Charlie Gillett – a reminiscence

To my regret, I don’t play a musical instrument, yet music has always been part of my life and I’ve written extensively about what it means to me and have now made a separate page above which includes this post.

From early 1973 until mid 1976, I was a “hippy squatter” in Rectory Gardens, Clapham, London SW4. It is a short triangular traffic-free haven where two busy roads came together. We were a mixed bunch who did our bit to be part of the local community, yet we lived our lives somewhat divorced from societal expectations.

Before that, we had lived in Charrington St., behind St.Pancras Station in an area known as Somers Town. It was there that we suggested that the Greater London Council should initiate a “hard-to-let’ policy which gave some housing entitlement to otherwise excluded single people and childless couples. Fellow squatters included Charlie Charles who was later to be the drummer in the Blockheads.

When the GLC were ready to renovate Summers Town as we called it, some of us moved south to the borough of Lambeth, me to Rectory Gardens. There were lawyers and teachers in our street – I paid my way through wallpapering gigs – and musicians including Thunderclap Newman tinkering with his electrical stuff, and Charlie Hart, bassist with Ian Dury‘s pre-Blockhead group Kilburn and the Highroads – Charlie is the short guy third from the right – lived in the street.

There was a derelict plot of land where a house had once been; we cleared it of rubbish and turned it into Rectory Garden. We also (re)opened a small shop which we stocked with stray vegetables found at the nearby Nine Elms wholesale vegetable market. It was probably the only shop in our area which would sell a single tomato, cheaply, to a pensioner. (Income was put into a communal fund which was spent on projects, such as house renovations, which all residents were entitled to ‘vote’ on.)

A few months after I’d moved into Rectory Gardens, the mother of Son No.1 joined me (and he was conceived). A single parent, at the time she was running a playgroup for under-fives in a nearby church hall.

Which brings me to Charlie Gillette, co-founder of Oval Records, “pioneering purveyors of quirky pop.”

He and his wife Buffy had placed their then two children in the playgroup. I remember him as a very good neighbour. He was a listener and not judgmental, and certainly didn’t share in the media generated derogatory opinion of our squatting lifestyle. He was not a celebrity, yet he had many fans.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Charlie was the manager of Kilburn and the Highroads. What I did know was that thanks to his radio show, Honky Tonk, he was sent loads of promo records. He was kind enough to donate those he didn’t want to our small retail enterprise. Some of them were dross, including one by a Philly soul singer with the same name as me which I sprayed gold and mounted it as a wall decoration.

He also discovered many artists, such as Elvis Costello and Dire Straits. He gave us a white label promo copy of the latter’s breakthrough multi-million seller Sultans of Swing which he had first played on Honky Tonk.

On his radio shows he played the music he liked rather than what he was paid to sell.

From the Guardian
Few people can have opened so many ears to such a variety of music over the last four decades as Charlie Gillett, the author and radio disc jockey, who has died aged 68 after a long illness. Charlie wrote the first serious history of rock’n’roll and went on to become a central figure in drawing together the confluence of international sounds that became known, to the benefit of many artists whose work might otherwise have remained in obscurity, as world music.

The radio was Charlie’s medium, and from Honky Tonk, his 1970s Radio London show, to his weekly BBC World Service broadcasts in recent years, he nurtured an audience whose loyalty to him and belief in his integrity were unshakeable.

From the Times
A warm and generous man devoted to his family and with no interest in the trappings of success, he was deeply self-effacing and always insisted that he was an enthusiast for the music that he played and wrote about rather than an expert. His broadcasting style was unique and proudly lacking in slickness; his live radio shows seldom went by without him playing at least one song at the wrong speed or announcing the wrong track. Yet it was all part of his charm and only served to endear him further to his loyal listeners.

Sadly Charlie died after a long illness on 17th March at the age of 68.

This is how I remember him.

8 Responses to “Charlie Gillett – a reminiscence”

  1. J,
    I am getting worried about you, old pal. First we have from you 'hopefully' and now, aaargh!, 'societal'. Surely you mean 'social'… I do not know anybody who would call him or herself a 'societalist', heaven help us.

  2. Jakartass says:

    fr. Websters: societal (adj): pertaining to society.

    That's what I meant, Dave, so that's what I said.


    PS. ‘Hopefully’ wasn’t wrong either. Sorry.

  3. mark hinde says:

    Nice piece, J. I wonder what Rectory Gardens is like now? Probably full of yuppies. Nothing wrong with 'hopefully', and 'societal' is completely different from social.

  4. anong says:

    This form of writing is J at his best. They only come along every now and then. How dare DJ try to mock it. Cant be be bothered to open his copy of Michael Swan's Practical English Usage? If he doesnt have one then he can buy a used one for 4.48USD through Amazon.

  5. er audy says:

    Nice piece J, was that you standing besides Charlie on the pic? From your email I thought you were trying to show me your "past record" lol, I reckon that's the soul singer whose name is exactly like yours :)
    Looking forward to our meeting

  6. Jakartass says:

    Nope, that wasn't me, Er, but the co-founder of Oval Records, Gordon Nelki.

    I met Charlie a couple of years later, '74, and I put the picture up because that's how I remember him.

    And that was a long time ago.

  7. Steve says:

    Hi, Rectory Gardens is still a fully functioning squat without a yuppie in sight (whatever they were). I still live here and have fond memories of Terry Collins or 'Top Cat' as some called him. Still resident are Andy Newman, Charlie the bassist and a few others from those far-off days. Currently we're suffering one of our periodic bits of unpleasantness from Lambeth Council but hope to fight them off. Watch this space.

  8. Jakartass says:

    Hi Steve.
    Expect an email offline.

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