Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.
Contrary to popular opinion, there was pop music in Britain before John, Paul, George and Ringo came along in the early 1960s.
One of the most successful, in terms of records sold, was Lonnie Donegan (born on this day in 1931) who had multiple Top 10s and three U.K. #1 records in the late ’50s and early ’60s. He even got a couple of singles into the U.S .Top 10, a massive achievement in the 1950s.
But more than that, Donegan, the figurehead of Britain’s skiffle boom in the ’50s, was possibly the most significant influence on the golden generation of Brit rockers who changed rock and roll forever.
Queen’s Brain May called Donegan the “very cornerstone of English blues and rock. I think he’s probably the principal reason I picked up a guitar.”
It all started in 1954, the summer that Elvis Presley recorded an old blues song, “That’s Alright” at Sun Records in Memphis. Eight days later and 3,000-odd miles away in London, a young jazz band fronted by Chris Barber were recording tracks in a small Decca Records studio.
On July 13, during a coffee break, Barber and his banjo player Lonnie Donegan were allowed to, in Lonnie’s words, “record a couple of our Skiffle songs.”
Skiffle was a peculiarly British genre, a stripped-down style favored by musicians attempting to adopt the style of old blues records that were growing in popularity in Europe. Sir Cliff Richard, Britain’s answer to Elvis, called it “homemade music, for those of us who had ambition bubbling, it was a way to start.”
Donegan had saturated himself on blues and folk recordings while in the army in Germany and loved the freedom that the loose and spirited skiffle format allowed. He led the skiffle section within the Chris Barber band and Barber let Donegan out of the bag later in the evenings, usually in the second set.
One of the skiffle songs the band recorded that July day was “Rock Island Line.”
Over a year later someone at Decca, enthused by the new rock and roll sounds coming out of America, figured that this recording of Huddie Ledbetter’s song could fit the new sound perfectly. It was released as a single in November 1955.
The record was a hit and started a music movement. “Rock Island Line” sold more than a million copies, and became one of the first British pop record to break into the U.S. Top 10. It was also the catalyst for a skiffle craze that saw an estimated 50,000 skiffle bands pop up around Britain, from Brighton to Liverpool, Glasgow to Southampton. For a while it seemed that every kid in the country, with the spirit of rock and roll pulsing through their veins, was in a skiffle band.
In the summer of 1957, Lonnie Donegan fan club member Paul McCartney saw a pretty good skiffle band, The Quarrymen, playing at a fete in Liverpool. In due course he and another guitar-playing Lonnie Donegan fan club member would get together with the Quarrymen’s frontman and conquer the musical world.
McCartney would later write this tribute on the Lonnie Donegan website: “When we were kids in Liverpool in the late ’50s, we loved Rock-n-Roll, and we loved American artists, but the man who really started the craze for the guitars as far as I am concerned was Lonnie Donegan. We all bought guitars in order to be in a skiffle group and it was this craze that swept the country; Lonnie’s great vocal style was, and still is, highly original, and his love of the blues and early folk music is something we all could relate to very easily.
So for those of us there, in those early days, he was the man.”