Personalities | Lonnie Donegan | Fifties | Rock

Anthony James Donegan was born in Glasgow, the son of a professional violinist, on 29 April 1931. The family moved to the east end of London when Tony, as he was then known, was two. He finally got the guitar he craved in his early teens. He attended his first jazz club soon after and was smitten by singer Beryl Bryden – their paths would cross again.

He was also influenced by seeing black American singer, Josh White, in concert. Donegan began playing in various bands, but was interrupted by his national service in 1949. His spell abroad exposed him to American forces radio, and broadened his knowledge of jazz, blues and folk.

The Birth Of The Beat

Donegan fell in with fellow musician Chris Barber. They performed together in Ken Colyer’s trad outfit, but Colyer was a purist and essentially ousted himself from his own band. Barber took charge. Lonnie (who had got his nickname when a compere mixed him up with one of Donegan’s heroes, blues musician Lonnie Johnson), was encouraged to develop an act based around his exuberant performance of various American roots songs, often employing improvized instruments such as a tea-chest bass and washboard. These cameos became extremely popular in the band’s breaks between sets; Donegan called it ‘mongrel music’. On 13 July 1954, just a few days after Elvis’s first Sun Studios session, he recorded a couple of tracks for the Barber band’s Decca debut album, New Orleans Joys, with Beryl Bryden on washboard. ‘Rock Island Line’, an old Leadbelly number, and ‘John Henry’ a traditional Afro-American ballad, were released as a single in late 1955, and went to No. 8 in the UK, and to the same position in the US charts, when it was issued there the following February. He was a US Top 10 artist before Presley! The effect on the youth of Britain was electrifying. This was do-it-yourself music, and sales of acoustic guitars went through the roof. John Lennon formed The Quarrymen skiffle band in Liverpool in 1957, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey became The Detours. Homegrown British rock music began in Lonnie’s wake.

The King Of Skiffle

Follow-up single, ‘Digging My Potatoes’, (another Leadbelly cover), was banned by the BBC for its supposed innuendo, and Donegan’s cachet rose even higher. Now signed to Pye, ‘Lost John’ backed with ‘Stewball’, repeated the formula, and his enthusiastic, expressive vocals took it to No. 2. He toured to America, releasing an album entitled An Englishman Sings American Folk Songs (he was actually Scottish-Irish by birth), and appeared on the Perry Como show in a skit with then-actor Ronald Reagan. Woody Allen debuted on the same programme. Essentially, he was making the Americans aware of their own heritage.

Lonnie chalked up his first No. 1 with ‘Cumberland Gap’ and followed it with another, ‘Gamblin’ Man’ (both 1957). The hits kept flowing with the likes of ‘The Grand Coolee Dam’ and ‘Tom Dooley’ (both 1958), but he started...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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