Charlie Gillett, 1942-2010
From London comes sad news: the death of Charlie Gillett, author of
The Sound of the City, the first serious history of rock and roll and after all these years still one of the best. Arriving more or less simultaneously with Nik Cohn's then-entitled Rock From the Beginning and sponsored in America by long-ago Commentary editor Harris Dienstfrey and his short-lived Outerbridge & Dienstfrey house, The Sound of the City was everything Cohn's book was not: sober, researched, deeply respectful of rock and roll's rhythm and blues roots. I still like Cohn's flash and in fact have long taught his Elvis chapter, though this year I began to weary of re-reading it. But Gillett's book--work on which began while he was doing graduate work at Columbia, making Gillett the first academic in the field unless Charles Keil counts (which he does)--had an abiding soulfulness that respected the flash of the artists and bizzers he studied and categorized, usually by city, the idea being that rock and roll was what happened when rural music met urban culture. That idea abides too--it's the story of mbaqanga among many other "world" musics, and it's not surprising that as he got older Gillett became a champion of musics from around the world, most prominently as a radio presenter but also as a CD compiler.
Charlie was a lovely guy. I first met him when he flew into NYC on a Brinsley Schwarz junket in 1971 and ran into him occasionally afterward, but not so often that my wife and I could count on staying at his house in South London when I visited doing a Clash story in 1978. We did, though, charmed by his wife and kids and intrigued with his electric water boiler, our method of preparing morning tea for many years now. There was also a Rock Against Racism do at Clapham Common and a single on Oval, the label he ran with his dentist, by Pete Fowler: "One Heart, One Love" b/w "The Miner's Strike." I ended up writing a piece about it as well as one about the Clash, and even volunteered to get the record into shops over here. They were taken on consignment. I did a lousy job of following up. I long ago made my apologies, which Charlie accepted with his customary grace.
I'd heard that Charlie was ailing several years ago, but didn't know he'd had a stroke more recently. He died of a heart attack outside his home. Bless Da Capo, the second, greatly expanded edition of The Sound of the City was republished in 1995 and is still in print. A radio man at heart, Charlie favored variety in his world-music comps (Otro Mundo, the most recent is called), while as an album reviewer at heart I always preferred flow, so those never did it for me. But there were also two-CD r&b comps with the Sound of the City brand on them, and there Memphis and especially New Orleans provided a flow of their own. Hard to find now, they're a good way to remember Charlie. But his rather great book is even better.
By Dean Jones on March 18, 2010 5:56 AM
Man, Alex Chilton died, too.
By Peter Culshaw on March 20, 2010 5:32 AM
Amazing outpouring of heart-felt tributes at Charlie's site, above. Everyone including his post-man. Hundreds.
I've put up a small tribute at theartsdesk.com: http://www.theartsdesk.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=1201:charlie-gillett-1942-2010-music-feature&Itemid=29. which includes a version of an interview I did with the man in 2007 for The Daily Telegraph.
A lovely man, with rare integrity.