My life in gor blimey trousers at
Jonathan Sale celebrates skiffle king Lonnie Donegan's 65th birthday
Sunday 28 April 1996
Almost forgotten in these days of house, garage, funk, techno, hip hop, trip hop and Brit pop, skiffle was the music style that swept the nation at the time of Angry Young Men and the Suez Crisis.
Lonnie, with a string of nearly 30 hits from "Rock Island Line" (1956) onwards, was its ruler; simplicity was its success. Thousands of young people reproduced its catchy tunes, using a washboard thrashed with thimbled fingers for a rhythm section and a tea chest fitted with a broom pole and a single string as bass. Guitars were strummed: the skiffle group was born.
They sang "It Takes a Worried Man". One group, calling itself The Worried Men, featured a young Adam Faith. Another band of strummers, The Quarrymen, included John Lennon.
Lonnie's hits included "Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O", "Cumberland Gap", "Putting on the Style", "Battle of New Orleans", and the novelty numbers "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its Flavour On the Bedpost Overnight?" and "My Old Man's a Dustman" (who wore "gor blimey trousers" and lived in a council flat). His last big hit was in the autumn of 1962.
However, in the intervening three decades he has done well enough to fund three marriages and homes in Malaga and Florida with sales of around 10 million records. He has played Las Vegas, and "anywhere that people will stand still long enough".
"I've finished a new album, Rock Island Line Rocks On," he said last week. "We'll be going on a 40th anniversary tour."
Half-Scottish, half-Irish, and brought up in London's East End, Donegan began his career by bending his high-pitched nasal tones round the classic songs of American blacks. Taking the blues classics of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, he dusted them down with jangling guitar strings and a drummer on overdrive and introduced them to a country which had scarcely heard of either.
The hits stopped when fans shifted from skiffle groups to beat groups to rock bands; the purists could obtain the original records by Leadbelly. The old variety theatres, which had been Donegan's venues, were closing.
But a 1978 LP, produced by Adam Faith and featuring Ringo Starr and Elton John, reached the album charts. His forthcoming album reworks his classic numbers and introduces new material.
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