Lonnie Donegan, the “king of skiffle” music, died Sunday in Peterborough, England, at the age of seventy-one. Although the exact cause of death is not known, Donegan had suffered several heart attacks in the past and recently canceled a pair of shows due to illness. Donegan is survived by his wife Sharon and seven children from his three marriages.
Best known for being a prime influence on the Beatles, he was born Anthony James Donegan in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1931, the son of a professional violinist. “Tony” became “Lonnie” in 1952 after he shared a bill with blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson and the MC of the show mixed up their names. Donegan played guitar from the age of nine and got his start in music in his late teens when he received an invitation to join a band as a banjo player — a group that featured future collaborator Chris Barber — despite not knowing how to play the instrument.
While stationed in Vienna during a stint in the British army in the late Forties, he became further exposed to American music via American Forces Radio Network. After his release from the army in 1951, Donegan frequently visited the library of the American Embassy, thoroughly studying and sometimes stealing from their collection of blues and folk. He formed the Tony Donegan Jazz Band in 1952 and teamed with Barber once more in the Ken Colyer Jazzmen and the Chris Barber Jazz Band. It was between sets with the Ken Colyer Jazzmen that Donegan first dabbled with skiffle, a hybrid of his influences played on stand-up bass, drums with banjo or guitar.
Donegan got his first taste of success in 1954 while a member of the Chris Barber Jazz Band. Inspired by promising initial sales of the group’s album New Orleans Joys, Decca Records opted to release several singles from the LP, including the Leadbelly cover “Rock Island Line,” which was credited to the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group and went on to sell over three million copies in six months.
Even more notably for rock & roll fans, the song prompted the young George Harrison and John Lennon to pick up the guitar. “Lonnie Donegan was a much bigger influence on rock than he was ever given credit for,” Harrison wrote in his autobiography, I, Me, Mine. “He was a big hero of mine.”
Aside from the Beatles (who began as the skiffle-minded Quarrymen), other British Invasion members had their roots in skiffle bands: the Who (the Detours), Van Morrison (the Sputniks) and Graham Nash (Two Teens). Ironically, after Donegan’s disciples found fame in the mid-Sixties, his own popularity waned and he recorded only sporadically. In 1978, Elton John, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Brian May and others joined him for his comeback album, Putting on the Style. Donegan also released The Skiffle Sessions: Live In Belfast 1998, a concert album with Barber and Van Morrison in 2000.
“I was shocked to hear the news of Lonnie’s passing,” said May. “His music will endure forever in Britain . . . The king of skiffle is dead. Long live the king!”