Remembering Lonnie Donegan

Today we remember Britain’s very first rock star. Cliff? Tommy Steele? Marty Wilde? They were but cabaret entertainers giving rock ‘n’ roll a go. Lonnie Donegan? He rocked, well and truly.

I remember listening to his first number one single, and thinking woah. ‘Cumberland Gap’ came in in the spring of 1957, between Tab Hunter’s schmaltzy ‘Young Love’ and Guy Mitchell’s goofy ‘Rock-A-Billy’. It was a short, sharp slap round the face and you can read my original post here. (The live version below is even more ferocious). It’s a traditional American folk song, given the British skiffle treatment, and to my ears it is punk come twenty years early. It was also the first of many times that a Scot has topped the UK charts.

‘Cumberland Gap’ wasn’t Donegan’s breakthrough hit: he’d been scoring Top 10s since 1955, and would amass sixteen of them before his chart career was cut short by the Merseybeat explosion. (Ironically, many of those bands had been hugely influenced by Lonnie and his Skiffle Group. The Beatles began when Paul McCartney joined John Lennon’s skiffle band a few months after ‘Cumberland Gap’ had been at #1.) Here is his first hit: ‘Rock Island Line’, a #8 in the UK and, significantly, a Top 10 in America too.

Born in Glasgow, but raised in the east-end of London, Lonnie Donegan had a background in trad-jazz before moving into the new skiffle movement. His subsequent hits included his 2nd number one, a double-‘A’ side of ‘Gamblin’ Man’ and ‘Putting on the Style’, and the brilliantly named ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight)?’. That hit veered towards the music hall, and it was the same style of hit that gave Donegan his third and final chart-topper, ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’. I don’t think I was as impressed by that record in my original review, as humour is a hard thing to get right in a record, and it doesn’t necessarily age well.

It’s tempting to blame Donegan’s shrinking chart fortunes on the song he released for the 1966 World Cup: ‘World Cup Willie’. (Willie was a lion, and the official mascot for the tournament.) It didn’t chart, but it perhaps spurred England on to their win. (Yes, England won the World Cup in 1966. They still mention it from time to time…) I had never heard it, and was ready to hate it, but it’s actually a bit of a trad-jazz foot-stomper. You can see, though, why skiffle hard-liners felt betrayed by Donegan’s move away from the genre in the sixties.

Despite the hits drying up, Donegan and his band continued to tour throughout the seventies and eighties. This was despite him suffering several heart attacks, one of which killed him on this day in 2002. The Beatles aside, his legacy also lives on through artists like Roger Daltrey, Mark Knopfler and Jack White.

Lonnie Donegan, 29th April 1931 – 3rd November 2002