2002 – Lonnie Donegan, known as the “king of skiffle’ dies in his sleep in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England. He is 71.
Lonnie Donegan MBE (29 April 1931 – 3 November 2002) was a skiffle musician, possibly the most famous of them all, with more than 20 UK Top 30 hits to his name. He is also known as the King of Skiffle and is often cited as a large influence on the generation of British musicians who became famous in the 1960s.
Early life and trad jazz
He was born Anthony James Donegan in Bridgeton, Glasgow, Scotland, the son of a professional violinist who had played with the Scottish National Orchestra. His father was unemployed in the 1930s, and in 1933 the family moved to East London. In the early 1940s he mostly listened to Swing jazz and vocal acts, and became interested in the guitar. Country & western and blues records, particularly by Frank Crumit and Josh White, attracted his interest and he bought his first guitar at the age of fourteen, around 1945. From listening to BBC radio broadcasts in the following years he began learning songs such as “Frankie and Johnny”, “Puttin’ On the Style”, and “The House of the Rising Sun”. By the end of the 1940s he was playing guitar around London and visiting small jazz clubs.
The first band he played in was the trad jazz band led by Chris Barber, who approached him on a train asking him if he wanted to audition for his band. Barber had heard that Donegan was a good banjo player; in fact, Donegan had never played the banjo at this point, but he bought one and tried to bluff his way through the audition. More on personality than playing, he was brought into Barber’s band. His stint with the band was interrupted when he was called up for National Service in 1949, but his military service in Vienna gave him contact with American troops, and access to records as well as the opportunity to listen to the American Forces Network radio station.
In 1952 he formed his first group, the Tony Donegan Jazzband, which found some work around London. On one occasion they opened for the blues musician Lonnie Johnson at the Royal Festival Hall. Donegan was a big fan of Johnson, and took his first name as a tribute to him. The story goes that the host at the concert got the musicians’ names confused, calling them “Tony Johnson” and “Lonnie Donegan”, and Donegan was happy to keep the name.
In 1953 cornetist Ken Colyer, enjoying hero status for having spent time in a New Orleans jail (due to a visa problem), returned to England and, when invited to play with Chris Barber’s band, became the moving figure in it, more or less taking it over and running it as if it were his own creation. It actually was very much a cooperative. With the new name, Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, the group, with Donegan, made its initial public appearance on 11 April 1953 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The following day, Chris Albertson recorded the group (as well as a Monty Sunshine Trio, with Donegan and Barber) for Storyville Records. These were Lonnie Donegan’s first commercially released recordings.
Donegan was the first person to become famous playing skiffle in the United Kingdom, and went on to have an influential hit in Britain and America with “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour”, released in 1959 and 1961 respectively.
While playing in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen with Chris Barber, Donegan sang and played both guitar and banjo as part of their Dixieland jazz, and also began playing with two other band members during the intervals to provide what was called on their posters a “skiffle” break, a name suggested by Ken Colyer’s brother Bill after recalling the Dan Burley Skiffle Group of the 1930s. In 1954 Colyer left, and the band became Chris Barber’s Jazz Band.
With a washboard, a tea-chest bass and a cheap Spanish guitar, Donegan had a lot of fun entertaining the audiences with folk songs and blues by artists such as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, casually giving the impression that anyone could do it. This proved so popular that in July 1954 he recorded a fast-tempoed version of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line”, featuring a washboard but not a tea-chest bass, with “John Henry” on the B-side. It was an enormous hit in 1956 (which also later inspired the creation of a full LP album, “An Englishman Sings American Folk Songs”, released in America on the Mercury label in the early 60s) but ironically, because it was a band recording, Lonnie made no money from it beyond his original session fee. It was the first debut record to go gold in Britain, and reached the top ten in the United States, and Donegan has suggested that it might have influenced the beginnings of white rock and roll, and certainly was an influence of a hybrid version of American country-rock later called Rockabilly.
The skiffle style encouraged amateurs to get started, and one of the many skiffle groups that followed was The Quarrymen formed in March 1957 by John Lennon. Donegan’s “Putting On The Style” / “Gamblin’ Man” single was number one on the British charts in July 1957, when Lennon first met Paul McCartney.
After splitting from Barber, Donegan went on to make a series of popular records as “Lonnie Donegan’s Skiffle Group”, with successes including “Cumberland Gap” and, particularly “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour”, his only hit song in America, released on Dot Records. He turned to a music hall style with “My Old Man’s a Dustman” which was not well received by skiffle fans, or in an attempted but ultimately unsuccessful American release by Atlantic Records in 1960, but reached number one in the UK singles charts. Donegan’s group had a flexible line-up, but was generally formed by Denny Wright or Les Bennetts (of Les Hobeaux and Chas McDevvit’s skiffle groups) playing lead guitar and singing harmony vocals, Pete Huggett on upright bass, Nick Nichols – later Pete Appleby – on drums or percussion and Lonnie playing acoustic guitar or banjo and singing the lead. Despite appearances that the style was simple and somewhat ‘unpolished’, all were accomplished and highly talented musicians.
Donegan was unfashionable and generally ignored through the late 1960s and 1970s (although he wrote “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” for Tom Jones in 1969), and he began to play on the American cabaret circuit. There was a reunion concert with the original Chris Barber band in Croydon in June 1975 – notable for a bomb scare, meaning that the recording had to be finished in the studio, though patrons were treated to an impromptu concert in the car park.
He suffered his first heart attack in 1976 while in the United States. Donegan underwent quadruple bypass surgery. He returned to the public’s attention in 1978, when he made a record of his early songs with such figures as Ringo Starr, Elton John and Brian May called Putting on the Style. In 1992 Donegan underwent further bypass surgery following another heart attack.
Then in 1994, the Chris Barber band celebrated 40 years, with a long tour with both bands, rather than just a concert. Pat Halcox was still on trumpet (a position he retains as of 2006). The reunion concert and the tour, were recorded on CD, and also on video (and later released on DVD, though the quality isn’t up to digital standard). As is Chris Barber’s normal style, he generously featured Lonnie in the concerts and the whole original band were much more relaxed than in 1954, making these real collectors’ items as the stereo was real and not electronically created.
He experienced another late renaissance when in 2000 he appeared on Van Morrison’s album The Skiffle Sessions – Live In Belfast 1998, a critically acclaimed album featuring Donegan sharing vocals with Van Morrison and also featuring Chris Barber, with a guest appearance by Dr John. He also played at the Glastonbury Festival, and was awarded the MBE in 2000.
His last CD was “This Y’ere the Story”, which tells his story – complete with the inaccuracies as to his introduction to the banjo and the Barber band as related above…
Donegan’s influence on the generation of musicians that followed him is unquestioned. He inspired both John Lennon and Pete Townshend to learn to play the guitar, and was responsible for hundreds of other skiffle groups being formed. One of them, The Quarrymen, later evolved into The Beatles.
Lonnie married three times. He had two daughters by his first wife, Maureen Tyler (divorced 1962), a son and a daughter by his second wife, Jill Westlake (divorced 1971), and three sons by his third wife, Sharon, whom he married in 1977.
Lonnie died in 2002 aged 71, after suffering a heart attack in Peterborough mid-way through a UK tour and shortly before he was due to perform at a memorial concert for George Harrison. He had suffered from cardiac problems since the 1970s and had several heart attacks in his last years.
Musician Mark Knopfler released a tribute song to Lonnie Donegan called “Donegan’s Gone” on his 2004 album Shangri-La and said that he was one of his greatest musical influences. Donegan’s music formed the basis for a musical starring his two sons. Lonnie D – The Musical took its name from the Chas & Dave tribute song which starts the show. Subsequently, Peter Donegan formed a new band that performs his father’s material. Lonnies eldest son Anthony also formed his own band under the name Lonnie Donegan Jnr
* “In England, we were separated from our folk music tradition centuries ago and were imbued with the idea that music was for the upper classes. You had to be very clever to play music. When I came along with the old three chords, people began to think that if I could do it, so could they. It was the reintroduction of the folk music bridge which did that.” — Interview, 2002.
* “He was the first person we had heard of from Britain to get to the coveted No. 1 in the charts, and we studied his records avidly. We all bought guitars to be in a skiffle group. He was the man.” — Paul McCartney
* “He really was at the very cornerstone of English blues and rock.” — Brian May.
* Rock Island Line/ John Henry (1955)
* Diggin’ My Potatoes/ Bury My Body (1956)
* On A Christmas Day/ Take My Hand Precious Lord (1956)
* Lonnie Donegan Showcase (December 1956)
* Jack O’Diamonds/ Ham ‘N’ Eggs (1957)
* Lonnie (November 1957)
* The Grand Coulee Dam/ Nobody Loves Like An Irishman (1958)
* Midnight Special/ When The Sun Goes Down (1958)
* Sally Don’t You Grieve/ Betty Betty Betty (1958)
* Lonesome Traveller/ Times Are Getting Hard Boys (1958)
* Lonnie’s Skiffle Party Pt.1/ Pt.2 (1958)
* Tom Dooley/ Rock O’ My Soul (1958)
* Tops with Lonnie (September 1958)
* Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour/ Aunt Rhody (1959)
* Fort Worth Jail/ Whoa Buck (1959)
* Fort Bewildered/ Kevin Barry / It Is No Secret / My Lagan Love Buck (1959)
* Battle Of New Orleans/ Darling Corey (1959)
* Sal’s Got A Sugar Lip/ Chesapeake Bay (1959)
* San Miguel/ Talking Guitar Blues (1959)
* Lonnie Rides Again (May 1959)
* My Old Man’s A Dustman/ The Golden Vanity (1960)
* I Wanna Go Home (Wreck Of the John B.)/ Jimmy Brown The Newsboy (1960)
* Lorelei/ In All My Wildest Dreams (1960)
* Lively/ Black Cat (Cross My Path Today) (1960)
* Virgin Mary/ Beyond The Sunset (1960)
* (Bury Me) Beneath The Willow/ Leave My Woman Alone (1961)
* Have A Drink On Me/ Seven Daffodils (1961)
* Michael Row the Boat/ Lumbered (1961)
* The Comancheros/ Ramblin’ Round (1961)
* Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavor (On The Bedpost Over Night) (1961)
* More! Tops with Lonnie (April 1961)
* The Party’s Over/ Over the Rainbow (1962)
* I’ll Never Fall In Love Again/ Keep On The Sunny Side (1962)
* Pick A Bale Of Cotton/ Steal Away (1962)
* The Market Song/ Tit-Bits (1962)
* Sing Hallelujah (December 1962)
* Losing My Hair/ Trumpet Sounds (1963)
* It Was A Very Good Year/ Rise Up (1963)
* Lemon Tree/ I’ve Gotta Girl So Far (1963)
* 500 Miles Away From Home/ This Train (1963)
* Beans In My Ears/ It’s A Long Road To Travel (1964)
* Fisherman’s Luck/ There’s A Big Wheel (1964)
* Get Out Of My Life/ Won’t You Tell Me (1965)
* Louisiana Man/ Bound For Zion (1965)
* The Lonnie Donegan Folk Album (August 1965)
* World Cup Willie/ Where In This World Are We Going (1966)
* I Wanna Go Home/ Black Cat (Cross My Path Today) (1966)
* Aunt Maggie’s Remedy/ (Ah) My Sweet Marie (1967)
* Toys/ Relax Your Mind (1968)
* My Lovely Juanita/ Who Knows Where the Time Goes (1969)
* Lonniepops–Lonnie Donegan Today (1970)
* Speak To The Sky / Get Out Of My Life (1972)
* Jump Down Turn Around (Pick a Bale of Cotton) / Lost John Blues (1973 – Australia only)
* Lonnie Donegan Meets Leinemann (1974)
* Country Roads (1976)
* Puttin’ On The Style (February 1978)
* Sundown (May 1979)
* Muleskinner Blues (January 1999)
* The song Lost John was used to open the John Peel tribute album
* This Y’ere The Story (2000?)
* The Last Tour (2006)