6:10am Saturday 13th December 2008
By Thom Airs
HE WAS involved in a head-on car crash just an hour beforehand, but that did not stop the King of Skiffle from creating music history in Oxford 50 years ago.
Lonnie Donegan, the man behind such enduring tunes as My Old Man’s a Dustman, took to the stage of the New Theatre, in George Street, in December 1958, to record a song which would go on to be a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic.
Under the guidance of Pye Records, the then 27-year-old musician was instructed to record his latest single live — with the reactions of the Oxford crowd left in.
That song, Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour On The Bed Post Over Night?, ended up reaching number three in the UK charts the following February and number five in the United States two years later.
It also went on to feature on the Muppet Show, chocolate adverts and a cameo in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The concert was the first time a commercial recording had been made at the New Theatre, although little evidence of it remains.
The theatre, which does not have a full archive because of the number of times it has changed hands, is trying to track down important material from its history, such as old show programmes.
Former Oxford resident Steve Latham said he remembered the concert creating a buzz around the city.
He said: “I grew up around Summertown and I remember talking about among my friends.
“It was in the days before Oxford United and it was what made Oxford famous for people our age.”
But it nearly did not get recorded at all, as the car Mr Donegan was driving was involved in a crash with a police van on his way to the theatre on December 8, 1958.
An Oxford Mail report the day after the performance stated: “Skiffle star Lonnie Donegan and two members of his group were in a car in collision with a police van last night 20 minutes before the curtain went up on the show in which they appear at the New Theatre, Oxford.
“Donegan was unhurt, but his front-seat passenger, bassist Peter Huggett, played throughout their 40-minute act with 15 stitches in a gash in his forehead.
“Nick Nichol, the drummer, received a small cut in the accident, which happened on the London road about eight miles from Oxford.
“Teenage fans who formed the bigger part of the first-night audience were unaware anything was wrong. Many of them thought Donegan was joking when he explained why his bassist was wearing a huge plaster on his forehead.
“None of them could see that the left lens in Huggett’s spectacles was missing.”
After the show, Mr Donegan, who died in 2002, told the Oxford Mail: “We came over the brow of the hill and saw this pair of lights facing us.
“We couldn’t swerve because there was traffic coming down the other lane. I put my brakes on and skidded straight into what turned out to be a police van.”
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With kind permission of Thom Airs and The Oxford Mail.