The golden age of Donegan

HE was probably Britain’s first pop superstar, a chirpy little man who revolutionised teenage music in the 1950s.
Lonnie Donegan brought music that the masses could play for themselves.
He did it through skiffle, a simple music form which anyone could create.
A generation of young men strummed on tea chest bases, acoutstic guitars and their mothers’ washboards to re-create the Donegan sound.
It was fast, it was fun - and above all it was cheap.
Lonnie Donegan burst onto the scene in the mid-1950s with a distinctive, lively sound based loosely on American folk music.
His first big hit, Rock Island Line, achieved the then rare distinction of soaring up the US hit parade and from then until the Beatles era he was rarely out of the charts.
Donegan was born in Glasgow in April 1931 and christened James Anthony - black American guitarist Lonnie Johnson inspired the name change. He left school in Altrincham, south Manchester, at the age of 14 and worked as a clerk in a stockbroker’s office before joining the Army at 18.
Military service took him to Vienna where he met an American who introduced him to the country and western music that was to inspire him.
An outgoing, friendly man, Donegan fitted naturally into the music business and in 1952 joined Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen a band which would later become known as the Chris Barber Jazz Band.
It was during a recording session with Barber that Donegan cut a track which it was initially intended would be issued on an album. Called Rock Island Line it was to take him from banjo player to superstar and set a trend which would be emulated by music crazy kids across the nation.
Skiffle was easy to play - and inexpensive. A guitar, a washboard, drums and a bass made out of a tea chest and a piece of string set many aspiring rock stars on the road to at least limited sucess.
Donegan had the key ingredients for pop stardom, including good looks which attracted crowds of screaming girls. His songs were easy to copy, raucous for the time and not the sort of music approved of by parents.
During the skiffle craze he inspired many of the budding stars who were later to oust him from the top of British pop.
The Beatles would arguably never have existed if it weren’t for Donegan.
As Paul McCartney once said: “When we were kids in Liverpool, the man who really started the craze for guitars was Lonnie Donegan.
“He was the first person we had heard of from Britain to get to the coveted number one in the charts and we studied his records avidly. We all bought guitars to be in a skiffle group. He was the man.”
Mark Knopfler, Bill Wyman, Marc Bolan and Cliff Richard also cited him as an inspiration.
When his record sales began to slip in the early 1960s, he branched out into musicals, television and film work.
He also made regular comebacks and in 1978 persuaded stars such as Elton John and Ringo Starr to join him on the Puttin’ On The Style album which featured reworkings of many of his old hits.
He enjoyed a renaissance in 2000 when he teamed up with Van Morrison to record the album Skiffle Sessions: Live In Belfast.
The collaboration introduced him to a new generation of fans and the album was a critical and chart success.
A delighted Donegan said at the time: “I have now achieved my final ambition which was to have one last chart hit.
“I didn’t care how, where or when. I just wanted to give a massive raspberry to all those who thought I was washed up and finished - and now I’ve done it.”
Later that year he was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List - and said it was about time.
“I had wondered for many years why I hadn’t got an MBE because every other schmuck had one,” he said.
“And Prince Charles agreed. When he presented it, he said ‘Not before time, Lonnie, not before time’. And I said ‘You’re damn right, mate’ - or words to that effect.”
Donegan loved being on the road and was regularly performing to sell-out crowds until the end, despite faltering health.
He had three heart operations but within a few months he was back on tour.
He continued to live life to the full, marrying his third wife Sharon, a former teenage fan, at 48 and becoming a father for the seventh time in 1990 when he was 59.

Written by The Editor - 11/08/2008 09:42:56

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