'Tales From The Woods' raises a glass and says “Farewell” to the great Lonnie Donegan who died on 3rd November 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.