Inspired by blues music and New Orleans jazz bands he heard on the radio, he resolved to learn the guitar, and bought his first at the age of fourteen. The first band he ever played in was the trad jazz band led by Chris Barber, who approached him on a train asking him if he wanted to audition for his group. Barber had heard that Donegan was a good banjo player; in fact, Donegan had never played the banjo at this point, but he bought one and managed to bluff his way through the audition. His stint in this group was interrupted, however, when he was called up for National Service in 1949. He also played in Ken Colyer's group In 1952, he formed his first own group, the Tony Donegan Jazzband, which found some work around London.
On one occasion they opened for the blues musician Lonnie Johnson at the Royal Festival Hall. Donegan was a big fan of Johnson, and took his first name as a tribute to him. The story goes that the host at the concert got the musicians' names confused, calling them "Tony Johnson" and "Lonnie Donegan", and Donegan was happy to keep the name. With a washboard, a tea-chest bass and a cheap Spanish guitar, Donegan entertained audiences with folk and blues songs by artists such as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. This proved so popular that in July 1954 he recorded a fast-tempoed version of Leadbelly's "Rock Island Line", featuring a washboard but not a tea-chest bass, with "John Henry" on the B-side.
It was an enormous hit in 1956 (which also later inspired the creation of a full album, An Englishman Sings American Folk Songs, released in America on the Mercury label in the early 1960s) but ironically, because it was a band recording, Donegan made no money from this recording beyond his original session fee. (Nevertheless, Donegan received considerable music publishing royalties from "Rock Island" simply by claiming the British copyright on an unregistered song which was considered to be in the Public Domain. This led to the peculiar situation that any "cover" version of "Rock Island Line" which was released on record in Britain from 1956 showed the song composition credited to Lonnie Donegan.) It was the first debut record to go gold in the UK, and reached the Top Ten in the United States. His next single for Decca, "Diggin' My Potatoes", was recorded at a concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 30 October 1954. Decca dropped Donegan thereafter, but within a month he was at the Abbey Road Studios in London recording for EMI's Columbia label.
He had left the Barber band by then, and by the spring of 1955, Donegan signed a recording contract with Pye. His next single "Lost John" reached #2 in the UK Singles Chart. His success at the time saw Donegan sent to the United States, where he appeared on television on both Perry Como Show and Paul Winchell Show. Returning to the UK, Donegan recorded his debut album, Lonnie Donegan Showcase, in the summer of 1956, which featured songs by Lead Belly and Leroy Carr, plus "I'm a Ramblin' Man" and "Wabash Cannonball". The LP was a hit, securing sales in the hundreds of thousands. The popular skiffle style encouraged amateurs to get started, and one of the many skiffle groups that followed was The Quarrymen formed in March 1957 by John Lennon.
Donegan's "Gamblin' Man" / "Puttin' On the Style" single was number one on the UK chart in July 1957, when Lennon first met Paul McCartney. Donegan went on to make a series of popular records with successes including "Cumberland Gap" and, particularly "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It's Flavour (On The Bedpost Over Night)", his only hit song in the U.S., released on Dot. He turned to a music hall style with "My Old Man's a Dustman" which was not well received by skiffle fans, or in an attempted but ultimately unsuccessful American release by Atlantic in 1960, but it reached number one in the UK Singles Chart. Donegan's group had a flexible line-up, but was generally formed by Denny Wright or Les Bennetts (of Les Hobeaux and Chas McDevitt's skiffle groups) playing lead guitar and singing harmony vocals, Micky Ashman or Pete Huggett - later Steve Jones - on upright bass, Nick Nichols - later Pete Appleby and Mark Goodwin - on drums or percussion and Donegan playing acoustic guitar or banjo and singing the lead. He continued to appear regularly in the UK charts until 1962, before succumbing to the arrival of The Beatles and beat music. Add 1: In the early fifties after Donegan was demobbed from National Service he joined Chris Barber and Ken Colyer and others called Ken Colyer's Jazzmen which consisted of Ken Colyer (trumpet), Chris Barber (trombone), Monty Sunshine (clarinet), Lonnie Donegan (banjo), Jim Bray (bass) Dickie Bishop (Guitar) and Ron Bowden (drums). This group recorded two excellent blues numbers with Lonnie Donegan as vocal called "In the evening when de sun go down" and "The Midnight Special" After a year, Ken colyer stormed out of the group and Chris Barber took over. http://www.p.griggsy.btinternet.co.uk/Untitled/Lonnie.html (Memories of Lonnie Donegan by Paul Griggs) Read more on Last.fm.
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