Lonnie Donegan may still be far from a household name in the United States, but he’s a legend in the United Kingdom for inventing a whole new genre—skiffle—before rock’n’roll was born. Like punk, skiffle—which incorporated jazz, blues, and folk, and was usually played using homemade or improvised instruments—made playing it a viable proposition for even the poorest of the poor, and it’s cool rhythms galvanized an entire generation of U.K. youth. The Beatles, the Stones, Van Morrison, Elton John—all were skiffle fanatics before rock’n’roll hit England, and all incorporated elements of its sound into their early music.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, the guitarist and vocalist got his start playing trad jazz in the mid-1940s, but a military stint in Vienna turned him onto the new sounds being played by the American Forces radio station—sounds he would later incorporate into so-called “skiffle breaks” while he was with Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen. With a washboard, a tea-chest bass, and a cheap Spanish guitar, Donegan and two other musicians would play American blues and folk tunes. In July 1954 he recorded a skiffle version of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line,” and presto—a star was born. Before he knew it he was playing on the Perry Como show, and young adherents—including those proto-Beatles, the Quarrymen, got off on this new style of music. Which was ironic seeing as how down the road it was those very same Beatles, with their newfangled beat music, who muscled Donegan off the pop charts for good.
Over the ensuing decades he would have his moments—recordings in Nashville, reunion shows, a long stint as a record producer, and most importantly, an album with Van Morrison (The Skiffle Sessions—Live in Belfast 1998) which won him much overdue acclaim. But just as important—but less appreciated than his collaboration with Morrison—was the 1978 LP Puttin’ on the Style, on which the King of Skiffle played an iconoclastic handful of songs accompanied by many of the musicians he’d influenced and inspired over the years including Albert Lee, Rory Gallagher, Brian May, Ron Wood, Elton John, Nicky Hopkins, Ringo Starr, Mick Ralphs, Jim Keltner, Leo Sayer, Ray Cooper, Peter Banks, Michele Phillips, and numerous other lesser known musicians. Produced by Adam Faith, the LP wasn’t a hit, but it provides a unique look at a musician who generally kept it simple taking advantage of a full deck of musical aces—which had both its advantages and disadvantages.