50 YEARS AFTER his landmark Sound of the City was first published (and a decade since his death), Rock’s Backpages remembers the great Charlie Gillett: listen to Bill Brewster’s 1999 audio interview with the writer, broadcaster and label-owner, and read Alex Ogg’s long conversation with him from 2008. Plus RBP writers pay heartfelt tribute after Charlie’s passing in March 2010… mine was as follows:
NO ONE COULD overstate the importance of The Sound of the City, the first significant attempt to make sense of the tangled genealogy of American popular music. Acquired in a Pan paperback edition circa 1974, the book was my portal to the history of myriad music genres, record companies, and assorted behind-the-scenes protagonists.
I never imagined I would one day meet The Sound of the City‘s author, let alone play football with him – along with a motley band of Africans and Latin Americans – on Clapham Common. I shan’t ever forget Charlie’s lithe 60-year-old frame in those games. Though he rarely crossed the halfway line, he patrolled his defensive beat like a man half that age. Which makes it that much harder to comprehend how he has now gone: he should have lived into his nineties.
Charlie was one of the elders, a man of true integrity and unceasing curiosity. His love of soul and swamp music laid tracks for me and many others. He was so helpful and encouraging when I set to work on my first book, a study of “country soul” (the term came, ironically, from The Sound of the City). The love of southern singers and storytellers was a passion we shared for years, culminating for me in the night he brought Dan Penn, Allen Toussaint, Joe South, Guy Clark and the late Vic Chesnutt together on the same South Bank stage. When I strayed outside of that orbit he sometimes seemed nonplussed. I’m not sure he ever forgave me for sullying his “Radio Ping Pong” show with what I’m sure he heard as the antiseptic jazz-funk of Steely Dan’s ‘Babylon Sisters’.
Though Charlie’s evangelising for world music prodded me to invest in sublime albums by everyone from Youssou N’Dour to Salif Keita, I always felt slightly guilty that I hadn’t – through sheer laziness – wholly converted to the world music cause. Typically the last communication I had from him was a testy email about the long list for RBP’s best albums of the Noughties. “What an embarrassing, disgracefully white and inbred list this is,” he fulminated. “Reminds me of the NME Top 100 albums back around 1972 when only two black albums made the list. Have we really not moved on even by an inch to embrace the rest of the world?”
Thanks to you, Charlie, we have.