"Tribute to Lonnie" by Chas McDevitt

Sunday Herald - 10 November 2002

Where's Me Washboard?

Lonnie Donegan led the British boom in skiffle music, and before his sad death this month he had turned into one of our best live performers. Here, his friend and stage-mate Chas McDevitt remembers him

LIVERPOOL can claim to be the cradle of most of the luminaries in 1960s rock, but Glasgow, a decade before, could lay claim to having birthed the stars of skiffle. Jimmy Jackson and his Rock 'n' Skiffle, The Delta Skiffle Group, Jimmie MacGregor, Nancy Whiskey and myself were all originally from the Dear, Green Place. But the Glaswegian who eclipsed all these names, Anthony James 'Lonnie' Donegan, is sadly no more.

The fountainhead of skiffle has left us, but the legend lives on. Lonnie Donegan collapsed in the middle of his current tour and died on Sunday November 3. I was due to support him with my group at The Fairfield Hall in Croydon on this Friday, November 15. It was a date I was really relishing. Lonnie's son Peter was opening the show on piano accompanying Lonnie on his set; and my daughter Kerry was singing and playing washboard with me. It would have shown to a sell-out audience that skiffle music could possibly have some continuity and it may even have been set for a revival.

In recent years Lonnie had abandoned his flirtation with music hall songs and had reverted to the powerful songs of his early days, the ballads, blues and breakdowns of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Big Bill Broonzy. His collaboration with Van Morrison on a couple of recent albums showed how his style had matured.

I first saw the Tony Donegan Jazz Band at The Royal Festival Hall on June 28 1952. As part of a dispute between the Musicians Union and its US counterpart the union had banned British bands supporting US artists. The non-union Tony Donegan Jazz Band had been booked to support two US artists, Ralph Sutton, stride piano player, and Lonnie Johnson, renowned blues singer and guitarist. The compere mistakenly introduced Tony Donegan as Lonnie Donegan; Tony was delighted as Lonnie Johnson was one of his idols. From that day the name stuck.

Even in those early days he made a huge impression on me. I vividly remember him stepping forward in front of his band, all resplendent in their yellow sweaters, putting his foot on a chair with his banjo on his knee and leading a spirited version of the hymn Sweet Heart Of Jesus. It was electrifying.

From 1953 to 1954 Donegan played with The Ken Colyer Jazzmen. Colyer, an esteemed trumpeter who by this time had already enjoyed a successful sojourn in New Orleans, always featured a skiffle set in his show and in fact had recorded some Leadbelly songs, notably Midnight Special. Later this track became what could be described as the first recording by a skiffle group, with Colyer and Donegan on vocals and Chris Barber on double bass, when a fan recorded the band during an engagement in Denmark.

When Colyer broke away from the group they were rechristened The Chris Barber Jazz Band and under this new sobriquet they went on to record an album, New Orleans Joys, in July 1954. A single was taken from this album and released in 1955. Not much happened until it was played on Jack Payne's BBC radio show; the public reaction was amazing. Rock Island Line released as a novelty record set the hit parade alight. It stormed into the charts in January 1956 at number 8 and provided the much-needed antidote to contemporary offerings such as The Man From Laramie and The Christmas Alphabet. Lonnie had two more number one songs in 1957, Cumberland Gap and Putting On The Style. A further number one followed in 1960, My Old Man's A Dustman, but this was to herald his crossover into 'all round entertainer'. Thirty-one chart entries placed Lonnie at the top of his profession.

All the record companies vied for the services of any groups that were in any way acceptable in the storm of copies that emerged. Talent contests were swamped by skiffle groups, barrack rooms resounded to the thumping sounds , halls were taken over for shows. In July 1957, The Quarrymen played a church social, about the same time The Railroaders were playing at a wedding and The John Henry Skiffle Group won the final of an All England Skiffle Contest. These are names you may not immediately recognise, but they later became repectively The Beatles, The Shadows and Chris Farlowe.

Lonnie's legacy extended way beyond these obvious disciples. Andy Summers of The Police and Deep Purple's Roger Glover both started in skiffle groups. Even Van Morrison played in a skiffle group called The Sputniks in 1958 and Ralph McTell, Martin Carthy, Albert Lee and Mark Knopfler all acknowledge the influence that skiffle played in their initial interest in the guitar. Mick Jagger is reputed to have played the washboard in a skiffle group.

Lonnie always surrounded himself with the best musicians. In the early days it was Denny Wright or Jimmy Currie on guitar. Later it was Les Bennetts pinched from my band, the Chas McDevitt Group, formerly with Les Hobeaux. He was a hard taskmaster and many a lesser musician fell by the wayside. His delivery and performance were always of the highest standard and in recognition of this he received a prestigious Ivor Novello lifetime achievement award in 1997 and in 2000 collected an MBE.

The energy he produced on stage could have powered a lighthouse: even to the end he was unremitting. Last June he played at a benefit night at The Lakeside Cabaret Club in Frimley, with Joe Brown on fiddle. He was still on stage at 1.50 am. You could not get him off.

Nearly four years ago, in December 1998, Lonnie headlined a show at the Royal Albert Hall, celebrating 40 years of skiffle. The Chris Barber Band opened the show, which included Nancy Whiskey and my group as well as special guests Joe Brown, Adam Faith and Bill Wyman. I was also the host and compere. It was my job to get the show to run on time otherwise the promoter would be into penalty clauses and overtime would need to be paid. Thus it was my onerous task to try and get Lonnie off stage; he was having such a good time that I almost had to get the shepherd's crook. He agreed that this was probably the best night of his career and was so proud that his three sons and his wife Sharon were there to witness the event. I too, like the other 3000 people there, will never forget seeing and hearing the King of Skiffle working the audience up into a frenzy of delight, holding on to the last minute even if it meant missing their last bus . He carried on like this until the end. Everyone wondered at his stamina, especially after all his serious heart problems, but performing was what he did best.

Lonnie Donegan loved his music, he loved his family and his audience. He gave his all and will be greatly missed. It is only at a time like this that we realise what a debt we who love our music owe to Lonnie and what a void will be left in all our lives.

Chas McDevitt is author of Skiffle: The Definitive Inside Story, Available from Rollercoaser Books

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