Within popular music, the writer and journalist Fred Dellar, who has died aged 89, was regarded as the king of trivia; for 40 years he wrote fact-filled columns for New Musical Express and Mojo, as well as authoring several books. Part of his success was down to taking his work seriously and adding gentle humour. The little details could build up a creditable picture of a performer or the way the industry worked. He knew how to maintain interest so that the reader would move effortlessly from one paragraph to the next.
Dellar joined the NME in 1972, at the age of 40, having been made redundant from his day job at a print distribution company. Looking for work, he saw an NME ad for a single, young reporter living in London. He was neither single nor young and lived in Northampton, but he applied.
The NME was losing readers, mostly to a revamped Melody Maker. When its new editor, Alan Smith, asked him in the interview how to improve circulation, Dellar said that the paper should steal a lead on the opposition. There was a time-lag between US and UK releases, so why not run an imports column? Why not say what performers were doing in the studio? Why ignore cassette releases when there was an advertising opportunity?
Although he did not get the staff job (that went to Tony Tyler, later NME’s assistant editor), Dellar was allocated three weekly columns, each paying £7 a time. What he did not know was that Smith had been given three months to improve the circulation or the title would be dropped, but the overhaul did the trick. Dellar wrote for the NME for 24 years, often highlighting his knowledge under the title Fred Fact.
The NME became a home for radical journalism and championed punk in the mid-70s. Despite being twice the age of many of his fellow journalists, Dellar settled in alongside Charles Shaar Murray, Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill. He would type Nick Kent’s copy and ring record shops to compile the weekly charts.
In 1981 Dellar wrote The NME Guide to Rock Cinema. He appreciated the fact that great performances had been captured on film but despaired of cheap production values and the desire to make a quick buck.
He followed this with The Illustrated History of Country Music (1982), compiled with his cousin Roy Thompson, which drew no demarcation lines between genres. “Like punk, country music has its roots in the 1950s and I love the fact that it keeps going back to Hank Williams and George Jones. They are like Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong. They are part of tradition, but they are still part of today.”
Kevin McManus, who wrote for the NME in the 1980s, learned that Fred Fact was the most read part of the paper, but “didn’t see much of Fred,” he recalled, “because the NME wasn’t like a normal office. People would drift in when they felt like it. Fred was never late with his copy but it would often be faxed or sent by Red Star at the last minute.”
When Dellar wrote for Smash Hits in the 1980s, he started compiling crosswords and he was to produce them for many publications, notably the film magazine Empire. “I thought I had a foothold in the Times,” said Dellar, “but I made a couple of silly mistakes.” He found a new home with Time Machine and then “Ask Fred” pages for Mojo from 1996. He was so dedicated to answering questions that many readers received individual replies.
Dellar was born in Willesden, north-west London, where his father, who had fought in the first world war, ran a fish and chip shop. His grandfather had been a piano tuner and his mother played the instrument, which inspired a love for music. “I did have piano lessons but the teacher died a month later,” Dellar drily remarked.
He was evacuated during the second world war to Somerset and Yorkshire and won a scholarship to Willesden School of Art. He developed a passion for art history and for jazz, passing on his enthusiasm by talking and playing records at youth clubs. When he was conscripted, he was based in secret work at RAF Bomber Command at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
In 1951 Dellar started work as a cost clerk in a factory. He attended many notable concerts including Hoagy Carmichael, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, and built up a friendship with the local jazz promoter Bix Curtis. He compiled a Frank Sinatra fanzine, Perfectly Frank. When he married his wife, Pam, in 1958, she knew she had married someone who would disappear for hours on his bicycle looking for rare records in bric-a-brac shops.
In 1964 Dellar began working for a distribution company, the Book Centre. He persuaded the printers’ union Sogat to run record reviews in its newsletter. The record producer Ken Barnes also recommended him to a national magazine, Hi-Fi News.
Although Dellar read the music press, he felt something was lacking, once telling me, “Newspapers and magazines would often reprint press handouts. They didn’t want to upset record companies and they wouldn’t say anything controversial. You could be the worst performer in the world and fall off the stage drunk but the articles would say what a wonderful artist you are.”
When Dellar was made redundant from the Book Centre in 1971, the couple moved from London to Northampton where mortgage payments would be lower. He kept his files in the garden shed. The following year he began writing for the NME.
Commenting on his life’s work, he told the National Sound Archive, “It’s a hobby, but the whole thing has been a hobby from the start.” In later years, Dellar gave both old features and new material to the website Rock’s Back Pages.
He spent his last years nursing Pam, who became housebound. She died in 2020 and he is survived by their son, Glenn.
• Fred Dellar, music journalist and author, born 29 May 1931; died 15 May 2021