Known as 'The King Of Skiffle', Anthony James Donegan became a more homogeneous UK equivalent to Elvis Presley than Tommy Steele. Donegan's mother was Irish and his father Scottish, and from the age of two he was raised in East Ham, London. Steeped in traditional jazz and its by-products, Donegan was a guitarist in a skiffle band before a spell in the army found him drumming in the Wolverines Jazz Band. After his discharge, he played banjo with Ken Colyer and then Chris Barber. With his very stage forename a tribute to the great black bluesman Lonnie Johnson, both units allowed him to sing a couple of blues-tinged American folk tunes as a 'skiffle' break. His version of Lead Belly's 'Rock Island Line', issued from Barber's New Orleans Joys in 1954 as a single after months in the domestic hit parade, was also a US Top 10 hit. Donegan's music inspired thousands of teenagers to form amateur skiffle combos, with friends playing broomstick tea-chest bass, washboards and other instruments fashioned from household implements. The Beatles, playing initially as the Quarry Men, were the foremost example of an act traceable to such roots.
Performing with his own group and newly signed to Pye Records, Donegan was a prominent figure in skiffle throughout its 1957 prime; he possessed an energetic whine far removed from the gentle plumminess of other native pop vocalists. Donegan could dazzle with his virtuosity on 12-string acoustic guitar and his string of familiar songs has rarely been surpassed: 'Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O', 'Bring A Little Water, Sylvie', 'Putting On The Style' (his second UK number 1), 'The Grand Coolie Dam', 'Tom Dooley', 'Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Over Night) (a reworking of the 20s song 'Does The Spearmint Lose Its Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight"' which provided Donegan with a US Top 5 hit) and 'Jimmy Brown The Newsboy', were only a few of Donegan's gems. He successfully made the traditional 'Cumberland Gap' his own (his first UK number 1), and 1959's 'Battle Of New Orleans' was the finest ever reading of a popular song. He delved more deeply into Americana to embrace bluegrass, spirituals, Cajun and even Appalachian music, the formal opposite of jazz. However, when the skiffle boom diminished, he broadened his appeal - to much purist criticism - with old-time music hall/pub singalong favourites, and a more pronounced comedy element. His final chart-topper was with the uproarious 'My Old Man's A Dustman', which sensationally entered the UK charts at number 1 in 1960. The hit was an adaptation of the ribald Liverpool folk ditty 'My Old Man's A Fireman On The Elder-Dempster Line'. He followed it with further comedy numbers including 'Lively' in 1960. Two years later, Donegan's Top 20 run ended as it had started, with a Lead Belly number ('Pick A Bale Of Cotton'), as the music scene he had inspired began to explore beyond the limitations of skiffle. However, between 1956 and 1962 he had numbered 34 hits.
Donegan finished the 60s with huge sales of two mid-price Golden Age Of Donegan volumes, supplementing his earnings in cabaret and occasional spots on BBC Television's The Good Old Days. The most interesting diversion of the next decade was Adam Faith's production of Puttin' On The Style. Here, at Paul McCartney's suggestion, Donegan remade old smashes backed by an extraordinary glut of artists who were lifelong fans, including Rory Gallagher, Ringo Starr, Leo Sayer, Zoot Money, Albert Lee, Gary Brooker, Brian May, Nicky Hopkins, Elton John, and Ron Wood. While this album brushed 1978's UK charts, a 1982 single, 'Spread A Little Happiness', was also a minor success - and, as exemplified by the Traveling Wilburys' 'skiffle for the 90s', the impact of Donegan's earliest chart entries has continued to exert an influence on pop music. Although no longer enjoying the best of health, having suffered a heart attack in 1976 that required open-heart surgery, Donegan continued to entertain. In the 90s, he toured occasionally with his old boss, Chris Barber, and in 1997 he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement honour at the an Ivor Novello Awards. The following year, Donegan recorded his first new album in 20 years. Among the highlights on Muleskinner Blues was a duet with Van Morrison and revitalized versions of several Donegan staples such as 'Rock Island Line' and 'Alabamy Bound'. His playing remained as sharp as ever, but of greater note was Donegan's voice. Not only had he maintained the power of his high treble, but also his baritone range could now shake the floor. Two years later, he received an MBE for services to British Popular Music.
Donegan, a remarkable survivor, continued to perform even after undergoing further heart surgery in May 2002, but died a few months later while midway through a UK tour. He remains without doubt the king of British skiffle, but also a hugely influential figure in the development of popular music in the UK since the birth of rock 'n' roll.
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