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Lonnie Donegan: 1931-2002
Lonnie Donegan
Singer, guitar, banjo

Born: April 29, 1931 in Glasgow, Scotland
Died: November 3, 2002 in Peterborough, England

First UK Skiffle star dies on tour

Copyright © 2002 

The Scotsman

Donegan

Lonnie Donegan became one of Britain's first pop stars with the success of his version of Leadbelly's Rock Island Line in 1956. It sparked what became known as the skiffle boom, although Donegan professed to dislike what he saw as "a mongrel" term, saying that he had always been under the impression that he was performing American folk music.

His success established him as major figure in the pop music of the late 1950s and early 1960s, until The Beatles shifted the musical landscape once again. In turn, The Beatles had evolved from Lennon and McCartney’s own teenage skiffle group, The Quarrymen, and always cited Donegan alongside Chuck Berry as one of their seminal influences.

He remained a popular draw, and despite suffering heart attacks in recent years, continued to tour, both in his own right and with one of his former employers, Chris Barber. He returned to recording after a 20 year gap with Muleskinner Blues in 1998, at the insistence of Van Morrison.

He was born Anthony James Donegan, and was only two when his family uprooted from Glasgow to London, where he grew up in the East End, and began his professional career.

He bought a guitar while working in a stockbroker’s office in 1946. He completed national service, and played in several jazz bands before forming his own Tony Donegan Band. He adopted the stage name of Lonnie after performing in the same concert as one of his heroes, the American bluesman Lonnie Johnson, at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1952.

He joined the traditional jazz band led by Ken Colyer as a banjo player, and remained a member when Chris Barber apparently staged a coup and took over the band (although of all the principals have differing views on what actually happened).

Rock Island Line arose out of a recording session for the band’s first album in 1954. Decca eventually released the track as a single in 1955, and after an initial quiet period, they suddenly found themselves with a runaway chart success in 1956.

Taken by surprise, the company dithered, and Pye stepped in to sign him as solo artist. His skiffle group launched into a six year period of unprecedented success, releasing a string of hit singles which alternated classic American folk material like Cumberland Gap and Grand Coulee Dam with novelty songs.

Battle of New Orleans and Pick a Bale of Cotton were among his other major hits of the time. He set several new records, including the distinction of being the first artist to win a gold record with a debut release, and became one of the biggest hit-makers of all time, a fact acknowledged in the Guinness Book of Records.

He was a central figure in popularising electric guitar in pop music in his skiffle band, which did not employ the stereotypical washboard or tea chest bass (although singer Beryl Bryden, who was visiting the studio at the time, had played washboard on Rock Island Line – Donegan has cited hearing Bryden sing as one of the key moments in his early conversion to jazz).

Like the parallel and inter-related development of rock and roll, skiffle was strongly associated with youthful rebellion. The music’s drive and energy and do-it-yourself aesthetic inspired countless would-be musicians, although many of Donegan’s more purist jazz and folk fans drew the line at his novelty songs, and he was often accused of "selling out" to commerical expediency.

The arrival of The Beatles heralded a decisive shift in pop music, and Donegan turned to the international cabaret circuit in the late 1960s and 1970s. He settled in California with his third wife (they later moved to Spain in the 1990s), but was tempted back into the recording studio in 1978 when singer Adam Faith made him an offer he could not refuse.

Many of the musicians who had been influenced by his example wanted to participate in a tribute album with him. The resulting record, Putting on the Style, was named for another of his early hits. It was recorded in America with a cast which included Elton John, guitarists Brian May (of Queen), Ron Wood (of The Rolling Stones), Rory Gallagher and Albert Lee, pianist Gary Brooker of Procul Harum, and drummer Ringo Starr.

He did not make another album until Van Morrison lured him back into the studio in 1998, but remained active as a performer in the intervening years (he did record an EP of skiffle with the Scottish band The Shakin’ Pyramids in 1981). He took the role of Mr Cinders in the West End musical of that name, and received glowing reviews. He toured with clarinettist Monty Sunshine, and was reunited with Chris Barber as a guest artist on many concerts.

He performed onstage with Van Morrison in recent years, and recorded a live album which featured both Morrison and Chris Barber in Belfast, revisiting many of the old hits associated with Donegan’s career. He claimed to be unhappy with the recording, The Skiffle Sessions - Live in Belfast, but the success of the disc spawned a tour of the USA.

He was made an MBE in 2000, and celebrated 50 years in the music business last year.

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With 1 reader comment, posted October 15, 2004