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Lonnie Donegan

Anthony James Donegan MBE (29 April 1931 – 3 November 2002), known as Lonnie Donegan, was a Scottish skiffle singer, songwriter and musician, referred to as the "King of Skiffle", who influenced 1960s British pop and rock musicians. Born in Scotland and brought up in England, Donegan began his career in the British trad jazz revival but transitioned to skiffle in the mid-1950s, rising to prominence with a hit recording of the American folk song "Rock Island Line" which helped spur the broader UK skiffle movement.

Donegan was born in Bridgeton, Glasgow, Scotland, on 29 April 1931. He was the son of an Irish mother (Mary Josephine Deighan) and a Scots father (Peter John Donegan), a professional violinist who had played with the Scottish National Orchestra. In 1933, when Donegan was aged 2, the family moved to East Ham in Essex. Donegan was evacuated to Cheshire to escape the Blitz in the Second World War and attended St Ambrose College in Hale Barns. He lived for a while on Chiswick Mall in Middlesex.

Donegan married three times. He had two daughters (Fiona and Corrina) with his first wife, Maureen Tyler (divorced 1962), a son and a daughter (Anthony and Juanita) with his second wife, Jill Westlake (divorced 1971), and three sons (Peter, David and Andrew) with his third wife, Sharon whom he married in 1977. Donegan died on 3 November 2002, aged 71, after having a heart attack in Market Deeping, Lincolnshire mid-way through a UK tour, and before he was due to perform at a memorial concert for George Harrison with the Rolling Stones. He had cardiac problems since the 1970s and several heart attacks.

Donegan had 31 UK top 30 hit singles, 24 were successive hits and three were number one. He was the first British male singer with two US top 10 hits. Donegan received an Ivor Novello lifetime achievement award in 1995 and in 2000 he was made an MBE. Donegan was a pivotal figure in the British Invasion due to his influence in the US in the late 1950s.

Trad jazz[]

As a child growing up in the early 1940s Donegan listened mostly 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 14 in 1945. He learned songs such as "Frankie and Johnny", "Puttin' On the Style", and "The House of the Rising Sun" by listening to BBC radio broadcasts. By the end of the 1940s he was playing guitar around London and visiting small jazz clubs.

Donegan first played in a major band after Chris Barber heard that he was a good banjo player and, on a train, asked him to audition. Donegan had never played the banjo but he bought one for the audition and succeeded more on personality than talent. His stint with Barber's trad jazz band was interrupted when he was called up for National Service in 1949, but while in the army at Southampton, he was the drummer in Ken Grinyer's Wolverines Jazz Band at a local pub. A posting to Vienna brought him into contact with American troops, and access to US records and the American Forces Network radio station.

In 1952, he formed the Tony Donegan Jazzband, which played around London. On 28 June 1952 at the Royal Festival Hall they opened for the blues musician Lonnie Johnson. Donegan adopted his first name as a tribute. He used the name at a concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 2 June 1952.

In 1953 cornetist Ken Colyer was imprisoned in New Orleans for a visa problem. He returned to Britain and joined Chris Barber's band. They changed the name to Ken Colyer's Jazzmen and made their first public appearance on 11 April 1953 in Copenhagen. The following day, Chris Albertson recorded Ken Colyer's Jazzmen and the Monty Sunshine Trio—Sunshine, Barber, and Donegan—for Storyville Records. These were amongst Donegan's first commercial recordings.

Skiffle[]

While in Ken Colyer's Jazzmen with Chris Barber, Donegan sang and played guitar and banjo in their Dixieland set. He began playing with two other band members during the intervals, to provide what posters called a "skiffle" break, a name suggested by Ken Colyer's brother, Bill, after the Dan Burley Skiffle Group of the 1930s. In 1954 Colyer left and the band became Chris Barber's Jazz Band.

With a washboard, tea-chest bass, and a cheap Spanish guitar, Donegan played folk and blues songs by artists such as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. This proved popular and in July 1954 he recorded a fast version of Lead Belly's "Rock Island Line", featuring a washboard but not a tea-chest bass, with "John Henry" on the B-side. It was a hit in 1956 (which also later inspired the creation of a full album, An Englishman Sings American Folk Songs, released in America on the Mercury label in the early 1960s), but because it was a band recording, Donegan made no money beyond his session fee. It was the first debut record to go gold in the UK, and it reached the Top Ten in the United States. This recording has proved greatly influential on musicians who heard it in their younger days and for whom it seems to have been a catalyst in their musical motivation and careers.

The Acoustic Music organisation made this comment about Donegan's "Rock Island Line": "It flew up the English charts. Donegan had synthesized American southern blues with simple acoustic instruments: acoustic guitar, washtub bass, and washboard rhythm. The new style was called 'Skiffle'.... and referred to music from people with little money for instruments. The new style captivated an entire generation of post-war youth in England."

His next single for Decca, "Diggin' My Potatoes", was recorded at a concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 30 October 1954. Decca dropped Donegan thereafter, but within a month he was at the Abbey Road Studios in London recording for EMI's Columbia label. He had left the Barber band, and by spring 1955, signed a recording contract with Pye. His next single "Lost John" reached No. 2 in the UK Singles Chart.

He appeared on television in the United States on the Perry Como Show and the Paul Winchell Show. Returning to the UK, he recorded his debut album, Lonnie Donegan Showcase, in summer 1956, with songs by Lead Belly and Leroy Carr, plus "Ramblin' Man" and "Wabash Cannonball". The LP sold hundreds of thousands. The skiffle style encouraged amateurs and one of many groups that followed was the Quarrymen, formed in March 1957 by John Lennon. Donegan's "Gamblin' Man"/"Puttin' On the Style" single was number one in the UK in July 1957, when Lennon first met Paul McCartney. His Skiffle rendition of Hank Snow's Country song "Nobody's Child" was also the inspiration for Tony Sheridan's Bluesy version which he recorded with the Beatles as his backing band.

Donegan went on to successes such as "Cumberland Gap" and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?)", his biggest hit in the US, on Dot. He turned to music hall style with "My Old Man's a Dustman" which was not well received by skiffle fans and unsuccessful in America on Atlantic in 1960, but it reached number one in the UK. Donegan's group had a flexible line-up, but was generally Denny Wright or Les Bennetts (of Les Hobeaux and Days of Skiffle, led by singer Dave George), playing lead guitar and singing harmony, Micky Ashman or Pete Huggett—later Steve Jones—on upright bass, Nick Nichols—later Pete Appleby, Mark Goodwin, and Ken Rodway (now a Christian author and minister) on drums or percussion, and Donegan playing acoustic guitar or banjo and singing the lead.

His last hit single on the UK chart was his cover version of "Pick a Bale of Cotton." Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, his fall from the chart coincided with the rise of The Beatles and the other beat music performers whom he inspired.

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