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Midnight Special - The Skiffle Years 1953-1957

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Album Review

As any skiffle enthusiast will tell you, there's no shortage of Lonnie Donegan compilations out there, ranging from not-too-fully packed hits collections to Bear Family's eight-CD tome. But this three-CD 73-song set is probably the best compromise between those two extremes, and manages to cover even more territory than the Bear Family set, especially on the early side of Donegan's history, making it an essential purchase even for those who own the Bear Family box. Going all the way back to 1953 radio broadcasts, and performances by Donegan as part of Ken Colyer's band, listeners are treated to a full 15 minutes of formative skiffle music (prior to it even having an accepted name) before we get to the legendary Decca Records release of "Rock Island Line." And then we get more live radio broadcasts between that record and his equally definitive "Diggin' My Potatoes," which pushed Donegan off of Decca. And after that, we're treated to some incredibly obscure sides — perfectly valid folk, blues, gospel, and even New Orleans-flavored jazz — that Donegan cut for Oriole and EMI-Columbia, which are usually overlooked even by many devotees of his work. Fans will be listening for an hour before this set gets to its first sides from the Pye/Nixa label (still using the Polygon name at the time), which is the company with which most people associate Donegan. And even after that, we're treated to a liberal dose of live radio broadcasts and unissued takes. The riches just pour off of these three CDs, which never slacken even toward the end of 1957, when skiffle had seemingly run out its commercial string — and that's mostly because Donegan never lost his enthusiasm, and also never limited himself, and was equally adept at all of those other genres. So just when the listener might think the material is starting to get a little repetitive, the repertory switches gears, into lean guitar blues or a horn-driven New Orleans vein, and it all sounds incredibly authentic on its own terms. Especially on the early sides, Donegan shares the spotlight at times with Chris Barber and Ken Colyer, the two bandleaders with whom he was associated early on, as well as guitarist (and sometime singer) Dickie Bishop, and shares vocals with British jazz queen Ottilie Patterson on "When I Move to the Sky"); and guitarist Denny Wright is all over most of this set, as well. The whole set is a treat from beginning to end, even for listeners who are very familiar with the repertory or sound, based on the live and broadcast sides represented, and the sound is killer. The annotation by Roger Dopson is also extremely thorough, though one wishes that the art director had not made Dopson's work so difficult to read, using print that only a somewhat darker shade than the tan background against which it is printed.


Born: 29 April 1931 in Glasgow, Scotland

Genre: Folk

Years Active: '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

To look at Lonnie Donegan today, in pictures taken 40 years ago when he was topping the British charts and hitting the Top Ten in America, dressed in a suit, his hair cut short and strumming an acoustic guitar, he looks like a musical non-entity. But in 1954, before anyone (especially anybody in England) knew what rock & roll was, Donegan was cool, and his music was hot. He's relatively little remembered outside of England, but Donegan shares an important professional attribute with Elvis Presley,...
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Midnight Special - The Skiffle Years 1953-1957, Lonnie Donegan
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