Lonnie Donegan, the inspiration for British pop, dies on tour aged 71

Cahal Milmo
Tuesday 05 November 2002 01:00

Lonnie Donegan, the singer whose mastery of skiffle turned him into Britain's first pop music superstar and inspired a generation of admirers, has died after a sudden illness.

The Glasgow-born musician, whose career spanned more than 50 years, was staying with friends while on tour when he died in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire in the early hours of Sunday. He complained of back trouble only hours earlier. Donegan had suffered a series of heart attacks and earlier this year had cardiac surgery. He was 71.

The man whose twanging guitar chords and raucous style was credited with inspiring the Beatles, Mark Knopfler and Brian May was immediately mourned by fellow stars.

Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen, said last night: "He's probably the principal reason I picked up a guitar. He was at the very cornerstone of English blues and rock.

"The first ever record I bought was 'Rock Island Line'. People remember 'My Old Man's a Dustman', but of course there was a more serious side to Lonnie – he really was the first guy to bring the blues to England."

His first hit, "Rock Island Line", was released by his record company Decca after it was played by the BBC in 1956. Although he received just £3.50 for the recording, it sold three million copies and stayed in the British charts for almost six months.

The fact that skiffle, with its garden shed instrumentation of washboards, tea-chest bass and acoustic guitar, could be played by any group of would-be musicians helped to give Donegan an instant following.

Among his fans were members of the Quarrymen skiffle band, who later changed their name to the Beatles.

Paul McCartney said: "He was the first person we had heard of from Britain to get the coveted number one in the charts, and we studied his records avidly. We all bought guitars to be in a skiffle group. He was the man."

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But the skiffle sound could not compete with the more polished talents of the Fab Four and other rock 'n' roll groups, and Donegan, who had 34 hits between 1956 and 1962, turned to cabaret. Skiffle purists disliked his drift towards music-hall hits such as 'Dustman', a reworking of an English folk song that sold a million copies and went straight to number one in 1960.

Chas McDevitt, a fellow 50s skiffle artist who was due to play with Donegan this month, said: "Lonnie was the supernova of modern music – from him all things followed."

More recently, Donegan, who said he had only ever wanted to be a banjo player, had been enjoying a renaissance despite suffering from heart problems and spending much of his time at his Spanish villa.

Two years ago he teamed up with Van Morrison to record a live album and was appointed MBE. He was also awarded an Ivor Novello awards for services to British music.

He is survived by his third wife, Sharon, 27 years his junior, and seven children. A private funeral will be held next week.

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