Founded in Clapham by Charlie Gillett and Gordon Nelki, Oval Records released a great range of music over its 30-year existence.
Charlie Gillett never played or sang a note. Nonetheless, he did play a remarkable role in ensuring a lot of superb music from America, the UK, across Europe, Africa, Asia and Australasia got heard. It was primarily as a writer and radio presenter that Charlie inspired listeners to embrace all kinds of music. From Barbara Lynn to Baaba Maal, he loved a good voice and a distinctive song. He wore many musical caps during his 40-year sojourn in the music industry, including one as co-founder of Oval Records, the record label he started up with his friend Gordon Nelki. Before forming Oval, Charlie enjoyed considerable success as a music journalist. His 1970 book The Sound Of The City: The Rise Of Rock And Roll, a perceptive study of US independent record labels and how they shaped popular music, won excellent reviews and strong sales, and he contributed to a variety of publications – Creem (US), Cream (UK), New Musical Express, Let It Rock – alongside occasionally hosting the Old Grey Whistle Test TV show and working as an editor for Panther Books.
1972 was an auspicious year that found Charlie co-founding Oval and starting Honky Tonk, his Sunday lunchtime show on BBC Radio London. Here he championed music he liked and that wasn’t getting airplay elsewhere. Oval scored a distribution deal with Virgin in 1975. “Another Saturday Night”, an album of Cajun rock’n’roll and swamp pop, stood out like the proverbial sore thumb – Gong, Mike Oldfield and Henry Cow were Virgin's earners then – but beautifully so, its dozen tracks celebrating the simple pleasure of backwoods music made for bars and dancehalls. A 45 of Johnnie Allan’s ‘Promised Land’ was set to be a leftfield hit until RCA issued Elvis’ version. Nonetheless, Oval was up and running and Cajun music finally had a UK audience.
The Sound Of The City influenced Ace Records founder Ted Carroll, who used the book as a guide for records to seek out, many of which became stock for his Rock On stall on Golborne Road. Roger Armstrong, who managed Rock On’s Soho branch, states that they always listened to what Charlie was playing on his radio shows and tried to ensure they had stock, as many listeners headed to Rock On, knowing it was likely to be the only shop that had them. When Oval’s deal with Virgin ended and “Another Saturday Night” went out of print, Ace came to the rescue, reissuing an expanded edition on CD.
Oval continued to issue records until Charlie was struck with Churg-Strauss syndrome, a rare auto-immune condition, forcing operations to be wound down in 2006. Oval may never have been intended to compete with labels such as Island and Virgin but it enjoyed a long and eclectic existence, serving as a launch pad for new artists and as an outlet for overseas artists Charlie and Gordon felt were not sufficiently represented in the UK. From swamp pop and new wave to Afrobeat and house, here are 22 gems from the company’s catalogue.