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

61. ‘Gamblin’ Man’ / ‘Puttin’ on the Style’, by Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group

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Gamblin’ Man / Puttin’ on the Style, by Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group (their 2nd of three #1s)

2 weeks, from 28th June – 12th July 1957

Kicking off Part III, we come across our first double ‘A’ -side. What to do here…?

To be honest, what with me being a bit young to remember the days when vinyl was the only way to consume music rather than the expensive self-indulgence it is now, I’ve never really understood the concept of a double ‘A’-side. Who decided that the ‘B’-side on a particular record was suddenly the equal of the main single? The artist? The record label? The DJs?

Double ‘A’-sides were still a ‘thing’ long into the 2000s. The final chart topping double ‘A’ was ‘Baby’s Coming Back / Transylvania’ by McFly in 2007, while I vaguely remember Oasis – with the sort of absurd bravado that Oasis did so well – releasing a triple ‘A’-side circa 2002. So it is something we’ll encounter pretty often on this countdown.

I suppose the only thing to do here is to give each song equal weighting, while trying to keep the post down to the usual length. Wish me luck…

‘Gamblin’ Man’ sees Lonnie Donegan giving us more ‘Muricana a la his last chart-topper, ‘Cumberland Gap’. He’s gambled down in Washington, and he’s gambled up in Maine… It gets off to a slow start, and never quite reaches the frenzied levels of ‘Cumberland Gap’, but it’s still another decent slice of up-tempo skiffle.

It turns out that the ladies love the Gamblin’ Man, while parents are less keen… She said Oh mother, mother, I’m in love with a gamblin’ man…  She said Oh daughter, daughter, How could you treat me so, And with that gambler go… Then we get to the solo, and one of my favourite things in the world happens: Donegan announces the guitarist with an ‘How ’bout Jimmy!’ Jimmy then does the business. In my opinion, every guitar solo should be ‘announced’ by the lead singer and, again in my opinion, the best example of this comes in Poison’s ‘Talk Dirty to Me’, when Bret Michaels screams ‘CC, pick up that guitar and a-talk to me!’

Anyways, back to 1957. The end of the song sees the line I’m a gamblin’ man man man… repeated many times until it becomes something of a rhythmic, almost hypnotic, chant. And then it finishes and lots of people cheer. Oh! I’ve been listening to a live version… Was this, then, the version that topped the charts? Quick check… Wiki says ‘Yes.’ It was recorded at the London Palladium. It speaks volumes about either the quality of Donegan and his band’s performance, or the generally poor quality of recording equipment used in every previous chart-topper, that I didn’t notice it was live until the cheers came in at the end. But it’s our very first live-recorded #1, as well as our very first double ‘A’-side. We’re pushing boundaries here, people!

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‘Puttin’ on the Style’ is a mellower number altogether. Is that a banjo I hear before me? The lyrics concern kids putting on an act to impress others: girls giggling and flirting, boys driving around in ‘hot-rod’ cars (with driving gloves borrowed from their fathers). Very rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s a simple song: a ditty, a nursery rhyme even. I mentioned in the entry on ‘Cumberland Gap’ that Donegan had merged US rockabilly with the UK music halls, and this song is very heavy on the latter: Puttin’ on the agony, Puttin’ on the style, That’s what all the young folks are doin’ all the while… But Lonnie isn’t one to judge: And as I look around me, I sometimes have to smile, Seein’ all the young folks, Puttin on the style…

The final verse is the most interesting one. Attention turns to a preacher scaring the bejesus out of his congregation with tales of ol’ Nick and the fiery pits. Now you might think it’s Satan, Comin’ down the aisle, But it’s only our poor preacher boy, Who’s puttin’ on the style… Irreligious? Controversial for 1957? I’m sure the BBC wouldn’t have playlisted it, but there doesn’t seem to be any record of an uproar. What with that, and the mild glorification of gambling on the flip-side, times were certainly changing.

‘Puttin’ on the Style’ is another live-recording, and the crowd roar appreciatively come the end. As with ‘Cumberland Gap’, I love that this topped the charts; but I don’t love the song(s). I love that it’s rock ‘n’ roll, that there’s an irreverent, slightly anarchic edge to the songs, and that it’s a thoroughly British interpretation of this new style of music. But Donegan’s voice is just a bit irritating. Nasal and whiny…

He’ll be back at the top of the charts, but not for a while yet, so we’ll leave him here at the forefront of the rock vanguard. It will be interesting to see how he sounds when his next #1 comes along, in an altogether different decade!

57. ‘Cumberland Gap’, by Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group

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Cumberland Gap, by Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group (their 1st of three #1s)

5 weeks, from 12th April – 17th May 1957

I take it all back, what I said in my last post: we are rockin’ and a-rollin’ again. In a very British kind of way. With a very American song.

I’ll explain all that in a minute, but let me start by mentioning the fact that this is a blistering little record. Two minutes of lean, mean, frantic rock. Or more specifically, skiffle. For which read: ‘British Rock ‘n’ Roll’. I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll no doubt mention it again, but this is the best thing about a countdown of records based on sales alone: that songs like ‘Cumberland Gap’ can follow on from songs like ‘Young Love’. One follows the other, like night follows day; polar opposites of one another but somehow eternally linked.

The guitar starts lightly, then grows, along with the bass and the drums, before Lonnie Donegan’s voice comes in. Singing about something called ‘the Cumberland Gap’. I say ‘something’, because whatever it is isn’t immediately clear from all his squealing and squawking: Well the Cumberland Gap, Cumberland Gap, Fifteen miles on the Cumberland Gap… The Cumberland Gap, Ain’t nowhere, Fifteen miles from Middleburgh…

Note that it’s Middleburgh, not Middlesbrough. We’re in the US, here – with all the yee-hahs and yodels that that entails. But then we take a strange turn, and it all goes a bit East-End music-hall: Well I got a girl, Six feet tall, Sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall… Two old ladies, Sittin’ in the sand, Each one wishin’ that the other was a man…

What this girl and these old women have to do with the ‘Cumberland Gap’ isn’t expanded upon, and Donegan doesn’t hang around either. The lyrics are replaced by straight up screams and a frenetic solo. The song ends with a verse that is just da-dee-dee-dees and a mumbled something about how much he loves ya baby, and then the song title is repeated several times – loud, then quiet, then VERY LOUD and then boom. Done. Phew! You can see why some learned types have referred to this as the first ever punk record.

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I have to admit – I’m not sure that I love this record. It’s a bit much. But I do love that it spent five weeks at the top of the UK Singles Charts in the spring of 1957. That the public’s taste in music had evolved enough to allow a song which is essentially a lot of screaming and mumbling such an extended moment in the sun. And I take back what I said about rock being dead, deader than dead. It’s obviously not. I overreacted.

Before I finish, I had to find out what in God’s name the Cumberland Gap actually is. Turns out it’s a mountain pass, located at the convergence of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, which allowed old American frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone to pass across the Appalachian Mountains and conquer the wilderness that was The Wild West. Add this, then, to the list, alongside ‘The Man from Laramie’, ‘Hey Joe’, Slim Whitman and Tennessee Ernie Ford, as the latest piece of Americana to find a place at the top of the charts. Was it exoticism? Was it envy? Why were we so obsessed with America? Perhaps we still are.

However, knowing what the Cumberland Gap is has gone no distance in helping me work out what the hell this song is about. As a song it had been around since at least the mid-to-late 19th Century as a folk ditty. Wikipedia mentions lyrics about ‘taking naps’ in the Cumberland Gap, and ‘raising hell’ in the Cumberland Gap, but nothing about six-feet tall women. Perhaps Donegan added those verses himself, and in doing so created the perfect fusion of American rockabilly and British silliness.

We’ll hear from Lonnie Donegan again, and soon. So I won’t delve too deeply into his back-story. ‘Cumberland Gap’ was only his fourth hit single in a chart career that would stretch deep into the sixties and which would bring great success. It is worth noting, though, that he was born in Glasgow and so, after having had an Italian, a Cuban, a Trinidadian and tons of Americans already top the charts, the 57th UK #1 single goes to a Scot.