Lonnie Donegan was a major influence on British music.
Anthony James Donegan was born in Scotland in 1931. Early in his career
his jazz band opened for bluesman Lonnie Johnson. Donegan was a fan and
in tribute he adopted the name Lonnie. He started the skiffle craze that
inspired an army of music lovers to pick up guitars and look into American
folk and blues music.
One of the first albums I bought back in the '50s was Lonnie Donegan:
An Englishman Sings American Folk Songs. A hotspot for Donegan
music in North America was Manitoba. Winnipeg radio stations picked up
on this album and started a groundswell for Lonnie's records in the province.
The most popular song off the album was "Frankie and Johnny" - a
rather unusual choice for such radio play since it hadn't been released
as a single and its length was around five minutes -- in a time when nearly
all hits were 2-3 minutes long. Interestingly, the second track on side
2 of the album was "Nobody's Child" which Tony Sheridan covered
five years later in his recording session with the Beatles in Hamburg.
This explosion of Lonnie Donegan music came around the time I had abandoned
boring piano lessons and picked up my dad's Harmony acoustic guitar. I
had been scouring the radio dial looking for songs by Elvis, Johnny Cash,
Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, et al, in which the guitar and
blues were the main driving force in this new groundbreaking music called
rock 'n' roll. Lonnie's brand of rockin' skiffle fit right in. One of the
first 45 rpm singles that I played on my new multi-speed record player
was Lonnie's frantic "Gamblin' Man."
I learned years later, during the "English Rock Invasion," that I was
not the only one deeply influenced by Lonnie. Young Brits found it hard
to obtain many US records and a burgeoning domestic pop scene developed
in the UK. Leading the pack was Lonnie Donegan, "The King of Skiffle."
His success was soon followed by homegrown acts such as Cliff Richard and
the Shadows. Growing up in Canada in the '50s we were bombarded by American
culture to the south, but we still had very close ties to Britain -- the
best of both worlds. The success of Manitoba performers in the international
entertainment scene on owes much to this multi-cultural exposure which
made them unique in many ways: comedians, folk and C/W singers, rock bands,
writers, TV personalities, actors, songwriters, etc. all benefited.
Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet Lonnie or hear him in person.
The closest I got to the man was during our 1976 tour of England -- we
even played some of Lonnie's hits on our shows. Our MC/comedian for one
of one of the workingman club gigs we played had MCed Lonnie's show the
night before. I pestered the poor guy all night with questions about the
Skiffle King. Earlier in the year, Lonnie had suffered a heart attack and
undergone a heart operation , and the show the night before was billed
as a farewell concert. A few years later, however, veteran trouper that
he was, Lonnie returned to show biz.
Two of my favourite albums came later in Lonnie's career: He was joined
on the 1978 "Puttin' On The Style" sessions by a host of rockers who wanted
to acknowledge his influence on their music. Among the guests on the album
were Ringo Starr, Leo Sayer, Albert Lee, Brian May, Elton John, Klaus Voorman,
Ronnie Wood, Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, Rory Gallagher, Alan Jones, and
many more. Much later, his acclaimed "Live in Belfast 1998" album was done
with Van Morrison, Chris Barber, and Dr. John.
Lonnie Donegan died in 2002, aged 71, after suffering a heart attack
while on tour, shortly before he was due to perform at a memorial concert
for George Harrison with The Rolling Stones.