Born in Glasgow in 1931, Anthony James Donegan was the son of a professional violinist who played for the Scottish National Orchestra. When his parents divorced in 1933 Anthony moved with his mother to East London (hence the accent). Young Anthony loved listening to the radio and enjoyed country and blues music as well as New Orleans jazz. He got his first guitar at the age of fourteen. Once he mastered the guitar he began playing around London. Chris Barber thought Anthony could play banjo, which at the time, he could not. He brought a banjo to the audition but failed to impress however, he and Chris Barber got on so well Anthony was asked to join the Chris Barber Skiffle Group. In 1949 Anthony was called up for National Service and served two years during which time he heard a lot more American music.
When he was demobbed, Anthony formed his own group called the Tony Donegan Jazzband in 1952. He took inspiration from a new source of blues and folk music from the library at the American Embassy, which allowed visitors to listen to any recordings that were on hand.
The stage name Lonnie came as a tribute to Lonnie Johnson who Donegan admired. The Tony Donegan Jazz band played on the same program with the blues musician at the Royal Festival Hall and was mistakenly introduced as Lonnie Donegan, he like it and the name stuck.
In 1953 Lonnie was back with the Chris Barber, now in a band called Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen.
Being that bit younger than the rest of the group Lonnie began to play skiffle in between the trad jazz sets. He entertained the crowd to some do-it-yourself music with a washboard, a tea-chest bass and a cheap Spanish guitar, singing folk songs and blues by artists such as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. So popular was the skiffle segments he was asked to record a fast-tempoed version of Leadbelly's "Rock Island Line", with Chris Barber's Jazz Band in 1954. The single with John Henry as the B side was a spectacular hit in both UK and the US.
Lonnie Donegan's last recordings with the Chris Barber Band, before he left to pursue a solo career capitalising on the success of "Rock Island Line", were made on 4 April 1956. He was replaced on banjo by Dick Bishop, who also soldiered on with the skiffle group (known both as Chris Barber's Skiffle Group and Dick Bishop's Skiffle Group).
The King of Skiffle launched the craze which would lead to the creation of over 50,000 skifffle groups in the UK alone, Lonnie Donegan changed the face of popular music forever. His first single “Lost John" hit No. 2 in UK. A series of popular records followed including "Cumberland Gap" and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It's Flavour on the Bedpost Over Night?".
He also followed up on the music hall style comedy, with "My Old Man's A Dustman".
By the early sixties Lonnie Donegan was no longer a headline act but had inspired many of the new order of guitar players including John Lennon and Pete Townsend. He resigned himself to live concerts and cabaret and worked tirelessly touring the world circuit, starring in Las Vegas, Hollywood, New York, Canada, Bermuda, Australia and New Zealand. He was back in the UK for a reunion concert with the original Chris Barber Band in 1975 but back in the US severe heart problems forced him to retire in 1976. By now many of his disciples were established stars themselves and Adam Faith encouraged the King of Skiffle to cross the Atlantic and re-record some of his earlier works with an array of stars including Ringo Starr, Elton John, Peter Banks, Ron Wood, and Brian May. All contributed to “Putting on the Style” which was released in 1978.
A follow-up album featured Albert Lee and Lonnie Donegan singing country-and-western.
Refreshed by the interest Lonnie formed his own Skiffle group and started to tour again. Health problems continued however and in 1992 Lonnie underwent bypass surgery. Two years later he joined Chris Barber, when the trombonist band leader was celebrating 40 years of his band. Both reunion concert and tour were recorded.
In 1999, collaboration with long-time fan Van Morrison resulted in Lonnie's first album release in 20 years, Muleskinner Blues. Lonnie became a frequent guest and opening act for Van's shows and in June 1999 played at the Glastonbury Festival and the Fleadh Festival, followed by a tour that autumn. Lonnie also featured in the Skiffle Sessions – Live in Belfast with Van Morrison, Chris Barber, with a guest appearance by Dr John in 2000.
Lonnie died in 2002 shortly before he was due to perform at a memorial concert for George Harrison (a lifelong fan). He was aged 71. .
Worth a listen:
Rock Island Line ( 1954)
John Henry (1954)
Midnight Special (1955)
Worried Man Blues (1955)
I'm Alabamy Bound (1956)
Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O (1956)
Mule Skinner Blues (1957)
Cumberland Gap (1957)
Putting On The Style (1957)
Jack O' Diamonds (1958)
The Grand Coulee Dam (1958)
Tom Dooley (1958)
Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It's Flavour (1958)
Battle Of New Orleans (1958)
My Old Man's A Dustman (1959)