Lonnie Donegan, a musician whose “skiffle” sound inspired John Lennon and Pete Townshend to learn to play guitar, has died. Donegan died yesterday (Nov. 3) in Peterborough, central England, while on a tour of Britain, his publicist said. He was 71 and had suffered several heart attacks.
Donegan’s hits included “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (on the Bedpost Overnight),” “My Old Man’s a Dustman,” and “Rock Island Line,” but he may have been more important to British music for inspiring young talents to imitate and then eclipse his success.
Donegan was born Anthony Donegan in Glasgow in 1931. A fan of American country, folk, and blues music, he changed his name as a tribute to bluesman Lonnie Johnson. Skiffle music, which Donegan introduced to Britain in the 1950s, was a mixture of styles that traced its roots to 1920s America, blending jug band, acoustic, folk, blues, and country and western styles. Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly were among his biggest influences.
Skiffle was simple and cheap, apparently within the ability of anyone, regardless of musical talent. All that was needed was a guitar, a snare drum, jugs, a washboard or a standup bass made from a broom handle attached to an empty tea chest, and two chords.
“Rock Island Line” inspired two young Liverpudlians, John Lennon and George Harrison, to take up the guitar. A year later, Lennon’s skiffle group, the Quarrymen, was playing at a church fete near Liverpool when 15-year-old Paul McCartney introduced himself.
Pete Townshend, the Who’s windmilling guitar player, started out as leader of the Detours, a skiffle group also featuring Who vocalist Roger Daltrey. Elton John, Ringo Starr, and Queen’s Brian May also paid tribute by playing on Donegan’s 1978 album “Puttin’ on the Style.”
Donegan frequently appeared with Van Morrison, who started his career in a Belfast skiffle band called the Sputniks, and they teamed up for the 2000 Pointblank album “The Skiffle Sessions.”
Donegan was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire, one of Britain’s highest honors, in 2000. He is survived by his wife Sharon and seven children from three marriages.
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