‘Lonnie Donegan Obituary’ – by Keith Woods, from Tales From The Woods
‘Tales From The Woods’ raises a glass and says “Farewell” to the great Lonnie Donegan who died on 3rd November 2002 at the home of friends in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire whilst midway through a nationwide tour. The ‘Tales From The Woods’ editorial board will forever cherish the memory of witnessing Lonnie in action at the Royal Albert Hall a couple of weeks before Christmas 1999. Privileged to have a near-front row seat in the company of ‘Tales From The Woods’ subscribers Ken Major and the late Lynne Peters, the man totally blew us away with a back-to-his-roots performance that was nothing short of dynamic. Backed up by his own highly professional backing band, plus old friends called in for the occasion like Chris Barber, Bill Wyman and Joe Brown to name but a few, in a set which lasted well in excess of 90 minutes, he treated us to all of those great skiffle numbers that transformed British popular music back in the mid-Fifties. Plenty of blues, reminding all those folk that he was the first to bring the blues to a young audience all those decades ago.
Donegan’s huge success opened the gate for early British blues pioneers like Alexis Korner, Cyril Davis etc. putting the blues in the ears of young children who, a decade later, would be forming bands with names like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds or any number of young outfits that created the early to mid-Sixties blues boom, the repercussions of which are still felt today, almost forty years later. In the opinion of the ‘Tales From The Woods’ editorial board, Lonnie was not just the first to popularise the blues or Black-American folk music. He was our first Rock’n’Roll star; if you like, our Bill Haley, Elvis, Lewis or Vincent.
Within a year many of us would catch Lonnie in action again at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. Not such a star-studded gala, a far more intimate venue but equally as dynamic. Performing live was the man’s natural habitat and on stage he was something else. For me it was Donegan who planted the seed, as I describe in my ‘Woods Awakes’ article way back in issue 10 (which article, incidentally, can be found on our website should you feel the need to reacquaint yourself). As a child I sang ‘Rock Island Line’ in front of the class with my mate Roger playing an imaginary guitar (the world’s first air guitarist?). So okay, it would be a few more years before the moment that would hook me forever – Gene Vincent’s appearance on ‘Boy Meets Girl’ – but it was dear old Lonnie who first left me ‘All Shook Up’.
Born Anthony James Donegan in Glasgow, Scotland on April 29th 1931 to an Irish mother and Scots father who, for a while, was a violinist with the National Orchestra of Scotland before quitting music as a full time living to join the Merchant Navy. The same period would see the family leaving depression-hit Glasgow for London, settling in the tough east end district of East Ham. First bitten by the jazz bug around the age of fifteen when he and his fellow Boy Scout mate caught the number 665 trolley bus to Shoreditch Church, changing on to the 649, Tottenham bound for the long-gone Bruce Grove Ballroom to see the Freddy Randall Jazz Band perform a Sunday afternoon session. During the course of their set, a young girl, barely out of her teens, came out of the audience to step on to the stage to sing ‘St Louis Blues’. Although their paths would cross a few years later, unbeknownst to Lonnie at the time it would be his first encounter with Beryl Brydon.
It would not be long before he purchased his first guitar for the princely sum of thirty shillings (£1.50p). A couple of years later, Lonnie witnessed his first visiting American folk-blues singer, Josh White, perform at the Chiswick Empire. Soon, he was feverishly seeking out every blues record he could both find and afford along with his other love, traditional jazz.
The teenage Donegan, once proficient enough on guitar and banjo, formed the Anthony Donegan Jazz Band, swiftly abbreviated to the more acceptable sounding Tony Donegan Jazz Band, which he financed through part-time delivery work for a photographer. As an enthusiastic amateur he met up with and performed alongside other fans of early jazz such as trombonist Chris Barber, trumpeter Ken Colyer and clarinettist Monty Sunshine but this all came to an abrupt end when Donegan was called up for National Service in 1949. Even this could not stop him from playing and he soon found himself drumming in an armed forces jazz band, The Wolverines.
In 1951, just months away from discharge, he attended a gig at London’s prestigious Caxton Hall of the legendary blues singer and guitarist Lonnie Johnson. The young Donegan was bowled over, immediately adopting the stage name of Lonnie. Once out of the armed forces, hanging out with Colyer, Barber and Sunshine at Cy Laurie’s Jazz Club in London’s Soho, it was all beginning to take off and he joined Colyer’s band as a banjo player. Virtually all jazz clubs in the early Fifties were unlicensed and the musicians took regular breaks to allow the punters to nip out for a drink in the nearest pub. Not everyone drank of course, so entertainment had to be provided for those patrons who remained. Lonnie’s ever increasing blues record collection provided the inspiration for the Colyer Band’s interlude performance which they named ‘Skiffle’, taken from one of his favourite records ‘Home Town Skiffle’, a compilation of American jug band styles and Western swing.
Before long however, Barber and Donegan’s more adventurous approach jarred with Colyer’s jazz purity and they split, regrouping themselves as the Chris barber Jazz Band, which made its first appearance at the 100 Club on 31st may 1954. Soon their first album, New Orleans Joy, was on the market. Barber insisted that the album should reflect the band’s complete range of material including Donegan singing the skiffle songs. Despite the reservations of the executives at Decca Records, a few instrumentals from the album were released as singles before Decca reluctantly released ‘Rock Island Line’ finally in 1956 with Beryl Brydon playing washboard. Donegan’s interpretation of the Leadbelly penned song stormed the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, it was one of the first British pop records to break the American charts and the following year (1957) Donegan toured the U.S. extensively, backed by the Johnny Burnette Trio (Johnny, Dorsey and Paul Burlinson).
Meanwhile, back in the U.K. thousands of skiffle groups sprang up from nowhere. For the next six years, Lonnie rode the crest of the wave, long outliving the brief skiffle boom with versions of ‘Lost John’, ‘Cumberland Gap’, ‘Bring A Little Water Sylvie’, ‘Battle Of New Orleans’ etc. The tradition of the British Music Hall was, and still is, evident in the influence of first generation British Rock’n’Roll acts; for example, Marty Wilde appeared on the television show ‘The Good Old Days’ which was based around a turn of the twentieth century music hall (the series ran for a vast number of years through the Sixties until the turn of the Seventies); in Joe Brown, it is as much a part of his persona as is his love of country music and Rock’n’Roll; Wee Willie Harris’ often comic stage act and so forth. In Donegan’s case, it could be argued that it was taken to its logical conclusion. That side of him was already showing its face as early as 1957 with the comic hit ‘Puttin’ On The Style’ and even more so in 1959, hitting the charts with ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour On The Bedpost Overnight’, which peaked at number three U.K. and, amazingly, number five in the United States. The following year (1960) ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’ came into the charts at the number one position and remained there for four weeks.
His final hit came in 1962 with ‘Pick A Bale Of Cotton’ and the follow-up, a comic duet with old time music hall comedian Max Miller (the Cheeky Chappie) ‘The Market Song’ flopped. Ironically, as the British blues boom emerged from smoky clubs and into the mainstream, the man who first put the blues into the ears of the young was lost to the new music hall i.e. cabaret and pantomime.
By 1976 Lonnie had moved to the American resort of Lake Tahoe where he suffered his first heart attack and underwent open-heart surgery which, for the first time in a quarter of a century, prevented him from performing. Come 1978, Adam Faith persuaded a gang of rock stars (including Ronnie Wood, Rory Gallagher, Brian May and Elton John) to participate in a comeback album ‘Puttin’ On The Style’. It was something of a mess of course but it helped to rekindle interest and sold surprisingly well. 1980 would see the release of an album in company with Doug Kershaw entitled ‘Sundown’, an attempt to mix country with skiffle which, it could be argued, was far more musically fulfilling.
By the turn of the 1990s he had married for the third time, become a father for the seventh time, moved to the Spanish resort of Malaga and suffered more heart problems, resulting in yet further bypass surgery. In recent years, Donegan experienced a transformation in his career by simply going back to his roots, no doubt helped by the release of the 1999 album ‘Mule Skinner Blues’ featuring another long-time fan, Van Morrison. Performing at Glastonbury and Fleadh festivals, wowing kids who were born decades after his glory days, touring near constantly, unable to resist the lure of the spotlight which played havoc with his fragile health.
In 1997 he received an Ivor Novello lifetime achievement award and was made an MBE in 2000 but, sadly, he never received the knighthood that we here at the ‘Tales From The Woods’ editorial board have been campaigning for. Had he lived he would have been performing at the forthcoming tribute concert for George Harrison at the Royal Albert Hall.
Anthony James Donegan MBE (29 April 1931 – 3 November 2002), known as Lonnie Donegan, was a British skiffle singer, songwriter and musician, referred to as the “King of Skiffle”, who influenced 1960s British pop and rock musicians. Born in Scotland and raised in England, he was Britain’s most successful and influential recording artist before the Beatles.
Donegan had 31 UK top 30 hit singles, 24 being successive and three at 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 born in Bridgeton, Glasgow, Scotland, on 29 April 1931. He was the son of an Irish mother and a Scots father, a professional violinist who had played with the Scottish National Orchestra. In 1933, at age 2, he moved with his family to East Ham in East London. Donegan was evacuated to Cheshire to escape the Blitz in the Second World War and attended college in Hale Barns at St. Ambrose College.
Donegan married three times. He had two daughters (Fiona and Corrina) by his first wife, Maureen Tyler (divorced 1962), a son and a daughter (Anthony and Juanita) by his second wife, Jill Westlake (divorced 1971), and three sons (Peter, David and Andrew) by his third wife, Sharon, whom he married in 1977. Peter Donegan is also a singer and a musician. [See Earlyblues interview with Peter Donegan]
Donegan died on 3 November 2002, aged 71, after 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 had several heart attacks.
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 its 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 Donegan’s first commercial recordings.
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 Leadbelly’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.
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 “I’m a 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.
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.
He continued in the UK charts until 1962, before succumbing to The Beatles and beat music.
Donegan recorded sporadically during the 1960s, including sessions at Hickory Records in Nashville, Tennessee, with Charlie McCoy, Floyd Cramer and the Jordanaires. After 1964, he was a record producer for most of the decade at Pye Records. Among those he worked with was Justin Hayward.
Donegan was unfashionable through the late 1960s and 1970s (although his “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” was recorded by Tom Jones in 1967 and Elvis Presley in 1976), and he began to play the American cabaret circuit. A departure from his normal style was an a cappella recording of “The Party’s Over”.
Donegan reunited with the original Chris Barber band for a concert in Croydon in June 1975. A bomb scare meant that the recording had to be finished in the studio, after an impromptu concert in the car park. The release was titled The Great Re-Union Album.
He had his first heart attack in 1976 while in the United States and had quadruple bypass surgery. He returned to attention in 1978 when he recorded his early songs with Rory Gallagher, Ringo Starr, Elton John and Brian May. The album was called Putting on the Style. A follow-up featuring Albert Lee saw Donegan in less familiar country and western vein. By 1980, he was making regular concert appearances again, and another album with Barber followed. In 1983, Donegan toured with Billie Jo Spears, and in 1984, he made his theatrical debut in a revival of the 1920 musical Mr Cinders. More concert tours followed, with a move from Florida to Spain. In 1992 he had further bypass surgery following another heart attack.
In 1994, the Chris Barber band celebrated 40 years with a tour with both bands. Pat Halcox was still on trumpet (a position he retained until July 2008). The reunion concert and the tour were on CD and DVD.
Donegan had a late renaissance when in 2000 he appeared on Van Morrison’s album The Skiffle Sessions – Live in Belfast 1998, an acclaimed album featuring him singing with Morrison and Chris Barber, with a guest appearance by Dr John. Donegan also played at Glastonbury Festival in 1999, and was made an MBE in 2000.
Donegan also appeared at Fairport Convention’s annual music festival on 9 August 2001. His final CD was This Yere de Story.
Peter Donegan started touring as his father’s pianist when he was aged 18. In 2019, Peter appeared on the show The Voice as a contestant and dueted with Tom Jones with a song Lonnie had written for Tom, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again Anthony Donegan also performs but under the name Lonnie Donegan Jr.
Mark Knopfler released a tribute to Donegan entitled “Donegan’s Gone” on his 2004 album, Shangri-La, and said he was one of his greatest influences. Donegan’s music formed a musical starring his two sons. Lonnie D – The Musical took its name from the Chas & Dave tribute song which started the show. Subsequently, Peter Donegan formed a band to perform his father’s material and has since linked with his father’s band from the last 30 years with newcomer Eddie Masters on bass. They made an album together in 2009 entitled “Here We Go Again”. Donegan’s eldest son, Anthony, also formed his own band, as Lonnie Donegan Jnr.
On his album A Beach Full of Shells, Al Stewart paid tribute to Donegan in the song “Katherine of Oregon”. In “Class of ’58” he describes a British entertainer who is either Donegan or a composite including him.
Peter Sellers recorded Puttin’ on the Smile featuring “Lenny Goonagain”, who travels to the “Deep South” of Brighton and finds an “obscure folk song hidden at the top of the American hit parade”, re-records it and reaches number one in the UK.
During the situation between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, David Letterman, pretending to try to remember Jimmy Fallon’s name, called him “Lonnie Donegan.”
In the 2019 movie Judy Donegan appears as the performer who replaces an ill Judy Garland. He is shown in the (entirely fictional) final scene generously allowing her to make one last appearance on stage.
“I’m trying to sing acceptable folk music. I want to widen the audience beyond the artsy-craftsy crowd and the pseudo intellectuals–but without distorting the music itself”. NME – June 1956
“In Britain, we were separated from our folk music tradition centuries ago and were imbued with the idea that music was for the upper classes. You had to be very clever to play music. When I came along with the old three chords, people began to think that if I could do it, so could they. It was the reintroduction of the folk music bridge which did that.” – Interview, 2002.
“He was the first person we had heard of from Britain to get to the coveted No. 1 in the charts, and we studied his records avidly. We all bought guitars to be in a skiffle group. He was the man.” – Paul McCartney
“He really was at the very cornerstone of English blues and rock.” – Brian May.
“I wanted to be Elvis Presley when I grew up, I knew that. But the man who really made me feel like I could actually go out and do it was a chap by the name of Lonnie Donegan.” – Roger Daltrey
“Remember, Lonnie Donegan started it for you.” – Jack White’s acceptance speech at the Brit Awards.
by Spencer Leigh
Paperback or Kindle version available from Amazon
Published by Finbarr International. June 2003