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Monday, 4 November, 2002, 14:30 GMT
Lonnie Donegan: Skiffle king
Lonnie Donegan
Lonnie Donegan: Feted by McCartney and Morrison
Musician Lonnie Donegan has died at the age of 71.

Best known for novelty songs like My Old Man's a Dustman, Lonnie Donegan enjoyed a worldwide reputation among musicians as exalted as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison.

Donegan's enthusiastic espousal of skiffle, blues, gospel and American folk music was instrumental in igniting the 1960s British blues revival.

He was born in Glasgow in 1931, the son of a classical violinist. Although he moved to London's East End aged just two, and always considered himself a Glaswegian.

Christened Anthony James Donegan, he became known as Lonnie in the early 1950s when an over-excited master of ceremonies confused him with the American guitarist Lonnie Johnson.

Lonnie Donegan with jazzmen Kenny Ball and Chris Barber
Lonnie Donegan (r) with jazzmen Kenny Ball (l) and Chris Barber
"When I was nine, I told my parents I wanted a guitar," he said. Five years later, Lonnie Donegan got his hands on his dream instrument, a battered 30-shilling version.

Through a jazz club, Donegan met Chris Barber, the singer, trombonist and doyen of British trad jazz. To fill a much-needed role in the band, Barber taught him the banjo.

After two years of National Service, Donegan and a group of other musicians, including Chris Barber, set out to improve their playing, eventually re-forming as the Barber Sunshine Hot Six.

Influenced Beatles

Personnel changes marked the band's evolution into the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group. A new, transatlantic, musical form had been born.

During the early 1950s skiffle, with its guitar-driven rhythm, tea-chest basses and washboard percussion, was hugely popular and Lonnie Donegan was its biggest star, notching-up 28 top-30 hits.

Elvis Presley
The King: Elvis recorded a Donegan-penned song
Three records, including a version of Leadbelly's Rock Island Line, topped the charts.

The accessible nature of skiffle led to an explosion in guitar sales, from a mere 5000 in 1950 to 250,000 in 1957.

Among those who formed their own groups were Liverpudian schoolboys, the Quarrymen, who would be reincarnated as the Beatles. Other young fans included the Kinks and the Who.

Banned in America

But Donegan himself denied that skiffle ever existed as a musical genre. "Skiffle is a mixture of music, it's a mongrel music," he once claimed.

"It came via me singing American folk and blues songs with jazz improvisation and overtones. You can call it anything you like. It's neither fish nor fowl."

But the hits kept coming, among them Cumberland Gap, Puttin' on the Style and Battle of New Orleans.

Skiffle is a mongrel music

Lonnie Donegan

And his success was transatlantic, though he was initially banned from playing guitar in the United States when the American Federation of Musicians classified him as a variety act.

Even so, he became the first British male artist to have two American Top 10 hits.

Lonnie Donegan appeared on the Perry Como Show on American television, in an intriguing comedy double act with Ronald Reagan, and sharing the bill with a debuting comedian, Woody Allen.

Musical heritage

As the skiffle craze waned at the end of the 1950s, Lonnie Donegan recorded new material, fun songs like Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its Flavour? and My Old Man's a Dustman.

The Beatles began their transformation of popular music in the early 1960s but, as some of his fans became stars in their own right, Lonnie Donegan's reputation as a musical innovator soared.

Days like this: Lonnie Donegan with Van Morrison
Days like this: Lonnie Donegan with Van Morrison
Elvis recorded one of his songs, I'm Never Gonna Fall in Love Again and Paul McCartney was the moving force behind Putting on The Style, a 1978 tribute album featuring cameos by, among others, Elton John, Rory Gallagher and Brian May.

Lonnie Donegan also developed a close musical friendship with Belfast's finest, Van Morrison. The two collaborated on Donegan's well-received comeback album, 1998's Muleskinner Blues.

Morrison later recorded another homage to Donegan, The Skiffle Sessions, featuring another fan, the legendary New Orleans blues pianist Dr John.

Though Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister when Lonnie Donegan's last hit single graced the charts, the slightly-built performer with the strange Cockney-American singing voice enjoyed a musical reputation which will live on through thousands of skiffle fans around the world.

Lonnie Donegan
Send us your tributes to the 'skiffle king'
See also:

04 Nov 02 | Music
04 Nov 02 | Music
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