The Beatles, Lonnie, and me . . .

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.

And here is Ed’s guitar, more than 50 years later, minus a couple of strings.

It was made by Alfredo Albertini of Catania (Italy), although on the metal saddle it does say Made in West Germany.

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.

Catholic tastes in music – a challenge for a desert island castaway

A life without music is no life . . .

I need music around me almost all day long. Much of the time it’s the music I have stored on my iPod linked up to my stereo system; so am able to enjoy CD quality as I listen. But I do have some CDs that I’ve never ripped, especially my collection of classical music.

They say that looking at someone’s CD collection says a lot about them. And before you ask, yes, I do have my collection sorted alphabetically – it’s the taxonomist in me. My tastes are broad and varied: rock, pop, folk (especially Irish and Northumbrian pipe music), country, and classical. So I often wonder which eight records I would choose to take on an imaginary desert island.

Desert island? Have I completely lost the plot? Not at all. I’m referring to a BBC radio program first broadcast in 1942, and which celebrated its 70th anniversary recently (the guest was Sir David Attenborough). The format of Desert Island Discs is simple. Each week a guest is invited to choose the eight pieces of music, a book (in addition to the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible), and one luxury that they would take with them as an imaginary castaway on a desert island. Discussion of this music then permits a broader appreciation of the guest’s life, career and other ideas. The current presenter is Kirsty Young, but the original presenter (who actually devised the program), Roy Plomley, was in charge until his death in 1985.

So when you think about it, the choices have to be ones that you’ll never (well, hardly ever) tire of listening to. For what it’s worth, and in no particular order, here are my eight pieces of music – but the list could change tomorrow (and through the wonders of Google and YouTube, I’ve been able to find a great link to each piece for your enjoyment):

Roberta Flack: Killing Me Softly with His Song

I’m not really a Roberta Flack fan – but this song has special memories for me, and these come flooding back whenever I hear it played (not so frequently these days). When I joined the International Potato Center (CIP) in January 1973 this song had just been released and was played all the time on radio stations in Lima. So this song takes me back to the beginning of my career in international agricultural research.

The Beatles: We Can Work It Out

Released in December 1965, as a double A side with Day Tripper. As a teenager in the 60s, I grew up with The Beatles – I was 14 when She Loves You was released and the group became an overnight sensation. I was hooked, and bought nearly all their LPs on vinyl (which were stolen during a burglary in Turrialba, Costa Rica in 1978 – but that’s another story).

When I moved to CDs (in 1991) I replaced all my Beatles albums. I could have chosen any one of many of their phenomenal output, but We Can Work It Out has always been a favorite, and the title reflects, to a certain extent, my philosophy in life. At one of the IRRI 50th anniversary events held in Manila in December 2009, a group called Area One performed a set of Beatles numbers, and played We Can Work It Out just for me! Click here to watch.

Fleetwood Mac: Don’t Stop
The first CD I ever purchased (in 1991) was Fleetwood Mac Greatest Hits, just prior to my move to the Philippines to join IRRI. I’d never really been a fan of the group, although they were familiar to me, in a distant sort of way.  Since then, I have become slightly obsessive with their music, and certainly Rumours (released in 1977, and which went on to become one of the best selling albums ever) is a classic. Don’t Stop can be taken as a song of great optimism – even though Rumours was recorded when Fleetwood Mac and their tangled personal relationships were in meltdown. Don’t Stop was adopted by the Clinton campaign for the presidency in 1992, and Fleetwood Mac re-formed specially to play at the Clinton Inauguration Ball on 20 January 1993.

The video shows the group performing at that event (not the best performance, however – watch Michael Jackson and other celebrities join FM on stage towards the end of the video). In 2006 I went to a Fleetwood Mac concert (along with 60,000 + fans) in St Paul, Minnesota. What an event – you could feel the music vibrating every organ in your body. And I’m not ashamed to say that I just couldn’t hold back the tears; what an emotional event. Pity that Christine McVee (née Perfect, and brother to entomologist John Perfect who worked at IRRI for a while in the 1980s) had decided no longer to tour with the group. A great concert, nevertheless.

Pink Floyd: Comfortably Numb (The Wall)

I’ve become an avid fan of Pink Floyd only in recent years, and really taken with the guitar mastery of Dave Gilmour. His solos in this song makes the hairs on the back of my head stand up. The version in the video link is from a Roger Waters concert of The Wall at the O2 Arena in London in 2011, with a special appearance of Dave Gilmour.  I was never really aware of the group in the 60s, and was abroad during the 70s when they really made a name for themselves. We didn’t hear much Pink Floyd on the radio in Peru or Costa Rica. However, I do remember, on one trip to Guatemala in late 1979-early 1980, switching on the TV in my hotel room and seeing a video of Another Brick in The Wall. I was fascinated by ‘the marching hammers’.

Dire Straits: Sultans of Swing
Dire Straits – what more can I say.

I have been a consistent fan since the early 1980s, and have followed Mark Knopfler ever since Dire Straits broke up. Mark is probably the greatest guitarist performing today. Sultans of Swing is a vehicle for Mark’s virtuosity, and although included on the album Dire Straits, it was the group’s first release as a single in 1978, but didn’t become a hit until the following year when it was re-released. Even today, Mark cannot play a concert without a rendition of Sultans of Swing. I was fortunate to go to one of his concerts at the LG Arena in Birmingham in May 2010 (tickets were a Christmas present from my daughters), and the live performance was stupendous.

Chopin: Mazurka No. 23 in D Major, Op. 33, No. 2 (but I’d like all the mazurkas, waltzes, and polonaises).

I’ve always appreciated the music of Fryderyk Chopin. So I felt privileged during a visit to Poland in 1989 (I gave a series of lectures on crop evolution and genetic resources at a couple of research institutes) to visit Chopin’s birthplace. Some of his music was being played in the house that is now a museum. And as I strolled around the garden, I could hear this particular mazurka. Although it’s a favorite, it’s also a proxy for all his other wonderful music. The version played here is by Turkish concert pianist, Idil Biret.

Gluck: Che farò senza Euridice (and the whole opera, of course)
I’ve known this particular aria from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice since I was a small boy. But the version I knew then was by the famous English contralto, Kathleen Ferrier, who died of cancer in 1953. But her version was sung in English as What is Life (this recording is from 1946). In the 1990s I used to travel quite often from the Philippines to Europe (especially Rome) in my capacity as Head of the CGIAR Inter-Center Working on Genetic Resources, and mostly flew with Lufthansa then. Lufthansa had (and I assume they still do) a terrific classical music audio stream, and on one journey I came across the version of Che farò senza Euridice listed here. In many productions the part of Orfeo is sung by a contralto (there’s a video of Dame Janet Baker on YouTube), but in fact it was originally written for a counter tenor. In this recording, counter tenor Derek Lee Ragin gives a stunning performance of the aria – you will be amazed that you are listening to a male singer.

JS BachThe Brandenburg Concertos (all six – I’m cheating)
I don’t think any music selection would be complete without a piece by Johan Sebastian Bach. And so I have chosen The Brandenburg Concertos – I find it hard to choose just one of the six. The complexity – and timeless quality – of Bach’s music is a continued inspiration. The video shows the Concerto No. 1, Allegro Moderato.

So, these are my eight choices. I could have included more from Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Traveling Wilburys, R.E.M., ELO, Crowded House, South American music, The Chieftains, Alison Krauss, and of course a host of baroque composers such as Vivaldi, Boccherini, Haydn, Mozart, and later composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, etc. If I were to make the list in 12 months time, maybe there would be some changes.

And the extras . . .
So what would be my one luxury item and book? Well, I think I’d choose a pair of binoculars – that way I could spend some time birdwatching (assuming my desert island is suitably forested), and to scan the horizon for passing ships to rescue me. And the book? Well, since I reckon I’d have a lot of time on my hands to play word games, I think a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus would be very useful. Incidentally, the Bible would have to be the King James 1611 – I’m not a religious person, but the English text of this version is wonderful and has given so many phrases to modern English usage (and it just celebrated its 400th anniversary).

PS. I’m also an ABBA fan!