From the Land of Band Box Records

Pre-British Invasion: 1956 – 1961 – Lonnie Donegan

May 16, 2011

Beginnings – Lonnie Donegan & Skiffle

Lonnie Donegan

Lonnie Donegan's Atlantic LP

What goes around comes around.  Skiffle music began in the U.S. without much public fanfare, assuming it’s place alongside many folk forms.  But across the Big Pond, a different path was blazed.  Lonnie Donegan probably wasn’t the first Skiffle merchant in the U.K.  His roots were in the early jazz combos including Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen as well as stints with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band and the Tony Donegan Jazz Band (yes – a brother) before forming the Lonnie Donegan Band.

Lonnie was one of the first U.K. acts to experience chart success in the U.S. with his first charting record “Rock Island Line” which charted rather high at number 10 in 1956.  But back at home in the U.K. Lonnie’s performances were electrifying young lads everywhere and thus Skiffle groups began – not just springing up everywhere – exploding in fact – with thousands of groups realizing that almost anyone could play a washboard or a tea chest.  Only a basic upright bass player was need and perhaps a rudimentary guitar player to round out a group.

Lonnie Donegan

Lonnie Donegan's first U.S. Hit

Lonnie would influence so many future Beat Groups (Beatles included with the Quarrymen) and this, coupled with Bill Haley and the Comets in the U.S., and a host of bluesmen and jazzmen, would evolve quickly to a rock and roll experience not witnessed since.  Lonnie Donegan would go on to chart in the U.S. two more times with “Lost John” (number 58 in 1956), and finally “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight” (number 7 in 1961).

Russ Hamilton

Russ Hamilton wasn’t Skiffle by any means but one of the earliest U.K. acts to experience success on the U.S. Billboard Charts with “Rainbow” – a 1957 release which also reached number 7″.  Next up was a very obscure Brit combo Lord Rockingham’s XI landed one time on Billboard with “Fried Onions” late in 1958 – peaking at number 96.

Russ Hamilton

Russ Hamilton's U.S. LP Debut containing "Rainbow"

Cliff Richard and the Drifters

These guys were the kingpins for a long time in the U.K. and they were to influence every future Beat Group – with the backing band evolving into the Shadows.  Most of the Drifters/Shadows emerged directly from Skiffle – coming from early groups The Vipers, The Railroaders and The Five Chestnuts.  Never a group to catch the attention of the U.S. youth, they more than made up for it in the U.K. and globally, with more than 30 Top 100 charting records and five number one hits.

Lord Rockingham's XI

Obscure 1958 U.S. Release


  1. There were some other UK artists who managed to break through to the US charts, the most successful being Laurie London, who was 13 when “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands” made it to #1 in the US. Matt Monro scored with “Softly As I Leave You,” “Walk Away” and the ring-a-ding-era Sinatra-like “My Kind of Girl.” Frankie Vaughan charted – barely, at #100 – with “Judy” in 1958, although it got a fair amount of airplay and was a bigger seller in New York. Also, Monty Babson had “I Wish It Were You” in 1960, another low charter. All of these, except for Laurie London, were consistent pop (not rock) hitmakers in England and Europe, but penetrating the US market was tough. Instrumentally, Chris Barber scored in the US with “Petite Fleur” in 1958. None of the above were predictive of what would happen stateside in 1964. Who would have thought it?!?

  2. Russ Hamilton’s ‘Rainbow ‘ was a hit over in the States in 1958. Strangely it was the other side of the record ‘We Will make love’ that was the hit over here in the UK.

    • Amazing that “Rainbow” didn’t even chart UK! – You mentioned you saw Haley and Comets in 1957 in UK – Billy Bragg writes about how once teenagers in the UK saw him live in his ’57 tour that they were a bit surprised that he was older adult and had a table steel player in the band (country hold over) as well as a member of the band who would occasionally pick up an accordion! Bragg says that after that ’57 appearance the Haley hit records fell off dramatically in the UK – Although he did continue to be popular in your country long after he faded in the U.S.

      I saw him in a Caravan of Stars in 1971 in California along with Joe Turner, The Shirelles, Dorsey Burnett, Chubby Checker, Ron Holden and many more

      • Haley was a strange vehicle for rock& roll to ride in on, but listen to his early rockabilly/country records and the dude definitely had that swing. I never saw him live, but a lot of the early Essex tracks make a solid argument for him being the grandaddy of rock & roll coming in from the caucasian side.

        I don’t know the flip side of Rainbow, bu I always thought that it was a nice “polite” record. He did have that tight little voice….

        That Caravan of Stars show sounds wonderful. I would have loved to have seen/heard Joe Turner and Dorsey Burnett in particular, and I’m sure the “many more” included some pretty cool one-offs.

      • Dorsey came out on stage telling the audience that he was performing in a small nightclub in Fresno and was asked to join the Caravan for one performance – He apologized to the audience saying he didn’t think they would probably know who he was up there with all those great musicians – He got a thunderous ovation in response – and then he humbly broke into “A Tall Oak Tree” following it with “Hey Little One” – then he quietly acknowledged the applause and was gone.

        Big Joe Turner was not in good health – and it was a little concerning when he was escorted onto the stage by a couple of assistants – cane in hand for support – then seated onto a folding chair front and center. Then the backing band broke into the first bars of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” – Big Joe began pounding his cane on the stage floor in rhythm accompaniment – and then belted out the song (uncensored version) and with eyes closed you would never have known that it wasn’t 1954. And it deference to Big Joe – when Haley and the Comets took the stage – they did not attempt to provide their version – Although Haley’s was the bigger hit on the charts – Rolling Stone mag ranks the Turner version as the #127th greatest song of all time! I can’t argue. (Stone also composed “Money Honey” for the Drifters)

        Turner passed away in 1985. Dorsey would pass away just 8 years later in 1979 at the young age of 46.

  3. Relating musically but not thematically to the above, I always loved the huge beat behind Big Joe Turner’s Shake Rattle and Roll. One of the few records that to my ears equals the size of that beat is Teenage Rock by Ronnie Jones and the Classmates, End 1001. It’s on YouTube, and is especially interesting in that all the instruments are acoustic. It’s got that deep George Goldner production like the early Teenagers, Cleftones, and others of that era on End, Gone and Roulette; it just starts rockin’ and won’t let go! Kind of like Big Joe….

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