Fred Dellar – Writer, music historian
Fred Dellar, who has died aged 89, was a music writer revered by both colleagues and readers as the fount of all musical knowledge. During a lengthy tenure with NME and subsequent positions with Mojo and Q magazines, he came to be regarded as a living encyclopaedia. His Fred Fact column became an essential source for arcane and illuminating revelations of some of the lesser-known details of the rock, pop, jazz and country music worlds.
In the days before Wikipedia, a letter to Fred Fact was the only way of settling a pub argument between music obsessives. His answers were always delivered with precision, wit, and a warmth that saw him respected, admired and loved for his wisdom. In this sense, he was music journalism’s great elder statesman.
Fred Dellar was born in Willesden, north London. His father ran a fish and chip shop, while his mother’s keen but not always tuneful piano playing introduced him to music. After being evacuated to Somerset during World War Two, his music addiction began in earnest on his return to London, when he would buy numerous 78s, picking up on both the music and the back-stories behind it. He became a youth club DJ, and with his ever-expanding absorbed knowledge, was soon giving lectures on jazz and pop music history.
After grammar school and art college, Dellar did his National Service in High Wycombe with the RAF, where he formed the RAF Jazz Club. As recounted at www.rocksbackpages.com, he also promoted a concert by a twenty-piece big band that made the front page of Melody Maker.
Inspired by this first whiff of how the music press worked, he wrote for a fanzine, Perfectly Frank, dedicated to Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and other singers. He also attended live club shows by the likes of Billie Holiday, Hoagy Carmichael and Lena Horne. He even got to sit in on Sinatra’s only UK recording sessions when he was making the Sinatra Sings Great Songs From Great Britain album.
While working in a print factory, he began writing a record review column in the printers’ union magazine. This led to writing for Vintage Jazz Mart, Hi-Fi News and Mayfair. He also began writing album sleevenotes, the first of which was for Dizzy Gillespie’s album, Jambo Caribe (1965).
When he was made redundant from a warehouse job in 1971, Dellar applied for a staff job at NME. He didn’t get it, but began freelancing for the paper. Already older than many of his colleagues at a time when the perceived power of youth was at a premium, he remained an NME fixture for the next twenty-four years. As coverage of the hippy underground moved into punk, then acid house and beyond, Dellar was respected as a wise and avuncular elder. Punk’s ‘hip young gunslingers’ Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons even gave him cakes.
Dellar’s Fred Fact column became an indispensible goldmine of some of music’s lesser-documented nuggets. In 1989, his comprehensive three-part guide to Factory Records’ lesser-spotted output saw his column given its own Factory catalogue number, FAC227.
‘Hang on to this page’ Dellar wrote in NME at the time. ‘It will shortly acquire a value far exceeding the fee you paid for this edition of the best rock paper in the world and then continue to soar. So don’t ditch it – ever!’
As rock music moved beyond its adolescence and into maturity, so too did the music press that documented it. As various undergrounds came and went, Dellar’s sense of acquired history put music’s ever evolving sense of itself into context with an enthusiastic and forensic eye for detail presented with clarity, calm and good humour.
Beyond the exhaustive knowledge he became best known for, he was a versatile interviewer and reviewer. For 1970s NME he interviewed the likes of folk singer Tom Paxton, a young Tom Waits, and German electronicists Tangerine Dream. By the 1980s, he was interviewing Buggles, The Korgis and Fad Gadget for Smash Hits.
Outside of the pages of the inkies, he briefly edited Up Country magazine, and wrote for Vox and Loaded before alighting at Mojo and Q. He penned numerous books that became bibles for music buffs and trivia addicts alike. These ranged from The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Country Music (1979), and New Musical Express Guide to Rock Cinema (1981), to Where Did You Go To My Lovely? : The Lost Sounds and Stars of the Sixties (1983).
These were followed by The Essential Guide to Rock Records (1983), with Barry Lazell; The Country Music Book of Lists (1984), and The Hip: Hipsters, Jazz and The Beat Generation (1987), with Roy Carr and Brian Case. Later works included Sinatra – His Life and Times (1995), and Frank Sinatra: Night and Day – The Man and the Music (1997) with Mal Peachey. There were volumes too of music and film crosswords.
Sleevenotes ranged from albums by John Coltrane, Mose Allison, Scott Walker and Nina Simone, to greatest hits collections by Tom Jones, Shakin’ Stevens, Louis Armstrong, and many more. With his Time Machine, Enlightenment and Ask Fred columns latterly gracing the pages of Mojo, Dellar’s archive is a history of modern music that should be passed down to generations of readers to come.
He is survived by a son to his wife Pam, who pre-deceased him in 2020 after more than sixty years of marriage.
The Herald, June 30th 2021