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, Bill Haley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Sex Pistols -- he invented a style of music, skiffle, that completely altered the pop culture landscape and the youth around him, and for a time, completely ruled popular music through that new form. What's more, his music, like that of Presley and Haley, was vital to the early musical careers and future histories of the Beatles, the Stones, and hundreds of other groups. And he did it in 1954, before Elvis was known anywhere outside of Memphis and before Bill Haley was perceived as anything but a Western swing novelty act.
Anthony James Donegan was born in Glasgow, Scotland on April 29, 1931, the son of a classical violinist who had played with the Scottish National Orchestra. Donegan received no encouragement to play an instrument or choose music as a profession, for his father, like many talented musicians during the economic slump of the '30s, was continually out of work. The family, which moved to East London in 1933, had no desire to see him go into a dead-end profession. He first became interested in the guitar at age nine, but it was to be another five years before he took matters into his own hands and bought his first guitar for £12.50 (about $70 American in those days).
Donegan mostly listened to swing and vocal acts such as Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, the Ink Spots, and the Andrews Sisters during the early '40s, although he also heard some Indian music on the BBC, and African songs as transliterated for movies. His taste in jazz went toward Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa. It was country & western and blues records, especially those by Frank Crumit and Josh White, that really attracted Donegan's interests. It was through BBC broadcasts around 1946 that Donegan first started learning to play songs like "Frankie and Johnny," "Putting on the Style," and "House of the Rising Sun." Before long, he was working backwards from Josh White to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, and Leadbelly, among others, and by the end of the '40s, Donegan was as literate in American blues as anyone born in England. He began playing guitar around London, and going to the small jazz clubs springing up around the city.
He was coaxed into his first band one night when someone approached him on the train, saying that they'd heard he was a good banjo player, and invited him to audition for a new group. The man extending the invitation was Chris Barber, himself an aspiring young jazzman. Donegan had never even held a banjo before but agreed to come to the audition, then bought a banjo and tried to fake his way through the try-out. His bluff didn't work but the mix of personalities did, and he was in Barber's first band. The only way Donegan had of mastering his instrument was by listening to old records and painstakingly working out the music and a technique, In 1949, he was drafted into the British Army. This interrupted his stay in Barber's band but proved a godsend when he was stationed in Vienna for a year, which put him in direct contact with American troops and, even more important, the American Forces Radio Network, which broadcast lots of American music. He also gained access to more American records than ever before, courtesy of the U.S. soldiers serving in the city. After his release from the army in 1951, he found a new source of blues and folk music in London, in the library at the American Embassy, which allowed visitors to listen to any recordings that were on hand. Donegan heard it all, even -- by his own admission -- stole a couple, and absorbed every note.
He formed his own group, the Tony Donegan Jazz Band, in 1952. They were successful enough that the National Jazz Federation asked the band to play a show at Festival Hall with American ragtime pianist Ralph Sutton and blues/jazz legend Lonnie Johnson. The Federation had brought the two over to England in defiance of a Musicians' Union ban on all foreign performers and needed a non-union band like Donegan's to play support for the two guests. The master of ceremonies at the show made a mistake in his announcement, introducing the American guitarist as "Tony Johnson" and the British banjo man as "Lonnie Donegan." The name stuck.
Donegan and his band eventually hooked back up with his old friend Chris Barber, who'd kept his band going throughout the previous two years, and eventually Barber and Donegan linked up with fellow jazzman Ken Colyer, into a kind of supergroup led by Colyer. The Ken Colyer Jazzmen, as they were called, specialized in Dixieland jazz, and built a formidable reputation, their shows popular in every club they played. It was during these shows, between sets by the full band, that Donegan would come on-stage with two other players and perform his own version of American blues, country, and folk standards, punched up with his own rhythms and accents, on acoustic guitar or banjo, backed by upright bass and drums. The name "skiffle" was hung on this music as a way of referring to it on the group's posters. The word, according to Donegan, was suggested by Ken Colyer's brother Bill, who remembered an outfit called the Dan Burley Skiffle Group, based in Chicago in the '40s. It seemed to fit, and it caught on; the Ken Colyer Jazzmen became almost as popular for Donegan's between-set skiffle songs as they were for their Dixieland music.
Colyer quit the group early in 1954, and Barber took over the leadership. The Chris Barber Jazz Band, as they became known, were popular enough to justify the recording of an album for Britain's Decca Records label. The album, New Orleans Joy, featured songs representative of the group's live set, including a selection from Donegan's skiffle repertory -- the skiffle group, consisting of Donegan, Barber on bass, and their friend Beryl Bryden playing rhythm on washboard, recorded its vocal numbers only after arguing vociferously with the Decca producer, who wanted an instrumental number. The three laid down four or five songs while the producer was away, and one of the songs chosen from among those five for the album was "Rock Island Line."
The album sold 60,000 copies in its first month of release, a huge number in England at that time for a debut album by a homegrown jazz group. The Chris Barber Jazz Band had not played before 60,000 people in their whole history, and a phenomenon was obviously afoot. Encouraged by the initial sales of New Orleans Joy, the company decided to push its luck by lifting individual songs off the album as singles. Each of those was a success, and eventually "Rock Island Line" came up as a 45 rpm release.
The single had a 22-week run on the English charts, peaking at number eight. As "Rock Island Line" took the country by storm, Decca suddenly had one of the bigger -- and most wholly unexpected -- hits in its history up to that time. Before the smoke cleared, "Rock Island Line" also managed to reach the Top 20 in America, a major feat for a British artist at that time. In six months, "Rock Island Line" sold three million copies, 50 times the initial sales of the album it came from, an extraordinary figure in anyone's accounting. It was exceptionally popular among England's teenagers, who accounted for most of its sales. They found the record's rhythm to be infectious and its sound alluring in a way that no record by anyone from England ever had before. It was catchy, earthy, even bluesy (after a fashion) American music played in a way that the British kids could master without an enormous amount of trouble -- a guitar or two, and maybe a banjo, an upright bass (or even one made from a washtub or tea chest, a broom handle, and a piece of rope), and a washboard-and-thimble for percussion.
Donegan was only paid a few pounds for the recording, and received no royalties. He got something more valuable from it than money, however, for "Rock Island Line" was credited to "The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group." Donegan was suddenly a star, with a public that wanted more music from him. His next single for Decca, "Diggin' My Potatoes," cut at an October 30, 1954 concert at London's Royal Festival Hall, was banned by the BBC for its suggestive lyrics -- this hurt sales but also gave Donegan a slight veneer of daring and rebelliousness that didn't hurt his credibility with the kids. Decca gave up on Donegan soon after, believing that skiffle was a flash-in-the-pan fad. The next month he was at Abbey Road Studios in London cutting a song for EMI's Columbia label. He'd left the Barber band by then -- though Barber continued to play on his records into the middle of the following year -- enticed into a solo career by offers of huge amounts of money to embark on a solo performing career. By the spring of 1955, he was signed to Pye Records, and his single, "Lost John," hit number two in England, although it never hit in America.
He was successful enough, however, to be brought over to America to appear on the Perry Como Show, followed by an appearance on the Paul Winchell Show. Suddenly, his manager was getting offers of $1500 a week for concert appearances in cities from Cleveland to New York -- that in a day when $800 was a year's wage in England to people of Donegan's generation. Donegan proved to be a popular performer in America, playing on bills with Chuck Berry, among others. He might've continued touring the United States but for the fact he got lonely (his wife and newborn child were brought over), and that "Lost John" had reached number two in England. After his return, he formed a band of his own, which initially consisted of jazz guitarist Denny Wright, Micky Ashman on bass, and Nick Nichols on drums. Wright, a jazz player devoted to Django Reinhardt, proved to be one of the best blues axemen in England at the time, while Ashman and Nichols made up an exceptionally tight rhythm section. Donegan cut his first album, Showcase, in the summer of 1956, featuring songs by bluesmen Leadbelly and Leroy Carr, not to mention moody traditional blues like "I'm a Ramblin' Man" and A.P. Carter's "Wabash Cannonball." The record was a hit, racking up sales in the hundreds of thousands.
In concert, the group's sound was fuller still, with Donegan and Wright sharing guitar chores with bearded, bespectacled Dick Bishop, who had played on Donegan's earliest records. Still later, Jimmy Currie, a veteran of Tony Crombie's Rockets (the first home-grown rock & roll band in England, patterned loosely after Bill Haley's Comets) became Donegan's lead guitarist in what is regarded as his strongest band. Currie was not only more folk oriented than Wright, but also wrote songs, although Wright would turn up on Donegan sessions as late as 1965. Donegan and his band essentially played live in the studio (there was virtually no overdubbing in those days), but the best record of their sound comes from a concert recorded at London's Conway Hall on January 25, 1957, which was later released by Pye. Another compelling glimpse of the group can be found in the British jukebox movie The Six-Five Special (1957), based on the popular television series of the period, in which Donegan rips through a killer live rendition of "Jack 'O Diamonds," as well as a fine cover of Woody Guthrie's "The Grand Coulee Dam."
While Donegan was racking up hits -- "Bring a Little Water, Sylvie" (number seven), "Don't You Rock Me, Daddy-O" (number four), "Cumberland Gap (number six), and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor On the Bedpost Overnight?" (number three and number five in the U.S.) all in less than three years -- thousands of skiffle groups were springing up all over England. New artists, most notably Tommy Steele and, later, Cliff Richard, started out playing skiffle music and put their own stamp on the material before moving on to other sounds. Among the many tens of thousands of British teens he inspired were members of the Beatles, Gerry & the Pacemakers, and the Searchers. By mid-1958, however, skiffle was waning rapidly as a commercial sound, but Donegan continued to appear on the charts right into 1962. Only when the next wave of young rockers came along, who, like Donegan, had their own ideas about music and what they wanted to do with it, did he finally fade from the charts.
He continued to record sporadically during the '60s, including some sessions at Hickory Records in Nashville with Charlie McCoy, Floyd Cramer, and the Jordanaires, but after 1964, he was primarily occupied as a producer for most of the decade at Pye Records. Among those he worked with during this period was future Moody Blues guitarist-singer Justin Hayward. Donegan's attempt at a recording comeback late in the '60s was unsuccessful, but in 1974, a new boomlet for skiffle music in Germany brought him on tour and into the studio anew, and the following year he and Chris Barber toured together and recorded a new long-player, The Great Re-Union Album. In 1976, however, after another series of shows and recordings in Germany, Donegan suffered a heart attack that left him sidelined, and he moved to California to recuperate.
In 1978, however, he was back in the studio, recording the album that was his first chart entry in 15 years, Putting on the Style, an all-star skiffle-style album that teamed Donegan with Ringo Starr, Elton John, Brian May, Peter Banks, and other stars and superstars of rock who owed their entry into music to "Rock Island Line." A follow-up album featuring Albert Lee presented Donegan working in a somewhat less familiar country & western vein. By 1980, he was making regular concert appearances again, and a new album with Barber followed. In 1983 Donegan toured England with Billy Joe Spears, and in 1984, he made his theatrical debut in a revival of the 1920 musical Mr. Cinders. More concert tours followed, along with a move from Florida to Spain. Heart surgery in 1992 slowed Donegan down again, but by the end of the year he was touring once again with Chris Barber.
Lonnie Donegan remains a beloved pioneer of English rock & roll, and the king of skiffle. In the late '90s, his musical credibility came around again to perhaps the highest level of respect of his life, with several multi-disc hits and career-wide compilations available. Donegan passed away November 3, 2002, following heart problems. Unlike a lot of American rock & roll of the mid-'50s, and even more British attempts at the music from the same period and after, Donegan's music remains eminently enjoyable and enlivening. ~ Bruce Eder