This is a picture of just a few pieces from my Lonnie Donegan memorabilia collection.
IT WAS 1955 THAT FIVE FRIENDS AND i FORMED THE CONEY ISLAND SKIFFLE GROUP (I WAS 16 AT THE TIME). IT WAS AFTER lONNIE DONEGAN CAME ON THE SCENE AND GROUPS WERE FORMING ALL OVER THE COUNTRY. i THINK UNTIL THEN THE YOUNG WERE QUITE HAPPY TO LISTEN TO MUSIC, THE LIKES OF JOHNNY RAY, GUY MITCHEL AND FRANKIE LANE ETC. BUT NOW THE SAME PEOPLE WEREN’T SATISFIED WITH THAT, THEY WANTED TO CREATE THEIR OWN MUSIC.
IN THE CONEY ISLAND THERE WAS BRIAN CURTIS ON LEAD GUITAR, COLIN RIMMER, VOCAL AND GUITAR, NEIL SHORT WASHBOARD, MYSELF BANJO AND DERICK HAINES ON PIANO (ALTHOUGH DERICK WAS SHORTLY TO LEAVE AND ANOTHER FRIEND ROGER PLANCHE TOOK HIS PLACE.
WE STARTED PLAYING IN LOCAL CHURCH HALLS, THEN PROGRESSED TO PUBLIC HOUSES AND WHEN WE HAD LEARNT MORE THAN THREE CHORDS! WE WERE PLAYING ALL OVER MERSEYSIDE AND CHESTER.
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, and this could be plugged directly into a radio. We had to update our record collection so with my hard earned pocket money I bought my favourite record of the day “The Dam Busters March”, while Mum 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 bought 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. It was the first track recorded along with most of the “Showcase” album on 22nd August 1956 and in those days there were no overdubs, you went into the studio, recorded the performance and that was it. The performance on Frankie and Johnny is amazing except that at one point Lonnie forgets who is doing what to whom, because he says that Nellie shot Johnny when in fact it was Frankie.
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 or Jimmy Currie. (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. I recruited my brother Nigel, who was only eight at the time, to play washboard and Colin Hurst, a school friend, on tea chest bass. We called ourselves the Satellites which was a pretty cool name at the time as Russia had recently launched the first ever space satellite called “Sputnik 1. My father worked at De Havillands aircraft factory in Hatfield and secured our first booking playing for the children’s Christmas parties in the works canteen. We performed on three consecutive Saturdays playing the same three Lonnie Donegan songs, “My Dixie Darling”, “Gamblin’ Man”, and “Jack O’ Diamonds”, and paid three pounds between us. I was well impressed thinking that at the age of 13, I was already a professional musician.
The Severed Limb used to do so many nights at The Grosvenor, which is shut down now. The Queen’s Head, where this gig was, is for sale now. All these little pub parties that happened, there are hardly any spaces for them anymore. Given that all my teenage years were spent finding these venues, I really notice the lack of them now. There are still amazing places, but I guess the internet takes up so much more of your time than it used to, that you don’t fill the gap so much.
On 6 July 1957 my dad took this photo of us playing banjo and washboard, Sometime later that day the Quarrymen appeared at the St. Peter’s Church Fete and I was on stage with John Lennon and his skiffle group when Paul McCartney first saw us perform.
On Friday February 14th 1958 I saw Lonnie Donegan 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, “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 L175 guitar. I was transfixed and wanted one immediately. The show was over far too 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.
Vincent Vincent and the Villains record and a Larrikin Love gig ticket – these basically sum up being 16, just old enough to sneak into a pub. They were all really handsome and it was really exciting being a fan. I remember going to a Vincent Vincent & The Villains gig on a boat in Rotherhithe called the Wibbly Wobbly – it’s one of my favourite pubs now. It was the same with The Libertines, you could go find them all over London. Vincent Vincent were more skiffle, Libertines more rock n roll. With The Libertines, it was like a soap opera. You’d go into school the next day and say ‘Oh my god, did you see what Pete did yesterday?’
I would get so excited about music – you’d feel it in your tummy just how excited you were. It was all mixed up with teenage chemistry and endorphins. I had a whole group of friends outside of school who were gig buddies because i didn’t like school that much – it was all about making a community and finding your identity through trekking all over London to these gigs. It was so formative and I was so independent as well.