Rock Roots and Gig Notes
The founding father of British pop, he sang his way
from traditional jazz through skiffle hits to a novelty song about chewing gum
and was awarded an MBE along the way.

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.

It is hard to find UK entertainers who came out of the explosive '50s-'70s who don't admit to Donegan's influence on their success. Up until  the Beatles blitz he was Britain's most popular and successful entertainer. When John Lennon formed the Quarrymen in 1957, Lonnie's songs were riding the top of the British charts. The majority of the Quarrymen's first songs were Donegan covers. In fact, the earliest known "Beatles" recording is of Donegan's "Putting On the Style." 

Ironically, The Beatles' success eclipsed Lonnie's popularity and he was considered passe for too many years. I created a Tribute site devoted to the King of Skiffle in the late '90s because of the dearth of material available on the man and his music at that time. Fortunately, this is no longer the case as a Google search and Youtube perusal will indicate.

"In England, 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

Musician Mark Knopfler released a tribute song to Lonnie Donegan called "Donegan's Gone" on his 2004 album Shangri-La and said that he was one of his greatest musical influences.


Lonnie and Buddy

Lonnie Donegan and Peter Oakman (bass) - 1964

John Lennon and his skiffle group: The Quarrymen
Paul McCartney and John Lennon were introduced that day.

Lonnie Donegan (right) on stage with Van Morrison

Van Morrison ~ Chas McDevitt ~ Lonnie Donegan 2001

On Stage in 2001



Lonnie Donegan on Wikipedia
Lonnie Donegan Canadian Releases on Quality
Lonnie Donegan Memories Site
Nobody's Child by Tony Sheridan and The Beatles
Listen to Lonnie Donegan's 1956 hit Nobody's Child which predates Sheridan's


1. Remembering Lonnie
2. Tributes and Obituary
3. Discography


Bill and Sue-On Hillman