Any baby boomer or 60-something asked about Lonnie Donegan might reply, “Oh yeah, ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’.” However, Anthony James Donegan (more commonly known as Lonnie Donegan) was much more than that; he was the founding father of skiffle music in the ’50s.
Though American folk music became the element of rock ‘n’ roll, it was in the United Kingdom that the first revival took place — in the form of skiffle. The key to the music’s popularity was its simplicity — by using acoustic guitars, a washboard percussion, and a homemade bass (a tea chest, broom handle and a piece of string). He played a version of American blues/folk music taken from the repertoire of Leadbelly, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy and Woody Guthrie, and it was a hit.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1931, Donegan — who called himself Lonnie in homage to the black blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson — formed a band with jazz musician Chris Barber in the early-’50s. They were one of the hottest live acts in the UK and soon Donegan was having his own skiffle sessions during their gigs. On the band’s album New Orleans Joys released in 1954, Donegan had a few tracks added to the list.
Donegan’s first solo hit came in 1956, with ‘Rock Island Line’. It peaked at number eight on the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, but fared better in Australia where it got to number three. IN a country with next to no rock ‘n’ roll tradition, the UK youth suddenly had their own style of music and it inspired many future starts including Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, Roger Daltrey, Joe Brown and Mark Knopfler. The Vipers were one of skiffle’s most popular groups. They later metamophosed into The Shadows, and perhaps more importantly in 1957, a skiffle band appeared in Liverpool. The Quarrymen, as they were then known, would later figure out that it was really rock ‘n’ roll music they loved and after changing their name to the Beatles, did okay for themselves.
Over the next four years Lonnie Donegan had his own prime time television show, the Lonnie Donegan Showcase, and 16 top 10 hit records including, ‘Lost John’, ‘Cumberland Gap’, ‘Putting On The Style’, ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?)’, ‘Tom Dooley’, and ‘The Battle Of New Orleans’. Yet, with the rise of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, the youth of the UK put down their broom handles and washboards.
Then in 1960 he had his biggest commercial success, ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’ reaching the top spot in both the UK and Australia. He had six more top 10 hits, ‘I Wanna Go Home’, ‘Lorelei’, ‘Have A Drink On Me’, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’, ‘The Party’s Over’, and a revival of an old Leadbelly song, ‘Pick A Bale Of Cotton’, before the new beat scene ended his recording career.
In 2000, Donegan’s career revived when Van Morrison invited him and Chris Barber to play concerts in Belfast, Northern Ireland, these live concerts were recorded and issued as ‘Live In Belfast’. Lonnie Donegan was now back on the road and, as if he was never away, gave 100 per cent in all shows.
He received a lifetime achievement award in 1997, then in November 2000 he collected an MBE from Buckingham Palace. Donegan said: “When Prince Charles presented it to me, he said ‘Not before time Lonnie, not before time’. And I said ‘You’re damn right, mate’ – or words to that effect.”
On October 31 2002, even though he was not feeling the best, Lonnie Donegan gave his usual over lively performance at Nottingham, England, and after the show he collapsed. Four days later he died, aged 71.
Some artists are given an infinite amount of talent which they will happily explore for the rest of their lives, but mostly the majority are given a finite pool to work from and Lonnie Donegan’s talent was enormous, so for the King Of Skiffle we salute and thank you.