On 29th April 2011 Lonnie Donegan would have been 80 years old. Lonnie was the first true British Pop Star having over 30 hits, in the late fifties and early sixties including three number ones. He inspired a generation of musicians but is sadly mainly remembered for his 1960 number one novelty hit “My Old Man’s a Dustman,” a song which became a bit of a millstone around his neck.
Lonnie played a type of music called Skiffle, he would take American songs written by singers like Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter and turn them into his own unique style. His first hit happened almost by accident. Lonnie was a banjo player in the Chris Barber Jazz band who on 13th July 1954 were in the process of recording an album for Decca records. They were a bit short of material so it was suggested they include a couple of the Skiffle numbers that Lonnie had occasionally sung in the act. With Beryl Bryden brought in to play washboard and Chris Barber on bass they quickly recorded a few songs including the old traditional American song “Rock Island Line”. In November 1955 someone at Decca decided to release Lonnie’s record as a single. By January 1956 it had reached number eight in the British charts and also entered the top ten in America, something unheard of for a British artist at that time. Lonnie never received any royalties for this track. As a member of Chris Barber’s band he was only paid the basic session fee of around £3.50 but Decca records did very nicely thank you.
“Rock Island Line” had a long spoken introduction so you could say Lonnie was the first rapper. He was also one of the first artists to be banned by the BBC, when his second record for Decca , “Diggin My Potatoes” was considered far to rude for family listening. The offending lyrics were “Somebody’s Diggin My Potatoes Trampling on my Vine” which believe it or not is full of sexual innuendo.
“Rock Island Line” prompted an epidemic of Skiffle groups in Great Britain. By the time Lonnie reached number two in the charts in June 1956 with his third release “Lost John”, the youth of Great Britain were in a guitar buying frenzy with music shops finding it hard to keep up with demand. There were thousands of Skiffle groups, usually with too many strumming guitars. They would use a washboard for percussion and, because a double bass was far too expensive, a tea chest bass. This was a large wooden box and the idea was that a broom handle was held on top of the box with string tied from handle to a hole in the box. The string was then plucked and was supposed to sound like a double bass. Contrary to some reports Lonnie never used a Tea Chest and the washboard only featured on his first record.
His fourth single “Bring a Little Water Sylvie” was recorded with the brilliant but unpredictable Denny Wright on guitar, Nick Nicholls on drums and the charismatic Micky Ashman on bass. They were brought together specifically for this record and his first album “Showcase” but would become his regular backing group, always dressing immaculately in dinner jackets and bow ties for live shows and TV appearances.
Lonnie was now on a roll chalking up a number four hit in early 1957 with “Don’t you Rock Me Daddy-O” followed by two number one’s, “Cumberland Gap” in April 1957 and the double A-side “Putting on the Style” and “Gamblin’ Man” in June 1957. The Skiffle Group craze lasted barely a couple of years. The washboard players had saved up to buy drum kits and, with the bass guitar gradually being introduced, the tea chest players went electric with the music changing to Rock n’ Roll. None of this seemed to affect Lonnie and the pace of his single releases was relentless with a new single entering the charts almost before the previous one had left. In 1960 he became the first British artist to enter the charts at number one with “My Old Man’s a Dustman”. Lonnie’s domination of the charts came to an end in 1962 when his last ever chart entry, “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” reached number eleven in August of that year.
Lonnie had a desire to become an all round entertainer. Aside from “Dustman” he had recorded other novelty songs and several standards like “The Party’s Over” and “Somewhere over the Rainbow” which some hardcore fans like myself were not keen on. The climate of the British music scene was changing and when Lonnie had his final hit we were only four months away from the Beatles first release “Love Me Do”.
Lonnie never stopped performing and making records. In the seventies he entertained the “chicken in the basket” brigade in night clubs, but by the nineties he had gone back to his roots, putting together a great band and performing mainly his old skiffle numbers. There was no place for “My Old Man’s a Dustman” and the like. Despite being in his sixties, and with a history of heart troubles, on stage Lonnie always gave 110%, he knew no other way. In 1999 he made a successful appearance at Glastonbury and a year later recorded his last album live in Dublin with Van Morrison who was a huge fan.
Lonnie died from a heart attack on 3rd November 2002 at the home of two of his closest friends Mel and Linda Roberts in Market Deeping. He was in the middle of a tour and had just been asked by Eric Clapton to perform at the “Tribute to George Harrison” concert that Eric was organising. I was privileged to attend Lonnie’s funeral and the crematorium was packed with musicians who had been inspired by him. Those that couldn’t attend sent wreaths: Brian May, Elton John, The Rolling Stones and Van Morrison. Almost all the musicians from the sixties British music explosion were inspired by Lonnie Donegan. The earliest known recording of John Lennon is of him performing Lonnie’s “Putting on the Style” with his Skiffle group “The Quarrymen” on the very day he met Paul McCartney for the first time. Lonnie Donegan was an inspiration to many and there was so much more to him than “My Old Man’s a Dustman”.
Paul Griggs 2011
Happy birthday Lon, have a drink on me.
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