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Lonnie Donegan died on 3rd November 2002, aged seventy-one, after a heart attack in Market Deeping, Lincolnshire, UK - mid-way through a UK tour and before he was due to perform at a memorial concert for George Harrison with the Rolling Stones.
Lonnie Donegan was born Anthony James Donegan on 29th April 1931 in Bridgeton, Glasgow, Scotland. He was the son of an Irish mother and a Scots father, a professional violinist who had played with the Scottish National Orchestra. In 1933, he moved with his family to East Ham in East London. Lonnie Donegan was evacuated to Cheshire to escape the Blitz in the Second World War and attended college in Altrincham.
Lonnie Donegan married three times. He had two daughters by his first wife, Maureen Tyler (divorced 1962), a son and a daughter by his second wife, Jill Westlake (divorced 1971), and three sons by his third wife, Sharon, whom he married in 1977.
As a child growing up in the early 1940's Lonnie Donegan listened mostly to swing jazz and vocal acts, and became interested in the guitar. Country & western and blues records, particularly by Frank Crumit and Josh White, attracted his interest and he bought his first guitar at age fourteen in 1945. He learned songs such as "Frankie and Johnny", "Puttin' On the Style", and "The House of the Rising Sun" by listening to BBC radio broadcasts and by the end of the 1940's he was playing guitar around London and visiting small jazz clubs.
Lonnie Donegan first played in a major band after Chris Barber heard that he was a good banjo player and, on a train, asked him to audition. Lonnie Donegan had never played the banjo but he bought one for the audition and succeeded more on personality than talent. His stint with Barber's trad jazz band was interrupted when he was called up for National Service in 1949, but while in the army at Southampton, he was the drummer in Ken Grinyer's Wolverines Jazz Band at a local pub. A posting to Vienna brought him into contact with American troops, and access to US records and the American Forces Network radio station.
In 1952 he formed the Tony Donegan Jazzband, which played around London. On 28 June 1952 at the Royal Festival Hall they opened for the blues musician Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie Donegan had adopted his first name as a tribute. He used the name at a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1952.
While in Ken Colyer's Jazzmen with Chris Barber, Lonnie Donegan sang and played guitar and banjo in their Dixieland set. He began playing with two other band members during the intervals, to provide what posters called a "skiffle" break, a name suggested by Ken Colyer's brother, Bill, after the Dan Burley Skiffle Group of the 1930s.
With a washboard, tea-chest bass and a cheap Spanish guitar, Lonnie Donegan played folk and blues songs by artists such as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. This proved popular and in July 1954 he recorded a fast version of Leadbelly's "Rock Island Line", featuring a washboard, with "John Henry" on the B-side. It was a hit in 1956 ,which also later inspired the creation of a full album, 'An Englishman Sings American Folk Songs', released in America on the Mercury label in the early 1960s), but, because it was a band recording, Lonnie Donegan made no money beyond his session fee. It was the first debut record to go gold in the UK, and it reached the Top Ten in the United States. This recording has proved greatly influential on musicians who heard it in their younger days and for whom it seems to have been a catalyst in their musical motivation and careers. His next single for Decca, "Diggin' My Potatoes", was recorded at a concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 30th October 1954. Decca dropped Donegan thereafter, but within a month he was at the Abbey Road Studios in London recording for EMI's Columbia label. He had left the Barber band, and by spring 1955, signed a recording contract with Pye. His next single "Lost John" reached Number 2 in the UK Singles Chart.
Lonnie appeared on television in the United States on the Perry Como Show and the Paul Winchell Show. Returning to the UK, he recorded his debut album, 'Lonnie Donegan Showcase', in summer 1956, with songs by Lead Belly and Leroy Carr, plus "I'm a Ramblin' Man" and "Wabash Cannonball".
Lonnie Donegan went on to successes such as "Cumberland Gap" and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour?", his biggest hit in the U.S. Lonnie turned to music hall style with "My Old Man's a Dustman" which reached number one in the UK.
Lonnie Donegan recorded sporadically during the 1960s, including sessions at Hickory Records in Nashville, Tennessee, with Charlie McCoy, Floyd Cramer and the Jordanaires. After 1964, he was as a record producer for most of the decade at Pye Records. Among those he worked with was Justin Hayward.
Lonnie Donegan was unfashionable through the late 1960s and 1970s (although his "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" was recorded by Tom Jones in 1967 and Elvis Presley), and he began to play the American cabaret circuit. A departure from his normal style was an a cappella recording of "The Party's Over".
Lonnie Donegan had his first heart attack in 1976 while in the United States and had quadruple bypass surgery. He returned to attention in 1978 when he recorded his early songs with Rory Gallagher, Ringo Starr, Elton John and Brian May. The album was called Putting on the Style. A follow-up featuring Albert Lee saw Donegan in less familiar country and western vein. By 1980, he was making regular concert appearances again, and another album with Barber followed. In 1983 Lonnie Donegan toured with Billie Jo Spears, and in 1984, he made his theatrical debut in a revival of the 1920 musical Mr Cinders. More concert tours followed, with a move from Florida to Spain. In 1992 he had further bypass surgery following another heart attack.
Lonnie Donegan had a late renaissance when in 2000 he appeared on Van Morrison's album The Skiffle Sessions – Live in Belfast 1998, an acclaimed album featuring him singing with Morrison and Chris Barber, with a guest appearance by Dr John. Lonnie Donegan also played at the Glastonbury Festival in 1999, and was made an MBE in 2000.
Lonnie Donegan also appeared at Fairport Convention's annual music festival in August 2001.
In 1976, Lonnie had moved to the American resort of Lake Tahoe, where he suffered a heart attack and underwent open-heart surgery. He also stopped performing. That might have been the end of his career, if those he had once inspired to play guitar had not come to his rescue.
So it was that, in 1978, Adam Faith persuaded a gang of rock world celebrities to get together with Lonnie Donegan and re-record his old hits. Ringo Starr, Elton John, Ronnie Wood, Rory Gallagher and Brian May were among the extraordinary cast who joined him for his comeback album, Puttin' On The Style, which was launched in grand style with a party in the south of France.
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song: 'The Battle of New Orleans' by Lonnie Donegan