Celebrating the life of Charlie Gillett


Photography by Jeremy Llewellyn-Jones

Five years ago today, radio presenter and author Charlie Gillett passed away following a long illness. In the June 2010 edition (#68) we celebrated the life of ‘Mr World Music’, with contributions from colleagues and musicians. We also included a selection of five of Charlie’s favourite tracks that were included on the free covermount CD. You can stream this playlist at the bottom of the page.

Purchase the edition here in order to read the full article.

It might be an exaggeration to describe the death of Charlie Gillett as world music’s ‘Princess Diana moment.’ But the overwhelming combination of sadness, warmth and affection that greeted the news in March 2010 of his demise at the age of 68 suggests not by much.

The simple facts of his career hardly begin to tell the story. His book, The Sound of the City (1970), was one of the earliest attempts at a serious survey of rock’n’roll history. His ‘Honky Tonk’ show on BBC Radio London in the 70s gave first airplay to such unsigned acts as Dire Straits and Elvis Costello. He managed Ian Dury for a time and ran his own label, Oval Records.

As he became increasingly disillusioned with mainstream rock in the 80s, he rediscovered the excitement that had first fuelled his youthful love of rock’n’roll in world music. Via his various radio shows he introduced us to Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita, Mariza and hundreds of others. In the years before his death, his reach became global via the internet and his work for the BBC World Service.

Songlines asked some of those who worked with him and knew him best to share their memories of the man Mariza simply describes as “Mr World Music.”

Words by Nigel Williamson

Ivan Duran
Stonetree Records, Belize
“Charlie had been coming to Belize around Christmas for several years and he picked up a couple of our CDs. I got an email from him saying he was playing our music on the radio and the following year we met at WOMEX. It was like we had always known each other; I’m sure a lot of artists and producers felt the same way around him. He encouraged me at every opportunity and on his last trip to Belize in 2004, walking on the beach, I asked him what he thought of the Andy Palacio tracks I’d sent him. “I wasn’t impressed,” he said, and started talking about something else. I was devastated and spent another year on the arrangements. Those tracks became Wátina [reviewed in #43], and Charlie was one of the album’s biggest supporters. The album won awards and it was that moment walking on the beach that changed everything. Today I’m a better music producer because of him and he’ll always be with me when I’m in the studio.”

Fado singer
“One cannot explain friendship but I feel I’ve lost a very special friend. I think we all did – even those who didn’t know him. Meeting Charlie was one of the great privileges life has given me. ‘Mr World Music,’ I like to call him! The world of music is poorer and I feel poorer. Thank you for everything you offered us without asking for anything in return. Thank you for your friendship. It will never be forgotten. A big kiss to you Charlie Gillett.”


Joe Boyd
Producer & writer
“There’s never been a career in the music business like Charlie Gillett’s. I first encountered him as a music publisher with a small record label in the 70s. He was clever and charming as an entrepreneur and brought those qualities to the radio. His endless curiosity introduced me to so many now revered recordings and artists, that I forgave him his dislike of English folk music. Many of us imagine releasing CDs of our favourite tracks; Charlie did it every year. His output was monumental; how do you do that and never make any enemies? Adoring Charlie went without saying. Now it’s time to say it. We will all miss him terribly.”

Bassekou Kouyaté
Malian ngoni player
“I played on his radio show and I felt he loved me like a brother. The day I won the BBC Radio 3 award for world music, I went on his show and he said, ‘You deserve this! You’ve worked hard!’ He was so happy, he was crying, so I had to hug him to calm him down. I feel I’ve lost a brother.”


Alan Finkel
Radio colleague
“To be part of his radio programmes was a joy. It was impossible not to be affected by his honesty, integrity, sense of humour, spontaneity, intelligence, kindness, wisdom, warmth and humility. For two hours on Saturday night on BBC Radio London, Charlie would set the barrier impossibly high. Often there were two live sets. It felt like Charlie’s party but the listeners felt part of it too. Despite having a clear sense of what he liked to play, Charlie would allow his guests to choose their own tracks with no prior discussion. I couldn’t imagine another DJ giving up so much precious airtime. Sometimes he’d wince at their choices but at other times an unexpected listening treat would send him diving into his box to find something appropriate to follow. Nothing was predictable. Often he’d change his choice of record 20 seconds before the previously track ended. I’d desperately try to keep up, so everything could be logged. A truly wonderful broadcaster, completely at ease with live radio.”

Yasmin Levy
Israeli Sephardic singer
“Imagine an old town. In the centre of it, an open market, filled with people, stalls of fruit and vegetables, spices, fish… just another day. Suddenly, a bell rings out and everyone stops, looking for the sound. Along comes a young man, riding his bicycle, trailing a carriage behind it. He shouts: ‘All aboard, all aboard, you’re all welcome to join me on a magical journey!’
I came from Jerusalem as a scared, young woman with a dream. It was a big day for me. I was invited to a programme on the BBC with Charlie Gillett. I remember singing into the microphone. Charlie sat there with his eyes closed, listening to me sing and I waited, looking for his response as I held my breath in hope. Since that day, Charlie accompanied me throughout my career. He was one of the first who believed in me, and he introduced my music to the world. On that day in the market, many people came aboard and joined that young man’s journey. He introduced them to all kinds of music, asking them to open their hearts and listen. “What’s your name, young man?” asked one of them. “I’m Charlie Gillett,” he replied. “Welcome aboard.”


Youssou N’Dour
Senegalese singer
“Charlie was the first to play my music on English radio and two days before he died I was thinking about him and wondering what he would make of my new album. I so wanted him to hear it. Then I woke up to the bad news and sadly realised he never would.”