Though his 'old man wasn’t a dustman', Lonnie Donegan’s influence on the British music scene of the early 1960s can hardly be overstated. Born Antony James Donegan in Glasgow in 1931 to an Irish mother and a Scottish father, Donegan grew up in Milton Road, East Ham, with the family sharing a one room apartment, and he caught rheumatic fever when he was four, a condition linked to poor housing conditions which left him with a damaged heart.
Lonnie would grow to become the leading exponent of the skiffle boom of the late 1950s, a homemade improvised style of music incorporating cheap guitar and household items such as washboards, tea chest bass and cigar boxes which had its origins in the African-American music culture of the early twentieth century. Learning the guitar by playing along to records played on the radio, Lonnie, who got his nickname from the US blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, began playing in amateur bands and when conscripted to National Service in 1949 he kept playing whenever he could, often getting back to his barracks at 4.30 after a gig, having to be up again at 6.30.
Demobbed in 1951, Donegan began playing with musicians such as Ken Colyer and Chris Barber, and in 1954 during a break in sessions recording with the latter, recorded a few songs in a skiffle style, one of which, a cover of Leadbelly’s Rock Island Line was released a single by Decca and sold three million copies in six months. One person who bought Rock Island Line was a young John Lennon who played it incessantly and other figures such as Gerry Rafferty, Paul McCartney, Marty Wilde, Mark Knopfler and Roger Daltrey would all cite Donegan as a huge influence.
American rock and roll such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard may have captured the public’s imagination, but it was Lonnie Donegan that made rock and roll accessible to budding musicians and made them feel as if they could go out and do it themselves. Other hits such as Cumberland Gap, Gambling Man (both number ones), Lost John, Does your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight, The Grand Coulee Dam and Tom Dooley followed before he hit number one again in 1960 with perhaps his best known hit, the music hall styled ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’. Further top ten hits followed until the end of 1962.
However, as Liverpool skiffle group the Quarrymen grew to become one of the biggest pop bands of all time (the Beatles!), and the groups he influenced as teenagers began breaking through and putting their own slant on the musical scene, Donegan’s career began to decline. He suffered a heart attack and subsequent health problems in the mid 70s before a comeback of sorts saw him record the 'Putting on the Style' album with Adam Faith, Elton John, Brian May and Ronnie Wood.
Lonnie Donegan, the king of skiffle, died at his home in Spain in 2002 aged 71.