If you visit The Beatles Story in Liverpool, you will see this photo (taken in about 1958) in one of the exhibits. Two small boys – one playing guitar, the other (literally) on tea chest bass – entertaining their Mum and Dad and two friends, Geoff and Susan Sharratt. That’s my elder brother Ed and me on guitar and bass. The reason why will become apparent as you work your way through this post. Incidentally, through this post, I’ve reconnected with Geoff and Susan after more than 50 years!
Fast forward three years to November 1961. I became a teenager. Time to rebel, join the throng.
Trouble was, the infamous rebel years of early rock ‘n’ roll in the UK had come and gone, and passed me by. The rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon first hit the UK around 1956 with Bill Haley & His Comets (he of the kiss curl) with Rock Around The Clock, that had teenagers all around country dancing in the aisles – and elsewhere. The Establishment (and the musical press) was outraged. Elvis was still big of course; Tommy Steele had made a name for himself, and others like Marty Wilde, Cliff Richard, and Billy Fury would take up the cause.
It was just 15 months before The Beatles would have their first No. 1 with Please Please Me in early 1963, and followed by She Loves You in August that same year (I was 14 by then and vividly remember the electrifying moment when it was debuted live on black and white TV), one of the fastest selling singles of all time, and immediately cementing the reputation the the band.
But in the mid- to late-fifties there was another genre that influenced hundreds of musicians and, for a few brief years, was one of the biggest musical crazes in the country.
That craze was skiffle, a fusion of rythm and blues, folk, and country that originated among African Americans in the southern states of the USA, but which was given an upbeat treatment over here. The term ‘skiffle’ was apparently coined by Bill Colyer, elder brother of jazz cornet/trumpet player Ken Colyer, who had led the traditional jazz revival at the end of the 1940s. After a spell in New Orleans immersing himself in jazz, Colyer managed to get himself deported from the USA (for breaking Louisiana segregation laws), and on returning to the UK became a member of a ready-made band that had been formed by jazz trombonist Chris Barber. To attract Colyer to join they agreed to call the band Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen. But rather than spend time writing about this, let’s hear Ken Colyer himself talk about those early days in an interview with George Melly in 1980.
In the rhythm section was a young banjo player, Anthony Donegan, who was to become one of the most influential musicians of the 1950s, and change his name to Lonnie (as a salute to black blues and jazz guitarist, Alonzo ‘Lonnie’ Johnson). Well, for whatever reason, Colyer fell out with the entire rhythm section of the band, especially Lonnie Donegan, and wanted to fire them. Instead, he ‘left’ the band, and was replaced by trumpeter Pat Halcox who would remain with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band (in its many guises) for many decades*.
During the interval at jazz gigs, The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group would play, with Lonnie on guitar and vocals, Barber on double bass, and Beryl Bryden on washboard (watch the videos at the end of this post, taken from a 1991 TV program This Is Your Life, and has Lonnie with Beryl Bryden and Chris Barber reunited in Part 2). Released on Decca in 1956, Rock Island Line (first recorded in 1937 and popularized by black blues artist Lead Belly) was a major hit, and the first of many for Lonnie Donegan.
Skiffle took off in a big way, and was soon being emulated by young boys (and some girls) all over the country. Skiffle was accessible. All you needed was a cheap guitar (and learn some rudimentary chords), a tea chest bass or washboard for rhythm, and you were in business. Apparently at one time there were 700 skiffle groups in Liverpool alone, among them The Quarrymen fronted by John Lennon.
And that’s how my elder brother Ed and I got into skiffle. We had fun, and on occasion we’d be rolled out to sing in public. I hate to think what we sounded like, but we were always politely received.
We sang Lonnie’s songs: John Henry, It Takes A Worried Man, Cumberland Gap, Digging My Potatoes (all about infidelity and oral sex – I wonder if we or our parents had understood the lyrics we would have been allowed to sing them), Putting On The Style, and my favorite, I Shall Not Be Moved.
Now, back to The Beatles Story. In developing the exhibits the curators wanted to tell the story of skiffle and how that had been a major influence on budding musicians in the 1950s, including The Beatles. And trawling the Internet, they came across the photo of Ed and me on his personal web site, and asked permission to use it. Below is the first version of the exhibit display they shared with us, but it has changed in some of the text and captions subsequently.
My nephew Alec took the next two photos on a recent visit to The Beatles Story. That’s my great-nephew Sammy standing in front of the display; he’s 10, and 1.40 m tall.
Ed developed a real passion for jazz, particularly for the music of Chris Barber and Duke Ellington. He’s one of the webmasters for the Official Chris Barber site. I moved towards traditional folk music for many years, and particular folk dance. Now my tastes are quite eclectic, as I have discussed in recent posts (on being a castaway; Fleetwood Mac; AKUS). But it’s interesting to know how many musicians today owe their roots to Lonnie Donegan and skiffle (such as Mark Knopfler, for example).
Lonnie in later years
In 1991, Lonnie was the guest on the popular TV series This Is Your Life. Here are two videos (Part 1 and Part 2) from YouTube, with Lonnie reunited with Rock Island Line colleagues Chris Barber and Beryl Bryden (at the end of Part 2). Chris Barber talks about Lonnie and the band at the end of Part 1.
Click to watch Lonnie being interviewed by the late great John Peel at Glastonbury in 1999. Lonnie died of a heart attack in 2002.
And if you want to read more about the music of the fifties – and the influence that Lonnie Donegan had on a whole raft of musicians – I thoroughly recommend The Restless Generation, by Pete Frame, published in 2007 (ISBN 978-0-95295-407-1). It’s available through Amazon for about £12.50, and in the USA for $22-30 (also on Kindle). It’s a highly entertaining, amusing, and an ever-so-irreverent account of the rise and social influence of jazz, skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll.
*Chris Barber turned 80 in 2010, and is still playing after more than 60 years. He has probably had more influence on jazz and popular music than any other musician in the UK in the 20th century.