Friday, 26 March 2010

Charlie Gillett 1942–2010

The first I remember knowing of Charlie was a review of Dr John's Gumbo album in Rolling Stone magazine. I'd seen Dr John play a few weeks earlier, at Brighton Dome, and loved it but hadn't understood what I was hearing and seeing. Charlie's writing made sense of it, by introducing me to Huey Smith and Professor Longhair — Stagolee and Billy, too, of course. It was a tiny glimpse of the world that I later found in his Sound Of City — for him, an MA turned public; for the rest of us, a one-man university of the arts. He was the Lewis & Clark of pop. He drew its first map — and kept on revising it.

Like so many others, I listened to his Honky Tonk show every, every Sunday. Its influence in shaping London music of the 1970s is impossible to exaggerate. It's where, I know, that Joe Strummer found Junco Partner — and probably his take on Stagolee and Billy, too. Always, always, Charlie's knowledge was lightly worn and rarely brushed with the slightest of disdain towards the less knowledgable.

Although our careers ran parallel for a couple of decades, Charlie and I only got to know each other in the mid-1990s. He had liked something I'd written and called me up to help him with the Encyclopedia Britannica pop music section. He was a delight to work with — even when he wielded the editor's knife. We'd even meet up sometimes. In particular, I remember an afternoon with him and his wife Buffy after they'd done a long, long walk along the Thames. Their mutual affection and support was a public embodiment of the strength and length of their marriage. Christ only knows how tough it must be now for her — after that terrible fucking illness, too. (Not that either she or Charlie would have ever used langauge like that.)

Next time Britannica called, he put them straight on to me, I think. I'm not sure how keen he was on them. They were certainly keen on him. When news broke about Charlie's death, Jeff Wallenfeldt from Britannica emailed me: 'Working with him was a highlight of my professional career. He was one of my heroes.'

Charlie and I would email each other episodically. Trawling through, I found this one I sent him a few years ago.

Dear Charlie
There I was in HMV in Oxford St. I see a sign. It says: The World Of Charlie Gillett. And I think: how fab is that. It's Charlie's world and we just live in it.

More often, though, Charlie and I would talk on the phone — every few months or so, till quite recently. Not for a bit, though. I'd been meaning to call but, well, I didn't, did I. Now I can't.

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