In 1956, when Van was ten years old, Lonnie Donegan prompted the British
"skiffle" craze with his top ten hit "Rock Island Line". The appeal of skiffle
was that it was simple and inexpensive to play. All that was needed was a Spanish
guitar, a snare drum, a stand-up bass made from a broom handle attached to an
empty tea-chest, and two chords.
Skiffle held an additional appeal for Van, because Donegan was popularizing the
strange music that his father had been listening to for many years. "Rock Island
Line" had been written by Huddie Ledbetter, better
known as Leadbelly, who had become one of Van's favourite blues singers. "What I
connected to was that I had been hearing Leadbelly before that, so when Donegan
came along I thought everybody knew about it", Van has said. "Consequently I
think I was really lucky to grow up at that time and hear what I heard then".
The following year he formed his first group with friends from around
Hyndford Street. Next-door neighbor Walter Blakely
played washboard, Billy Ruth played guitar, John McLean played tea-chest bass,
and Gil Irvine played a home-made wind instrument they christened the "zobo".
They called themselves as the Sputniks after the newly-launched Russian
satellite, and began to play at Women's Institute meetings, school concerts and
youth clubs. Like most skifflers they culled their material from what they heard
being played by the new stars of skiffle, such as Donegan and Chas McDevitt.
Lonnie Donegan was a very influential member of the pop music scene
in the United Kingdom in the 50's and 60's, and is best known as the
individual who launched the skiffle movement.
He was born Anthony Donegan in Glasgow, Scotland in 1931. He learned
to play a guitar and became a singer. He sang and played in Ken
Colyer's group and in Chris Barber's Jazz Band in the early to
mid-50's. Donegan was a great admirer of country, folk, and blues
music from the United States, to such an extent that he changed his
name to Lonnie as a tribute to bluesman Lonnie Johnson.
Between sets he would play onstage using a washboard, a tea-chest
bass and a cheap Spanish guitar. He gave the impression that anyone
could do it, and had a lot of fun. He used the musical legacy of
artists such as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie to come up with song
ideas. This style came to be known as skiffle music, a style
originated by Lonnie Donegan. Successful songs included "Cumberland
Gap", "Gambling Man", and "My Old Man's A Dustman".
In 1956 Lonnie had a huge hit with "Rock Island Line", which reached
number eight on both the USA and UK charts. Send-ups of the song
were recorded by Jim Dale in the UK and Stan Freberg in the USA.
"Lost John" was a minor hit on the USA charts in the same year.
Lonnie Donegan's skiffle music was very influential on younger
musicians who would become prominent in the music world in the years
to come. He put more than 30 songs in the top 30 on the UK charts
from 1958 to 1962, and became a favorite on the early pop music TV
shows in the UK, such as "6.5 Special" and "Oh Boy". A song that
had been a top ten hit in the 20's for Ernest Hare & Billy Jones,
"Does The Spearmint Lose Its Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight?", was
re-done by Lonnie as "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor [On The
Bedpost Overnight]?" and was released in March, 1959. Two years
later it went to number five on the USA charts. He has exercised
his considerable discernment in business affairs, such as when he
purchased the copyright to the Moody Blues' "Knights In White Satin"
in the 60's.
Among the many artists who cited the influence of Lonnie's music on
theirs were the Beatles, and when they rose to popularity in the
60's, Lonnie's popularity itself went into decline. He began to
play the cabaret circuit. He had a profound influence on others as
well, such as Dave Cousins of the Strawbs. His comeback LP in 1977
served to show how he had affected such pop music performers as
Brian May of Queen, Ringo Starr, Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, Rory
Gallagher, Elton John, Ron Wood, and Albert Lee. Another album
released in 1978, Sundown, did not fare as well.
Lonnie Donegan has suffered heart attacks in recent years but the
"King of Skiffle" continues to work.