Lonnie Donegan MBE was a skiffle musician, possibly the most famous of them all, with more than 20 UK Top 30 hits to his name. He is sometimes called 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. He moved with his mother to East Ham, Essex (now Greater London), at an early age, after his parents divorced. Inspired by blues music and New Orleans jazz bands he heard on the radio, he resolved to learn the guitar, and bought his first at the age of fourteen.
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 group. 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 managed to bluff his way through the audition. His stint in this group was interrupted, however, when he was called up for National Service in 1949.
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 took over the name of Barber's band, though it 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 the U.S.A.. At the time he sang and played both guitar and banjo for Chris Barber's Jazz Band, and began providing what he called a "skiffle" break during the intervals. With a washboard, a tea-chest bass and a cheap Spanish guitar, he 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", with Chris Barber's Jazz Band, featuring a washboard but not a tea-chest bass, with "John Henry" on the B-side. It was an enormous hit in 1956, 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. The skiffle style encouraged amateurs to get started, and one of the many skiffle groups that followed was The Quarry Men formed in March 1957 by John Lennon.
After splitting from Barber, he went on to make a series of popular records, with successes including "Cumberland Gap" and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It's [sic] Flavour on the Bedpost Over Night?". He turned to a music hall style with "My Old Man's A Dustman" which was not well received by skiffle fans, but reached number one in the UK singles charts.
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. In 1976, he suffered his first heart attack while in the United States and 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.
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.