Lonnie Donegan was the undisputed king of skiffle—a jazz-tinged hybrid of American folk and blues. Performed with acoustic guitars, banjos, a tea chest or washtub bass, and a washboard for scrubbing out the backbeat, skiffle was crude, spirited music that began at American rent parties and in English workingmen’s pubs. Like rockabilly music, its commercial life was relatively short, but the form and Donegan’s recordings in particular, set the stage for the British rock ‘n’ roll movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The son of an Irish-born classical violinist who once worked with the Glasgow National Orchestra, Anthony Donegan grew up in east London. By age nine, he wanted to learn to play the guitar, but couldn’t get his hands on a decent instrument until he was a 14-year-old stockbroker’s runner. “It was very difficult to buy an acoustic guitar in England at that time,” he explained in the 1970s British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary series All You Need Is Love. “And banjos of course, you had to find in a second-hand shop somewhere.”
Donegan’s first exposure to American folk and blues came via Friday evening BBC broadcasts of Harry Parry’s Radio Rhythm Club Sextet, which would occasionally play records by the likes of Josh White and Frank Crummett. Self-taught, the young musician tirelessly searched record shops and jazz venues for sources of traditional American music. While serving as part of his National Service hitch in Vienna, Donegan absorbed even more blues, folk, and country from Armed Forces Radio and the record collections of friendly American soldiers.
After being discharged, he formed the Tony Donegan Jazz Band, which often played the same showcase clubs as many touring American acts. While sharing a bill with bluesman Lonnie Johnson, the master of ceremonies mixed up the two performers’ names, introducing the younger singer as “Lonnie Donegan.” Amused, he kept the name as validation of his folk and blues hipitude.
Playing guitar and banjo for Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen in 1952, Donegan was reunited with his old army pal Chris Barber. In between sets of traditional Dixieland jazz, Donegan and two other musicians would occasionally organize short sets of energetic blues and folk. An assistant club manager, Bill Colyer—Ken’s brother—recalled an early 1930s aggregation called the Dan Burley Skiffle group, and promptly dubbed Donegan’s subsets “skiffle breaks.” Donegan explained skiffle’s origin in All You Need Is Love: “The idea was that the impoverished neighbors would get together, hold a party, have a few jugs of homemade wine and play some bits and pieces with a broom and
For the Record…
Born Anthony James Donegan on April 29, 1931, in Glasgow, Scotland; died on November 3, 2002, in Petersborough, Cambridgeshire, England; married three times, to Sharon Donegan, Maureen Donegan, and Jill Westlake; seven children.
Began playing professionally, 1949; formed the Tony Donegan Jazz Band, 1950; joined Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, 1952; joined Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, 1954; recorded international hit “Rock Island Line” for Decca, 1955; began ten-year association with Pye Records, 1956; appeared in the movie Light Fingers, 1957; appeared in the movie The Six-Five Special, 1958; released “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor,” becoming the first British artist to hit the American top ten twice, 1961; starred in the BBC television series Puttin’ on the Donegan, 1962; formed his own label, Tyler Records, and leased material to other labels, 1966; appeared as a regular panelist on BBC television talent show New Faces, mid-1970s; career revival with Puttin ‘ on the Style LP, 1978; toured to sell-out crowds just before his death, 2002.
Addresses: Record company—Bear Family Records, P.O. Box 1154, 227 Hambergen, Germany, website: http://www.bear-family.de.
guitar—whatever was handy. Then they’d … pass the hat around for whoever’s turn it was to pay the rent. That’s how the rent house party or skiffle party and skiffle music [started]. And that’s the word we took.” Yet, in Mo Foster’s book Play Like Elvis—How British Musicians Bought the American Dream, Donegan voiced one regret, “If only I’d just called it Lonnie Donegan music, I’d have made a fortune.”
When Colyer quit the band, Barber took over the leadership and kept featuring Donegan’s increasingly popular skiffle breaks. On Barber’s first LP, New Orleans Joy, Donegan was hired as a session man.
When the idea was broached to include a couple of skiffle tunes, the session’s producer hotly argued against it, preferring to record an instrumental instead. Once the producer left for the day, Donegan recorded a reworking of an old Leadbelly—aka Huddie Ledbetter—tune, “Rock Island Line.” Decca released the song in 1956, billed by the “Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group.” The record, with its talking sequences, homage to Americana, and fast train shuffle climax, became a major hit in Britain and America. Because he was paid a flat fee for the session, Donegan didn’t receive any royalty payments for his most popular and influential song until the label struck a new deal for him 40 years later. However, “Rock Island Line” made him a star in his own right and would remain his signature song throughout his career.
So immense was the popularity of “Rock Island Line” that it garnered the ultimate tribute: a Stan Freberg parody. Capitalizing on his newfound fame, Donegan toured the United States, billed as the “Irish Hillbilly” on package shows featuring such disparate talent as La-Vern Baker, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, the Cleftones, and the Johnny Burnette Trio. However, his next release on Pye Records, “Lost John” b/w “Stewball” (1956), didn’t fare as well in the States as in England. Saturated with earnest Americana and protest singers, American college kids—folk’s prime audience—dismissed Donegan’s entertaining, sometimes humorous approach to the music. Subsequently, his only other American hit, 1959’s “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight)” sat on the shelf for two years until zany Boston disc jockey Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg began giving it repeated spins on his popular show. Replete with non sequiturs like “If little tin whistles are made of tin, what are foghorns made of?,” the record fit right in with the early 1960s novelty craze and serves as a comic reference in Ray Stevens’s 1962 hit “Ahab the Arab.”
Back in Britain, however, Donegan remained a rising star. From 1956 through 1962, he enjoyed a string of 34 British hits including “Puttin’ on the Style” and “Cumberland Gap,” which hit number one in 1957, “Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O,” which reached number four in the same year, and the raucous sing-along “My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer),” which climbed to the top of the charts in 1960. Still listening to American records, Donegan occasionally reworked songs by popular American artists including the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley,” which hit number three on the British charts in 1958, and Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans,” which reached number two the following year. A canny archivist, he also recorded “I Wanna Go Home (The Wreck of the John B),” taking it to number five in 1960, years before Brian Wilson and Beach Boys discovered it.
Donegan’s energy, humor, and showmanship inspired untold scores of British teens to hunt down cheap guitars, banjos, and washboards so they could start their own skiffle units. Many Donegan wannabes discovered that their skiffle skills prepared them perfectly to play amplified blues-based American rock ‘n’ roll. Indeed, such British Invasion stars as the Shadows, the Searchers, the Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Cliff Richard, and the Beatles, all began their musical lives as skiffle groups.
Forgetting skiffle’s own mongrel pedigree, Donegan himself detested rock ‘n’ roll, believing it had no true musical heritage. He was, however, eminently proud of his musical success, telling Mo Foster, “[l]t was the beginning of the whole process—all roads lead to Lon. I was the first to do that. Nothing very clever in that; I just happened to be chronologically Number One and all the others … came along as little boys to hear what big Lonnie had started to learn. Of course they improved on it at a rapid rate. It’s much easier … to improve when you’re given the example in the first place, but my whole early life was involved in evolving the example.”
No longer a chart force, Donegan remained a popular, high-profile artist in Great Britain and Europe throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to being a perennial favorite in British clubs and on television, he dabbled in dramatic acting and proved an astute businessman with lucrative publishing interests. One of his most valuable copyrights is the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” which rose to number two in the States and hit number nine on the British charts in 1972. One of his own songs, 1969’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” became a million-seller for Welsh belter Tom Jones. As a performer he continued to record and lease unsuccessful sides to Pye, Decca, Black Lion, and RCA.
A 1976 heart attack forced Donegan into an uneasy semi-retirement in California. Two years later, Chrysalis Records organized an all-star recreation of his early hits Puttin’ on the Style. Produced by former British teen idol Adam Faith and boasting duets with Ringo Starr, Elton John, Brian May, and Rory Gallagher, it was his last major-selling album. Follow-ups with respected session ace Albert Lee and Cajun-fiddler Doug Kershaw seemed to point him towards country music, but a series of heart attacks in 1979 ended his full-time career.
In later years Donegan made a series of guest appearances with old friend Chris Barber including a featured spot on Van Morrison’s Skiffle Sessions: Live in Belfast 1998. Just before his death, he returned to touring full time, exhibiting much of his classic verve and humor before standing-room-only crowds. Donegan died on November 3, 2002, in Petersborough, Cambridgeshire, England.
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