Lonnie Donegan rose to international fame as one of the founding fathers of a new wave of music called Skiffle that swept the world during the 1950’s.
He was born Anthony Donnegan of Irish/Scottish parentage in Glasgow, Scotland, on 29 April 1931, and started to take an active interest in music as a teenager, teaching himself to play guitar and drums. Young Tony was fascinated by American blues and Dixieland.
In 1949, while serving in the British Army in Vienna, he spent his spare time entertaining his fellow serviceman, and on demobilisation he formed his own folk-oriented group and turned professional.
Not long after its formation, the group appeared in London with the American blues singer Lonnie Johnson, from whom Donegan adopted his professional stage name, dropping an ‘n’ from his surname in the process.
But when the group later failed to achieve any kind of lasting success, Donegan disbanded the outfit and joined the Ken Colyer Jazz Band – which was later taken over by Chris Barber – playing guitar and banjo.
In 1954, still very much an active member of the now renamed Chris Barber Band, Lonnie recorded several numbers for Decca Records, one of which was Rock Island Line. It was released a year later and within weeks became a fantastic success in Britain and America. The success was totally unexpected, but Lonnie now left the Barber band and once again formed his own group.
Rock Island Line sold more than three million copies worldwide, but Lonnie received just £7 as a session fee for making the record.
He followed up this initial smash record with a vast array of hit records, often adapting old folk and blues songs into the new skiffle sound, among them Lost John (1956), Bring A Little Water Sylvie (1956), Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O (1957), Cumberland Gap and Gamblin’ Man/Puttin’ On The Style (both number one hits in 1957), Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavour (1959), Battle Of New Orleans (1959), My Old Man’s A Dustman (recorded live at the Gaumont Cinema in Doncaster in February 1960 it became the first ever record to enter the British hit parade at #1), Have A Drink On Me (1961) and Pick A Bale Of Cotton (1962). For seven years he enjoyed great success and even fronted his own record label for Pye – ‘Lonnie Donegan Presents . . .’
Not content to rest on his laurels, Lonnie started to branch out in show business and diversify his talents. As early as 1957 he appeared on the variety stage, starring in pantomimes and summer seasons, establishing himself as an all-round entertainer. He had a ready-made market.
Throughout the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Lonnie Donegan’s career thrived. He enjoyed success in concert and cabaret in Britain and undertook seasons in Canada and America – where he regularly played Las Vegas.
Then in 1976 he suffered three major heart attacks in rapid succession which curtailed his performing. He later made his home in California.
Two years later he was back in the recording studio at the suggestion of Paul McCartney, to make a new album called Puttin’ On The Style, which was a contemporary re-working of many of his former hits.
The album featured some of the biggest recording names in rock music as Lonnie’s side-men – Elton John, Leo Sayer, Brian May from Queen, Ringo Starr, Rory Gallagher, Ron Wood (from The Move and Wizzard) and Adam Faith, who produced the set.
The same year, he returned to touring Britain with a new group, and in 1979 he featured at the celebrated annual Festival of Country Music at London’s Wembley Arena.
In 1992 Donegan underwent further bypass surgery following another heart attack. He was awarded the OBE in 2000 and eventually died on 4 November 2002, after a final heart attack in Peterborough, mid-way through a UK tour and shortly before he was due to perform at a memorial concert for George Harrison. He was 71.