Lonnie Donegan 1931-2002.
In 1956 the only record player in our house was an old wind up model with a sound box directly above the needle which had to be changed every time you had played about five records. The record collection consisted of a few old 78s like "The Sabre Dance" and "Buttons and Bows". One day my father came home with the latest "hi tech" arm for our record player which meant you could plug it into a radio. We had to update our record collection so with my hard earned pocket money I bourght my favourite record of the day "The Dam Busters March". My mother bought the latest record by a certain Lonnie Donegan called "Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O". Soon I was playing "Don't You Rock Me daddy-O" most of the time, and when Lonnie's next record "Cumberland Gap" was released and reached number one in the charts I was hooked and began buying everything he had ever recorded. When I bourght Lonnie's first album "Showcase" I found a track that has always been one of my all time favourites, "Frankie and Johnny". It's such a heavy track, and I've always likened it to Ravels "Bolero", fourteen verses that build to a frantic crescendo at the end and Nick Nicholls opening drum pattern is heavy enough to grace any modern day Rock track.
In 1957 around the time of Lonnie's next release, the double sided number one hit "Putting On The Style" / "Gamblin Man", I was in hospital with a serious kidney complaint. When I got out of hospital I had several months off school and by now all I wanted to do was play the guitar and sing like Lonnie. I pestered my father for a guitar and he, being a woodworker by trade, decided to make me one. A few months later the guitar was finished and I started to learn how to play. At first I would tune the top two strings until I thought they sounded OK and bash out Lonnie's songs before buying a book (Not Bert Weedon's) which taught me how to play the chords properly. I would practise every spare moment I had playing and singing along to Lonnie's records. Sometimes I would be Lonnie singing and playing rhythm guitar and other times I would be Denny Wright, Jimmy Currie or Les Bennetts (Lonnie's lead guitarists) and concentrate on playing the lead guitar parts.
Lonnie Donegan was at the height of his popularity and I decided that I wanted a Skiffle Group, so I recruited my brother Nigel, who was only eight at the time, to play washboard and a school friend on tea chest bass and we called ouselves "The Satellites". My Father worked at De Havillands aircraft factory in Hatfield and got us our first booking playing for the childrens Christmas parties in the works canteen. We did three consecutive saturdays playing the same three Lonnie Donegan songs, "My Dixie Darling" "Gamblin' Man" and "Jack O' Diamonds". We were paid three pounds for these shows and I was well impressed thinking that at the age of 13 I was already a professional musician.
On Friday February 14th 1958 I saw Lonnie on Stage for the first time at "The Finsbury Park Empire" in North London. In those days there were no Pop Concerts, just variety shows which featured various variety acts and a top of the bill. I still have the programme for this show and among the acts with Lonnie were, Freddie Harrison (The Tricky Pianist), The Three Brittons (Juggling Cyclists), Jimmy Webster and Jill (Thrills on Wheels), and a certain Mr. Des O'Connor (Comedy in the Modern Manner). Finally after what seemed like an eternity of nine acts and an interval Des O'Connor announced "Ladies and Gentlemen Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group". The curtains opened and there was the man himself singing "Wabash Cannonball" a track from his first LP. This may sound a bit daft in this day and age, but my first reaction was that "it's in colour. In the days before colour television and magazines I had only seen Lonnie and his group, and their instruments in black and white, now here before me was the real thing and in colour. Lonnie's guitarist Jimmy Currie was playing a beautiful sunburst Gibson guitar. I was transfixed and wanted one immediately. The show was over far to quickly but the night was complete when Lonnie came out to the stage door to sign autographs and I was one of the lucky ones. I understand that when Lonnie played The Liverpool Empire around this time a certain George Harrison was getting his own autograph book signed.
(Click on photo to enlarge plus more photos)
I couldn't concentrate at school too much today because in the evening I was going to see Lonnie Donegan on stage once again. I caught the train from Hatfield to Finsbury Park and walked the few hundred yards to the Empire Theatre where I had first seen Lonnie back in 1958. He was appearing in the pantomime Robinson Crusoe playing Robinson's brother Billy Crusoe. (What do you mean he didn't have a brother?) I was by now a fully fledged member, (number 2198), of the Lonnie Donegan Fan Club, and had written to Sylvie Symonds who ran the club asking if I could get to meet Lonnie as I had found a song that might suit him. Sylvie wrote back saying that if I asked for Peter Huggett, his bass player, in the interval it might be possible.
The interval came and I nervously asked one of the attendants if I could see Peter Huggett and he took me back stage. I had to walk past Nick Nicholls drums that were on a small platform ready for the end of the show when Lonnie would perform with his group, and was introduced to Peter Huggett. Peter took me to Lonnie's dressing room, knocked on the door and we went in and there he was, my hero. I can't deny it I was awestruck, but I managed to explain that I had this record by a guy called Vernon Dalhart called “Get Away Old Man Get Away” that might be the sort of song he could sing. Behind Lonnie I could see his Martin guitar and his banjo lying on a table ready to go. I had wanted a Martin like Lonnie's from the time I first saw him so I was even in awe of the guitar. We had a short chat, I thanked him for seeing me and I went back to my seat in a bit of a daze and watched the second half of the show which was great. Robinson Crusoe and his girlfriend (what do you mean he didn't have a girlfriend) lived happily ever after, and Lonnie finished the show with a magnificent set. I went home with a smile on my face. Lonnie never recorded that song but would make up for it 36 years later and record a song that I had written specially for him.
Friday 22nd January 1960