...Leaving Chris Barber’s Jazz Band to form his own group, Donegan signed to the Pye label and went on to score an impressive series of hits, including in 1957 back-to-back #1s with ‘Cumberland Gap’ and ‘Putting on the Style’. His band was by now a more professional affair, drums having replaced washboard. His repertoire was expanding fast beyond the original country blues to include folk and country elements, but he was universally acknowledged as the King of Skiffle, and for the media he effectively delineated the genre.
The Times, which had been a little puzzled in 1956 (‘To “skiffle”, it seems, is to present American folklove [sic] songs in terms of modern jazz’), was quite happy the following year to report Donegan’s definitive statement on the question: ‘Skiffle – by now you should surely know what it means,’ he said, referring to himself and his group. ‘Us’.
It was not entirely true, for Donegan was sui generis, far too individual a performer to be typical of anything. Whippet-thin, his voice a piercing nasal holler (‘like a throttled jackal,’ reckoned Royston Ellis), he was a charismatic front man, quivering with barely controlled energy as he lost himself in songs that accelerated dangerously towards terminal velocity.
‘Lonnie singing live had a fire and an anger in him that came right at you,’ wrote Adam Faith, and it was that passion that made the difference in the early days. ‘He generates a kind of witch-doctor excitement,’ commented television producer Jack Good. ‘I always think Donegan has a certain sense of evil; that’s probably his appeal.’
Even American critics acknowledged the power of his stage presence: ‘Crouching before the mike,’ wrote Time magazine, ‘Donegan crooks his right knee, pumps his foot convulsively and whangs his guitar, occasionally wrenching his pelvis Elvis-fashion.’ Special tribute was also paid to ‘a red-goateed bass plucker named Mickey Ashman, who twirls his big fiddle and tops the act by rolling on the floor with it’.
Utterly unlike any existing British pop star, Donegan inspired boys across the nation – and they were mainly boys – to pick up a guitar and try it out for themselves. One of many was a kid in Grantham named Roy Taylor, who would one day become Vince Eager, and who could hardly wait to play his copy of Donegan’s first single to his friends: ‘Before “Rock Island Line” had faded into the distance, our plans to form a skiffle group were already taking shape,’ he remembered. As guitarist Joe Brown later pointed out: ‘He was Jesus and we were his disciples.’
Amongst those disciples were the likes of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and most of the rest of the 1960s rock aristocracy, as well as a number of 1970s heroes, from Jimmy Page to David Bowie and Ian Dury – the latter two both started their musical careers making tea-chest basses...