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Charlie's Angle

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.

Ben E. King with Charlie, 1972
Photo: Doug McKenzie
Ben E. King with Charlie, 1972
"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."


This feature first appeared in fRoots 218-219, Aug/Sep 2001

 

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