On 30 October, Lonnie Donegan performed live for the last time. I consider myself very fortunate to have been at this last performance.
I don't consider myself to be a huge fan, just a fan.
But when I knew Lonnie Donegan was going to play at the Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, I jumped at the chance of seeing the King of Skiffle perform live.
One of the back stage crew walked out on the stage to chat to the audience.
He calmly told us that Lonnie had not been well, and that although the show was originally going to be cancelled, Lonnie had decided it was to go on, and was currently having pain killing injections.
Two support acts made up the first half of the show. First up were Leicester rock/blues band Diesel Park West with an excellent collection of their material.
Next in line was Lonnie's son, Peter, who at only 18 years of age has the stage presence of someone who has been at it for 20 years.
After a short break it was Lonnie's turn, his band arriving a minute or so before him, but by the time they had geared up, Lonnie had made his appearance, assisted by his son Peter who kept a constant eye on his father throughout the rest of the evening.
Straight away we felt at home with him, as if we had known him all your life. He talked to, not at, the audience.
From the outset of his first song, a fast rocky number, I began to wonder what the fuss was all about - Lonnie was strutting up and down in a manner that Mick Jagger would be proud of.
Almost every song would be preceded with a little chat about its history, maybe where its roots where or a little story about its composer.
Lonnie always had a tale to tell you, and he always told it in such a way that made you realise that none of this was pre-rehearsed. This was Lonnie just being himself, able to chat to a full audience as if he had known them for years.
What may surprise you is that there was not a mention of a dustbin or of the gap in Cumberland. Chewing gum got a brief mention, but only brief.
These were the songs I remember my family playing when I was only a few years old. They were not missed however - we have all heard them 1,000 times before. It leaves room for the less well-known numbers and I'm all for that.
Something I did learn during the little chats that went between each song was that Lonnie Donegan was the pen behind the Tom Jones hit, covered by Elvis Presley, I'll never fall in love again. He was very proud of the success this song had seen.
Having had two acts precede him, many were amazed when Lonnie promptly introduced another guest in the form of Vince Eager.
Together with the band they performed a couple of numbers. Any more would have been out of the question, as Mr Eager was losing strings at a rapid rate of knots.
During this short interlude I reckon there was probably in excess of 250 years of musical experience on the stage. And it showed.
It was only in the last few minutes that we found out that Lonnie's ill health was due to a back problem. He gave no indication of this at all throughout his performance.
Towards the end of the show, the encores where more of a quick walk off and back on again, almost as if they wanted to cram as much in to the allotted time as was possible.
One thing that was very apparent throughout was that all the musicians that where on stage wanted to be there, and where enjoying every minute of it.
The banter between them was great to see - some bands never talk to each other on stage. This bunch of guys obviously had tremendous respect for each other.
The Royal Concert Hall is renowned for its acoustic qualities. However, somehow you feel that Lonnie and his band would sound just as good belting it out from a corrugated shed at the bottom of the garden.
Lonnie mentioned that the first gig he did after hitting the big time was at the Nottingham Empire in, I think he said, 1957.
The Nottingham Empire is long gone. However the Royal Concert Hall is built on the site of the original Empire...so his last gig was there too.
Ironically, the current tour was subtitled This Could be the Last Time. Nobody knew how true this would become. He will be sadly missed by many.
A MEMORY FROM RAY STEVENS, LONG TIME FRIEND OF LONNIE'S.
Hello Dave, " This Yere De Story "
Lonnie Celebrated his " Silver Jubilee Concert " at The Fairfield Hall,
Croydon . To commemorate the occasion ( 08 June 1981 ) I wanted
to Buy this remarkable Man and Fried something special, I came up
with the idea of a solid silver 10 inch Disc, ( 10 inch as that was the
size of his fist Album ) After the concert Mel Roberts invited myself
and other Friends/Fans to a reception Back Stage to meet and greet
Lonnie,when he arrived , I went over to present the framed Disc
At that point, Lon asked if I would stand by his side for a photo shoot
The photo you asked about was taken by my Dear Friend or should
I say our Dear Friend, the Late Dave Radcliffe, some week later,
Dave kindly sent me a copy.
Well Dave, " That Was De Story ".
With all my Best Wishes and Kindest regards, Ray.
AS A FOOTNOTE TO THIS, ON THE SLEEVE NOTES OF "THE JUBILEE CONCERT" ALBUM IS:-
"A FAN PRESENTED ME WITH A COMMEMORATIVE SILVER DISC"
I first met Lonnie at The London Hippodrome in 1957, I was in charge of the lighting for this show with Alma Cogan. They gave a very young Des O'Connor a hard time. He performed in front of a 'front' curtain as the band with setting up. Lonnie would often stick his hand through the centre gap and grab Des much to the amusement of the audience and wrecking Des's concentration. Maybe good training for his experiences with Morecambe and Wise.
I was 10 years old and the family had moved to Edmonton, from Islington. I was not happy, a new school, a strange area, and all my friends in Islington.(10 years old that was a million miles away) To cheer me up my parents took me to see my favorite, Lonnie D at The Finsbury Park Empire. I can't recall much about it except (as someone else mentioned) it was so magic, the bright lights and it was in colour! (black & white TV's in those days) If I remember correct Des O'Connor was the compare and was wearing a bright blue jacket or suit, looked more like he should be working for Fred Pontin! I think Miki & Griff were part of the show as well. I don't recall anything else, just the colours and the spot light beams reflecting back of the instruments.
Many years have past, many different shows have been seen, but non will ever be so colourful as that night in 1958.
Another memory that I have is seeing Lonnie in the panto Robinson Crusoe, this was at The Finsbury Park Empire Xmas 1959 or 60.
Other than at the end of the show Lonnie and his Group did there own session, I can't remember much about the show. But, what I do rember quite vividly is what happened after the show.
My parents decided to treat me and my sister to fish & chips from the chippy almost opposite the theatre. So there we were in the shop waiting our turn, when I suddenly realised who was in front of us -YES - Lonnie. Being a cheekie 11 or 12 year old, I tugged his jacket and thrusting the programme towards him, asked for his autograph, of cause you can have it sonny, or something similar came the reply ( the grey matter is a bit vague nowadays!)
Lonnie signed it To Dave bet wishes Lonnie D. He also treated us to our chip supper, now how many people can say that Lonnie treated them to a meal out?
Sadly that was the only time I ever met Lonnie, and I often wonder what happened to that programme? Possibly thrown out by my parents when my bedroom got a bit untidy? I don't know, but I wished I still had it. Little did I know that nearly 50 years later I would be an even bigger fan of his!
This story relates to the picture in The Gallery of The 1959 Team, taken before a match at Stanley Park Liverpool. It was told to me by Jess Conrad.
The team met as usual at The BBC Canteen in London, early on Sunday morning. After a cuppa they boarded the coach taking them to Liverpool. By the time they arrived they had to get changed straight away for the prematch photo shoot. Lonnie as well as the others unpacked his kit. His boots were still covered in mud from the previous game he had played, about six months earlier. The leather laces were solid and it took about twenty minutes to get them undone, a rag was found to clean up the boots as best as possible. With Lonnie now ready it was off to have the photo taken and then straight on to the pitch to warm up. During the warm up exercises Lonnie managed to get injured, so after all the trouble everyone went to, getting Lonnie ready, he never actually played this game.
He did play in quite a few games and was a nippy winger. I can't remember who, but some one years ago said that Lonnie reckoned George Best copied his style. No not football, but chat up lines!
HOW PETER OAKMAN JOINED LONNIE IN DECEMBER 1963
Peter had left Joe Brown two days earlier and had travelled to Lichfield to stay with friends. Peter’s mother had received a call from Lonnie, who was trying to contact him. She gave Lonnie a contact number and Lonnie eventually spoke to Peter asking if he would like to join his group as Peter Huggett was ill and had left. There was an urgency as Lonnie was about to begin a Christmas show at the Globe in Stockton with the Kestrels and Norman Collier and the Clark Brothers. There was no point in Peter returning home so he arranged for his mother to pack him a case and Lonnie said he would collect it. Peter lived in Wanstead not far from Lonnie’s home in Woodford.
Peter caught a train to Coventry and Lonnie met him at the station in his Alpha Romeo car, this was their first meeting. They drove to Stockton to prepare for the show. They had one rehearsal in a room beneath the stage and Peter had to play a Double Bass where he had been playing bass guitar with Joe Brown. The rehearsal went well and as they finished Lonnie said to Peter by “by the way after the first number I’ll throw my guitar to you and you have to catch it while I pick up the banjo for Have a Drink on Me”. Peter caught the guitar every time. He thinks it was the original 00028 with the tortoise shell pick guard.
The line up was Lonnie, Denny Wright, Pete Appleby and Peter Oakman.
Tale from Paul Griggs, who spoke to Peter on February 1st 2010
MICKY ASHMAN 2010
I had a very enjoyable chat to Micky Ashman who is 82 years of age and has retired to Holland on Sea in Essex. He has glowing memories of his time with Lonnie apart from his sacking when it was said that his energy on stage (which I well remember) was upstaging Lonnie. The sad news he had to tell was that Nick Nicholls died a couple of years ago, so he is the only living member of the original band.
The original band was put together by producer Denis Preston and was supposed to be Micky, Colin Bowden on Drums and a guitarist who Micky can’t recall (Spencer Leigh says John Booker). When it came to the session for “Sylvie”, only Lonnie and Micky turned up. A couple of phone calls and a short while later Nick Nicholls and Denny Wright arrived (Mickey said Denny wasn’t wearing Pyjamas under his clothes) and they recorded “Sylvie” and “Dead or Alive”.
He vividly remembers the night at the Albert Hall when Denny was really drunk and had to be helped onto the stage. When they played “Sylvie” Denny was almost slumped over his amp much to Lonnie’s consternation, and when it came to the solo he yelled out “Mickey Ashman” to play the solo although Denny carries on in another key. These tracks are on the Conway Hall CD. Denny was sacked after this but remained a further three weeks to play that amazing solo on “Cumberland Gap” for which I’m sure we’re all grateful.
Micky said that although he was a jazz player he had no musical conflict with Lonnie’s music and enjoyed every minute of his time in the band. He has no collection of records that he played on but said that from his memories in the studios his two favourites were “Nobody’s Child” and “Wabash Cannonball”.
Micky didn’t have too much contact with Lonnie over the years but teamed up with him, Joe Brown and Bert Weedon on a programme called “The trouble with the fifties” when Joe played Denny’s solo on Cumberland Gap note for note. I think I’ve got this on tape somewhere.
Tale from Paul Griggs who spoke to Mickey February 2010
For ages I have been telling sceptical people that I saw Lonnie Donegan as Buttons in "Cinderella" when I was 13 and thanks to Paul, I found a photo ( I think it's on Pauls's site).
Lonnie played a blinder including My Old Man's a Dustman as per Paul's (Paul Grigg) pic - I was bowled over, and my parents, who were not exactly fans of young people playing guitars, were converted for one night at least.
Later in 1961, some of us lads blagged our music teacher, Kendrick Partington, into putting Lonnie's Golden Vanity on his gramophone as an example of an American Variant of an English Folk Song. Needless to say, we then asked him if he would like to hear the other side. Kendrick listened all the way through with a faint smile on his face. He survived the experience, and indeed I attended his 80th birthday fest a couple of years ago.
I suppose that panto in 1961 was the first gig I ever attended! Unfortunately (or fortunately?) I have spent the subsequent 48 odd years as a mere punter, but at least I have very broad tastes so have had marvellous experiences and met some very nice people. And bought some excellent records - e.g. "The best of Chris Barber" on Ace of Clubs, secondhand for 50p - featuring Rock Island Line and John Henry!
A bunch of us have been going to Fairport's Cropredy festival ever since it started in 1979 and who should be headlining on one of the 3 nights in August 2001 but Lonnie Donegan. Dave Pegg had been trying to get Lonnie for years. He played a blinder again. I suppose it was one of his last gigs....
When Lonnie died I was amazed to find that his last gig was at Nottingham's Theatre Royal 4 hours before his demise.
From Ed G
With it being the 80th anniversary of LD'S birth, I mentioned it to some friends. During the conversation I told them a story about my daughter and LD, perhaps I could share it with you.
Having grown up in a household which contained a record collection that included an original recording (all formats vinyl,cassette,CD) of every top 40 hit from the 50's,60's and 70's, (6240 recordings} she is into modern music in a big way,but is very aware of all the great music from The Golden Era.In the past couple of years she has been to see a wide range of artists that includes The Doves, Joe Brown, Radiohead,Take That and a particularly memorable evening at the 100 club to see Chris Farlowe, where she is certain she was the only person under 50 in the place.
In 2000 when she was 15 years old she said that LD would be appearing in Manchester and would I be going. When I said yes, she said could she come with me, which surprised me because with the exception of his novelty songs, she hadn't appeared to take much notice of his other stuff. "Now why do you want to go and see Lonnie Donegan" I said. She replied "because he is a living musical legend,who has had a massive influence on popular music and at sometime in the future someone will point that out and I will be able to say that I saw him live"
We went to the show at the Life Cafe in Manchester and at the age of 69 LD was sensational. The timbre in his voice which I had expected to be weakening was stronger than ever. I had taken various things with me to ask the great man to sign. When we got the opportunity to talk to him, he asked my daughter what she was doing there and had she enjoyed the show. She then told him why she was there and that she thought the show was brilliant. Lonnie seemed pleased but said "I think you're just saying that", she replied "no I'm not I really enjoyed it. Lonnie then asked what her name was and said to her "well Rachel you have just made an old man very happy"
In 2010 Rachel went to see Joe Brown at The London Palladium during his 50th Anniversary Tour. During the first half of the show Joe did his usual skiffle number and spoke his usual appreciative word for LD. During the interval Rachel started chatting to the couple sitting next to her. They were in their sixties and said they were surprised to see such a young woman on her own at Joe Brown concert. The lady the said how much she had enjoyed Joe's skiffle number and that she wished she could have seen Lonnie Donegan in person when he was alive because he had been such a great and influential performer.
The elderly couple she was sitting next to were absolutely amazed when told the that she had seen Lonnie live and how good she thought he had been. At their request she then went on to tell them the full story of how, what, where, when and how it had all come about. To say that they were impressed is putting it mildly.
This of course meant that Rachel's reason, ten years earlier, for going to see Lonnie had happened just as she said it would.
I played with Lon in the Summer of 1970. I was with The Cyril Stapleton Orchestra and Lon was playing a Summer Season in Blackpool with us. His guitarist, Les Bennetts left suddenly and Lon asked me to join his group. I don't have any pics I'm afraid. I did play in Lon's All Star Football team. He loved to beat Freddie Starr's team as I don't thin there was any love lost between them! I have fond memories of Lon, and especially our dressing room chats about the Blues and especially Leadbelly. I found him very down to earth (fish & chips in the dressing room) and wished I could have stayed with him longer, but I had my first Paul Brett Sage LP out on Pye at the end of the run and went abroad to promote that. The drummer was Mark Goodwin, I can't recall the bass player. There were some noted musicians in Cyril's band at that time too. Cliff Townshend (Pete's Dad) and David Palmer, later of Jethro Tull.
Hope this helps,
INTERVIEW WITH PETER DONEGAN, PUBLISHED WITH FULL PERMISSION OF THE NORTHERN ECHO.
Entertainment Editor Viv Hardwick talks to Peter Donnegan about his famous father as the show which tells the story of Lonnie's life goes on a massive tour. Peter is currently living in the North-East and actually made his professional debut with his dad in the region in 2002.
MOST young men of 21 wouldn't want to go out on stage and perform songs which made their dad famous, but Peter Donegan is happy to keep the 1950s skiffle sound of father Lonnie alive. Not only that, he's also given up the sun-soaked family home in Malaga to be based in Bedlington for a massive tour of musical Lonnie D which runs until November, 2005, before a grandstand finish at London's Hackney Empire in 2006.
Peter admits that, at one time, Aerosmith rather than his dad's first big hit Rock Island Line would have attracted his attention. But he says: "Skiffle music is 50 years old now, which is why the title of dad's last tour was 50 Years Down The Rock Island Line. But, basically, I'm doing this music because I like it. Where else can you get to go to work dressed in sequins and all sorts of God know's what. It's quite disturbing when you look at some of it, but my girlfriend can turn to me and say 'can I borrow your make-up darling?'"
Peter's quite proud of the move to Bedlington - although he admits he hasn't taken up an invitation to go and watch the town's famous Terriers football team.
He says: "I've actually been living in the Bedlington area for about five years because I've been working for Leah Bell (who is directing and co-producing the show with Peter's mum Sharon)."
London-born Peter spent four years in California before moving to Spain with his parents 17 years ago, mostly because of his dad's heart trouble which saw him battle back from three major operations. Peter recalls changing school 14 times in total including a period at stage school. That also meant making a TV commercial at the age of five for Life Assurance.
"I had to stick a sausage in some guy's mouth, which seemed perfectly innocent at that time," he laughs.
Peter started out as a performer using the piano and then learned the harmonic and since his dad's death in 2002 has taken up the guitar. Brother Antony is 36 and also appears in Lonnie D. "He could almost be my dad," jests Peter who is from Lonnie's third marriage.
"We get on like a house on fire and our birthdays are really close together, I'm November 7 and his is November 8 which is uncanny. Antony was born and raised in Margate and he's the second oldest because he's got an older sister, Juanita, from my dad's second marriage to Jillian Westlake." Peter has two brothers David - who also appears in Lonnie D - and Andrew and there are also two other Donegan off-spring, Fiona and Corrina, from the singer's first marriage.
"It's funny when you meet people at the shows because they know more about you than you do," he admits.
Talking about Lonnie D he says: "The first half is the story of my dad's life which is narrated by Antony and I and there's a whole cast of characters who play the part of fans in The Froffy Coffee Bar. As we go through the stages of my dad's life you can see the effect it has on their lives. It goes straight from Rock Island Line up until his death in 2002.
"We don't see physically what happens to him because nobody is playing my dad on the basis that we feel it wouldn't be morally right and nobody is good enough to play that part anyway," explains Peter who is aware that his father changed the face of music in the 1950s at a time when Max Bygraves' I'm A Pink Toothbrush was a huge hit.
"We have the emotional part in the 1960s when the Beatles arrived and my dad's career went downhill and we have that aspect as well. We then have the resurgence thanks to people like Van Morrison."
Lonnie D was written in a short time mainly because 71-year-old Lonnie was already in the process of writing his biography. Peter explains:
"He was not only in the process of writing his biography but he used to perform an act on stage called 'This Year The Story' and he'd sit on stage and tell his life story, so we had the whole script which Leah and my mum used to create what we have now. So all the background was done.
"The original idea came during the last tour with my dad when we were at Jersey Opera House. Leah Bell was in summer season and after one of her shows we went out to dinner. She said 'there's a musical about Buddy Holly and Cliff Richard but there's not one about you' and he replied 'well why don't you write one?'. So taking him at his word, my mum and Leah got together and that's how it came about."
The two actually made their professional debut in March 2002 when Peter became the warm-up act for Lonnie at Sedgefield's Hardwick Hall Hotel.
"Eventually I became part of the group on the last tour doing the keyboards. I was absolutely over the moon because every member of the group had known me since I was born. My dad's act was the only one I didn't mind going to see over and over again. I've seen lots of other performers but no disrespect to them nobody had the charisma and connection with the audience that he had... and I'm buggered if I can find it."
Lonnie D plays Hartlepool Town Hall Theatre tomorrow, Box Office: (01429) 890000; York's Grand Opera House on March 19, (01904) 671818; Durham's Gala, June 26, 0191-332 4041; Scarborough Futurist, July 26, August 9, 16, 23 and 30 and Sept 6, (01723) 374500 and Billingham current revised date is September 11 (ring 01642 552663 to confirm the booking).
There is several articles about Lonnie in The Northern Echo's archive, well worth a visit. You can find them via this link:-
Many thanks to Chris Lloyd and Viv Hardwick of The Northern Echo for allowing me to include this article.