's a truism of marketing in general that one thing doesn't have an impact, it's the reinforcement of three or four things. That's why, in big advertising campaigns, you see the ad on TV but it's the still on the poster as you're driving along the road that reinforces, then a magazine picture of the same thing, and gradually you think 'OK, I've got the message'. So this is our own little version of that, and it's essential."
Finally, where do you sense things are going at the moment? "Multi-racial, multi-cultural groups could be the thing of the future here: it's been surprising to me how long it's taken to get going. Then, there is this Frikyiwa thing, just to use it as an example, of the mixing of the beats and the really great voices. Like you had recommended me a Nawaha Doumbia record; a year later Frikyiwa sampled it and I go back to it and there it is. I'm a bit slow. Somebody we know is in EMI Publishing, and in the last six months they have had nine different clearances to sort out from Saudia Arabia EMI, in other words western musicians on a large scale are sampling Arab music and clearing it. The whole Mediterranean is a very interesting area. Even when I did The World's All Yours in 1995 it was already the case then. The largest number of people came from that. So where's it all going? To the Mediterranean."
Charlie finishes on a generous and positive note, a notable Gillett characteristic in a music world often populated by Eeyores. "One of the most gratifying experiences I've had in this 20 year period has been the World Circuit story. An organic growth with nobody involved having any marketing mind. Just Nick Gold, since he took over the company, following his own instincts. And then at the Baobab gig, you suddenly realise 'Oh my God, he's done it again'. I'm sure Nick would say that it was Baobab that was the starting point for him of getting into all this music in the first place. And as we know, the Buena Vista Social Club recording session was a disaster. He had planned to record African and Cuban musicians together but the Africans never showed up. Talk about the best things happening from the worst."
Ian Anderson Editor: fRoots Magazine
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