x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Charlie Gillett, BBC's disc jockey to the world

Charlie Gillett, the Lancashire-born radio presenter was a champion of the genre with an encyclopaedic knowledge and a ready enthusiasm.


Millions of listeners worldwide switched on to the BBC's World Service each week to listen to Charlie Gillett's World of Music show. For those who loved world music there was no one quite like Gillett. The Lancashire-born radio presenter was a champion of the genre with an encyclopaedic knowledge and a ready enthusiasm. His tastes were incredibly diverse: a track from the latest album of some obscure Cajun band from South Louisiana would be followed by funked-up versions of classic 1950s Rembetika tunes by two Greek blues brothers who took their name from a popular aubergine dish. He was authoritative, eternally curious and his stamp of approval usually guaranteed a spike in sales for the bands he played.

Of the "world" musicians whom he promoted through his show, Youssou N'Dour and the Portuguese fado singer Mariza are perhaps the best known. He was also responsible for launching Dire Straits, after playing Sultans of Swing, a track from their demo album, way back in the 1970s: by the time the song had played out, London's A&R men were clamouring on the telephone for details of the band. After a degree in engineering at Cambridge and a short spell in the US, Gillett settled with his wife in London, becoming a regular and recognisable voice on the radio. His programme, Honky Tonk - aired for the first time in March 1972 - was essential listening over the next six years for those whose musical tastes extended beyond the mainstream. He played the "roots" of pop music - R&B, soul, gospel - alongside whatever contemporary offerings complemented the sound. Muddy Waters, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt and others were among the many guests who featured on his show.

The 1970s was perhaps Gillett's most productive decade. Together with his dentist, Gordon Nelki, he formed a partnership that led the two men to manage the band Kilburn and the High Roads, whose singer was Ian Dury. Subsequently, they started a label and publishing company, Oval Music, and their successes included Lene Lovich's Lucky Number and Paul Hardcastle's 19. He later acted as a music consultant to advertising agencies and film companies, selecting songs for many campaigns including Levis jeans.

"Popular music" was the subject of Gillett's thesis at Columbia University, where he studied in the late 1960s: at the time it was a topic considered most unacceptable for academic study. But Gillett persevered, and the thesis evolved into a book after his return to London. Published to acclaim in 1970, The Sound of the City became the definitive history of rock'n'roll, tracing its origins in vocal groups, jump blues and southern pop gospel, and showing how the various elements cohered to form a musical movement.

In 1979, Gillett moved from BBC Radio London to Capital, the city's commercial station, and began to feature music from around the world. In 1983 he was sacked, but public demand led to his reinstatement, and he remained with the station until 1990. His World Service series was launched in 1999, and he was featured regularly as a presenter of Radio 3's World on 3. Although he was the antithesis of the slick DJ, Gillett's audiences forgave his somewhat stilted style of presenting as his passion for the music he played was obvious and he excelled in coaxing the most compelling live performances from his studio guests.

Charlie Gillett was born on February 20, 1942, and died on March 17. He is survived by his wife Buffy, their daughters Suzy and Jody and son Ivan. * The National