The History Of Skiffle
Looking back from the comfort zone of the hi-tech/centrally-heated/24-7/anything-goes 21st Century, it’s virtually impossible to convey just how big an impact Skiffle Music made on the austere cultural wasteland that was 1950s Britain. For starters, those rose-tinted spectacles which we tend to don when reviewing our childhood are a genuinely effective filter, serving to eradicate the grim realities of the past. But the harsh fact remains that back then, everything really was in black, grey & white – sepia & cream, at best – and the word “excitement” had been all but exorcised from the English language. ‘Popular Music’ boiled down to a straight choice between the dance bands, with their dreary, stiff-collared & starched singers (and the even stiffer arrangements of the music they purveyed), and The Billy Cotton Band Show. The only half-decent singers and/or bands we saw or heard were American (t’was ever thus!)… but then along came Lonnie Donegan, with his frenzied revival of Leadbelly’s ‘Rock Island Line’.
Predictably enough, ‘The Establishment’ recoiled in horror.
The UK music industry was appalled to its very core – “Skiffle Is Piffle” squeaked one Melody Maker headline – whilst the nation’s terrified parents/guardians/MPs/probation officers/clergymen/schoolteachers/scoutmasters/etc clasped their collective foreheads in dismay, convinced that the world was about to be overrun by knife-wielding Teddy Boys.
The irony was, of course, that Skiffle had been around for a couple of years and already enjoyed a strong grass-roots following – ‘Rock Island Line’s sudden success had merely taken it to a wider audience. Mind you, that wider audience loved it! And whilst he may have been Public Enemy No.1, reviled by music critics and fellow musicians, and derided by parents, Donegan was idolised by just about every teenager in the UK. No British singer had ever sounded like Lon before – and certainly, no other English Pop record had sounded remotely like ‘Rock Island Line’. Delivered with an absolute authority, it had drive, vitality and a powerful rhythmic intensity – and yet it was catchy, and possessed of an earthy simplicity. In fact, it sounded like an American record – and believe me, there was no greater accolade!
UK teenagers embraced Skiffle with almost indecent enthusiasm – so much so that within just weeks, virtually every club, hall and coffee bar in the country was presenting Skiffle groups. The genre’s initial appeal – quite apart from the fact that it was musically uncomplicated, and therefore relatively simple to perform – was that it required very little financial investment. Bottom-of-the-range acoustic guitars were fairly inexpensive; a stand-up tea chest bass cost nothing and was simple to assemble; every scullery in the UK possessed a spare washboard; and you could buy a kazoo in Woollies for a couple of shillings.
And it certainly paid off. Radio Luxembourg was quick to exploit its teen appeal, for once, even the BBC got the message, and the UK’s traditionally staid, stodgy record companies were unusually sharp to jump on the bandwagon. Virtually every half-decent Skiffle group in the UK got to cut at least one record, and the bigger hitters were soon churning out a seemingly endless stream of singles and EPs. However, despite its initial impact – during which it (briefly) gave the newly-emergent Rock’n’Roll ‘craze’ a run for its money – in terms of solid commercial success Skiffle would ultimately prove to have a shelf-life of around two years. By the Spring of 1958 only Lonnie Donegan was selling records in measurable quantities, although in terms of repertoire, he was already evolving his style and (successfully) gearing his career towards the mainstream.
An almost exclusively British phenomenon, Skiffle had its roots in three distinct strands of Americana – Delta Blues, Folk and New Orleans Jazz. It grew out of the UK’s rather turgid, po-faced Jazz scene (itself rooted in New Orleans Jazz), the three major pioneers being Ken Colyer, Chris Barber and (of course) Lonnie Donegan – although Colyer (and to a lesser extent his brother, Bill) was very much its founding father, having instigated what he initially called either ‘Spasm’ or ‘Breakdown’ sets with The Crane River Jazz Band, way back in 1949.
The UK Jazz scene was at that time a predominantly amateur/part-time affair, propelled by earnest and (doubtless) well-intentioned young men, most of whom had dayjobs. Their collective ‘Holy Grail’ was New Orleans Jazz, which they attempted – very seriously indeed – to play in as close an approximation as possible to the 78s they’d heard. However, the very fact that (by and large) most of these records lacked much of the passion and excitement of live New Orleans Jazz, rendered the entire process flat. The resultant scene was lifeless, self-regarding and riddled with musical snobbery, and this whole sorry charade was presided over by Melody Maker, the weekly music newspaper which had been the self-appointed guardian of what constituted ‘acceptable’ Jazz in the UK, since 1926. Elsewhere, the Musicians’ Union ruled with a rod of iron, steadfastly enforcing what they perceived to be their principal role in the scheme of things – i.e. preventing American musicians from coming to the UK, performing live, and showing us how it was really done.
Kenneth Colyer (18th April 1928 – 8th March 1988) was born in Great Yarmouth, but grew up in London’s Soho. A consummate, if uncompromising, musician – known to one and all as ‘The Guv’nor’ (as the blue plaque on the wall of The 100 Club, in London’s Oxford Street, attests) – Colyer was acknowledged as the UK’s finest-ever exponent of New Orleans-style Jazz. He first became interested in music during WWII via his older brother Bill’s collection of Jazz 78s, which in turn inspired him to learn how to play both the trumpet and cornet, following which he also taught himself guitar and banjo. He did his National Service in the Merchant Navy, which took him around the world, including New York, where he was able to purchase 78s unavailable in England – and more importantly, to experience live Jazz for the first time, the passion, power, swing and tonal quality of which shook him to his very core (leading to his famous comment that “…the gramophone record is badly misleading when it comes to this music!”). Upon his return to the UK, Ken and brother Bill formed the famed Crane River Jazz Band, with the intention of trying to create an ‘English version’ of the New Orleans music played by Ken’s ultimate idol, Bunk Johnson. However, in spite of these lofty (if worthy) ambitions, this band – playing in an old scouts hut in Cranford, West London (on the outer edge of what is now Heathrow Airport) – were actually destined to sow the seeds for the UK Skiffle boom.
The Cranes made steady progress and as their repertoire expanded, they began playing two sets, essentially in order to allow both the band and its audience to visit the White Hart pub, next door, for a much-needed livener (or two). After a couple of weeks, various members of the band began jamming during the ‘drinks interval’, playing an informal, less earnest, considerably more engaging type of music, which did away with the dreaded brass section, and rocked rather than swung. These loose jams gradually evolved into regular performances, fronted by Ken on guitar and vocals, and they would soon become increasingly popular.
Up until now, younger audiences – who basically just wanted music they could dance to – had been largely alienated by the Jazz scene, despite the fact that at that time there were few other real alternatives open to them (i.e. aside from the aforementioned, BBC-approved dance bands, whose pre-war, Variety-steeped musical fare held as much appeal to the first post-war generation of teenagers as George Formby). Frankly, there was nothing appealing about a room full of blokes huffing and puffing enthusiastically into an assortment of brass instruments, all playing at the same time, competing with one another to see who could parp the loudest. Of those present, only the actual musicians would be enjoying themselves, and as the bandmembers – even on a bad night – were outnumbered by their paying ‘guests’ by at least 7 or 8 to 1, this invariably meant that the audiences were thoroughly demoralised rather than uplifted by the experience (and you certainly couldn’t dance to it!)
However, by the early 50s, other bands were following the example set by Colyer and the Crane River boys and were also playing knockabout jam sessions. These ‘Breakdown’ sets, as they were known (the word Skiffle wouldn’t be adopted for a couple more years), became extremely popular – particularly among teenagers, who found the music ideal to dance to. And eventually, they began to attract their own dedicated audiences, who weren’t remotely interested in the ersatz ‘Jazz’ being peddled by the full band’s brass section.
Presenting a hybrid of Country Blues and Folk, Breakdown sets usually featured the various bands’ rhythm section – i.e. guitars/banjos/stand-up bass, with a washboard replacing the drums – in an early ‘Unplugged’ scenario. The repertoire was largely drawn from the songbooks of Bluesmen like Leadbelly, Leroy Carr, Big Bill Broonzy and Lonnie Johnson, or traditional Folk songs from either Woody Guthrie or the Public Domain. However, at this stage it wasn’t taken very seriously by many of the participating musicians, until it gradually began to dawn on some of them that their jam sessions were proving to be a lot more popular than their Jazz sets.
Meanwhile, desperate to experience ‘proper’ Jazz first-hand once more, in 1952 Colyer travelled to the United States and made his way to New Orleans, where he willfully ignored everyone’s advice – notably that of the local authorities – and began sitting in with various local black musicians. This led to his visa being revoked and, as he was deemed to be ‘working’ illegally, he was eventually jailed; following his subsequent deportation to the UK in early 1953, he linked up with Barber and Donegan to form Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen.
The supremely talented Donald Christopher ‘Chris’ Barber (born 17th April 1930, in Welwyn Garden City, Herts) was proficient on virtually any musical instrument you handed him, although he would earn his greatest fame as a trombonist. Something of a ‘posh kid’, he attended Hanley Grammar School in Malvern, following which he went to London to the Guildhall School Of Music. Having spent his early teens amassing a huge collection of Jazz and Blues 78s, he put them to good use in the mid/late 40s as the musical accompaniment to his endeavours whilst he steadfastly taught himself to play the trombone, double-bass, drums, harmonica, guitar and banjo (he’d already mastered the violin, at school!). After spending eighteen months or so sitting in with various other bands – during the course of which he first encountered Donegan (it was Chris who taught Lon how to play banjo) – he formed his own band in 1949. Among an ever-evolving personnel, guitarist Alexis Korner (whom we’ll get back to later) was an early member, but it wasn’t until Barber decided to turn professional, in 1952, that he was able to maintain a settled line-up. That line-up would ultimately comprise himself (trombone), Monty Sunshine (clarinet), Jim Bray (double-bass), Donegan (banjo) and Ron Bowden (drums) – and in 1953 they would, of course, be joined by Ken Colyer (trumpet), under whose name they began to carve out a reputation.
Glasgow-born Anthony James ‘Lonnie’ Donegan (29th April 1931 – 3rd November 2002) grew up in East London and became a musician much against his father’s (himself a failed professional orchestra violinist) wishes. By his mid teens he was playing guitar and had begun ‘curating’ a vast repertoire of Folk, Blues and Hillbilly songs/records – and within a couple more years he’d learned to play the banjo and was even drumming, occasionally, with The Wolverines Jazz Band. Called up in 1949, he did his National Service in Vienna where he found himself stationed alongside American GIs, from whom he learned the pleasures of American Forces Network radio and further increased his working knowledge of American Roots music. After returning to the UK in 1951 Donegan began borrowing (and in a couple of instances, stealing!) rare records from the American Embassy library, in London, and it’s probably fair to say that by the early 50s, he was one of the most knowledgeable Folk & Blues collectors in the UK.
Around this time he joined trumpeter Bill Brunskill’s Jazz Band, which very shortly became The Tony Donegan Jazz Band. By 1952 he’d begun calling himself ‘Lonnie’, after his idol, Lonnie Johnson (NB: that oft-repeated story about a compere’s onstage mix-up with Lonnie Johnson is a myth), and his band’s Breakdown sets were already dominating their repertoire. During this period he concentrated on honing his unusual vocal ‘skills’ (his nasally, neo-hillbilly style was wholly unlike any other UK singer at that time) and his reputation steadily began to grow. That summer, the National Jazz Federation brought Lonnie Johnson and Ralph Sutton over to the UK to play a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, in defiance of the ongoing Musicians Union ban on foreign performers. At that time, Donegan wasn’t a member of the MU (a notorious tightwad, he’d refused to pay their subs!) and so he appeared as one of the supporting acts.
Not long after this Lonnie was approached by Chris Barber – who’d instinctively understood that Donegan was driven by precisely the same levels of burning ambition as himself – to join him in assembling the band which became Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen.
It was at this juncture that Skiffle began to pick up serious momentum. Within weeks, Donegan and Barber’s Breakdown sessions had become the centerpiece of the band’s sets, prompting Colyer to join them, bringing their ‘band-within-a-band’ up to a quartet, viz: Ken and Lonnie on guitars & vocals; Chris on double-bass; and Bill Colyer (who was actually the band’s manager) on washboard. A couple of their concerts in Denmark were recorded and a number of tracks were issued there on the local Storyville label, as 78 rpm singles (an early version ‘Down By The Riverside’ is reputed to have sold over 200,000 copies in Denmark, West Germany and Holland), while a few months later, when they were established in the UK, they recorded the highly-regarded 10” LP New Orleans To London, for Decca.
By now their billing had been amended to Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen & Skiffle Group, at Bill Colyer’s suggestion – this being the first public appearance of the “S” word – both as a nod to their younger audience and affirmation that Skiffle was now, indeed, an integral feature of their repertoire. However, although they were very much on a commercial and musical roll, there were serious personality clashes within the band, which ultimately led to Ken quitting (NB: although they had born Colyer’s name, it was in essence Barber’s band; putting Ken’s name “on the door” had been simply a marketing ploy to capitalise on his notoriety, after he’d been deported from the US). They subsequently replaced Colyer (with Pat Halcox) and continued en masse as Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, whilst Ken duly went off and formed a new band.
In July 1954 the Barber band famously recorded the 10” LP New Orleans Joys, for Decca, which included a couple of Lonnie’s Skiffle numbers, notably ‘Rock Island Line’. Not only was the LP a critical success it also began selling steadily, soon reaching somewhere in the region of 100,000 copies, a remarkable achievement for a debut LP by a British Jazz band. Moreover, it was ‘Rock Island Line’ which generated much of the attention and radio play, the BBC’s Light programme being swamped with requests for it. Eventually, the record company wised up and in November 1955, belatedly released it as a single, credited to The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group (which, strictly speaking, didn’t actually exist [yet] – a more accurate billing would have been ‘The Chris Barber Skiffle Group Featuring Lonnie Donegan’!).
To just about everyone’s astonishment, the disc immediately started selling in impressive quantities and the week after Christmas, it leaped into the UK charts, debuting at No.8; it would ultimately reside in the Top 20 for five months and although it climbed no higher than No.6, it sold an estimated half a million copies. Even more surprisingly it more or less repeated the process in the United States, where it reached No.8, pushing sales over the magic million and earning Donegan his first gold disc (worldwide sales would eventually reach some three million). This led to Lonnie going over to the US – where, inexplicably, he was billed as “The Irish Hillbilly” – to appear on a number of prestigious networked TV shows (notably Perry Como’s NBC-TV show, alongside Ronald Reagan, who was doing comedy sketches). He also toured the US, one of the few white faces on a bill which featured Chuck Berry, Clyde McPhatter, LaVern Baker, The Cleftones and Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, whilst on a handful of other dates he was backed by the Johnny Burnette Rock’n’Roll Trio.
Meanwhile, he’d signed with the Pye-Nixa label for whom he recorded his first ‘proper’ solo single, ‘Lost John’ – which became an even bigger UK chart hit, spending 5-weeks at No.2 – whilst Decca de-archived another old, previously unreleased live track, recorded in October ’54 at the Royal Festival Hall; but unfortunately, Lonnie’s frantic version of Washboard Sam’s rather naughty ‘Diggin’ My Potatoes’ became the subject of a BBC airtime ban, due to its lascivious lyrics. By now Lonnie had left Barber and formed his own group, which comprised Denny Wright (lead guitar), himself (rhythm guitar), Mickey Ashman (bass) and Nick Nichols (drums). By the Summer of ’56 Lonnie was firmly established as flavour-of-the-month, and long before the end of the year he was reigning unchallenged as ‘The King Of Skiffle’, a mantle he would be both blessed and plagued by throughout his life. He consolidated with further hit singles and by Christmas he was sufficiently popular that even his EPs and debut LP, Showcase (which included ‘Wabash Cannonball’), made the singles charts, being the first British performer to place an album in the UK Top 30. The following year he would register his first No.1 records, by which time he’d begun to expand his fanbase, building for the future.
After splitting with Barber and Donegan, Ken Colyer had formed another band, whose initial personnel included Johnny Parker (piano), Alexis Korner (mandolin/guitar) and Cyril Davies (banjo/guitar/harmonica). But in truth, Colyer loved Jazz considerably more than Skiffle and this was very much reflected in both his subsequent career and recordings. Nonetheless, between 1954-57 he cut a handful of fine Skiffle singles for Decca, including ‘Midnight Special’, ‘Down By The Riverside’ and ‘Sportin’ Life’, although sadly, commercial success eluded him.
Ironically, Chris Barber had very little to do with Skiffle after Lonnie left the band, despite the fact that he’d had as much to do with the genre’s crossover commercial success (and was as excited by it) as anyone – indeed, he’d played double bass on ‘Rock Island Line’. However, like Colyer, Barber was destined for far greater fame as a Jazz musician and still performs occasionally today, although now in his eighties. But in 1956, not long after Donegan’s defection, he cut the splendid Chris Barber Skiffle Group EP, which featured a pair of vocals each from Dickie Bishop (one of which was ‘Can’t You Line ’Em?’) and Lonnie’s replacement in the band, Johnny Duncan (c.f. ‘Doin’ My Time’). Both singers would also later leave Barber to pursue solo careers, with varying degrees of success (which we’ll get to shortly).
Another ‘old school’ Skiffler was Beryl Bryden – she’d played washboard on ‘Rock Island Line’ – whose (studio) band also included Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies. Her revival of ‘Casey Jones’ was briefly popular, although its projected follow-up, ‘Rock Me’/‘This Train’, was withdrawn. Korner and Davies, of course, eventually formed their own band, initially billing themselves as Alexis Korner’s Breakdown Group featuring Cyril Davies. Considerably Bluesier than their contemporaries, their 10” LP Blues From The Roundhouse – which included ‘Skip To My Lou’ and ‘Roundhouse Stomp’ – remains one of the genre’s rarest recordings, whilst ‘Kid Man’ appeared on their first EP (also, confusingly, titled Blues From The Roundhouse), by which stage they were trading as Alexis Korner’s Skiffle Group featuring Cyril Davies.
A number of old-stagers from the Jazz scene cut Skiffle records around this time, with varying degrees of critical (but sadly, very little commercial) success. Pianist Johnny Parker – who famously played on Humphrey Lyttleton’s ‘Bad Penny Blues’ – cut a one-off EP for Pye-Nixa, Barrelhouse, billed as ‘Johnny Parker’s Washboard Band’, which included ‘Up There’ and ‘Canine Stomp’. Further mention of washboards brings us to trumpeter Bob Wallis, who occasionally sang, a role he performed for the Danish Storyville label on a couple of European releases credited to Bob Wallis’s Washboard Beaters, ‘Crawdad Hole’ and ‘It’s Tight Like That’. Another jack-of-all-trades was trombonist/singer Don Lang, who came out of the Jazz/dancebands scene and tried to hitch a ride on just about every bandwagon in Popular Music during the 50s and 60s. As The Don Lang Skiffle Group (presumably, the same musicians as his rather more celebrated ‘Frantic Five’) he cut a cash-in 10” LP for HMV, Skiffle Special, which included the rather derivative – but nonetheless highly enjoyable – ‘Whiskey’ and ‘By And By’.
But we’re in danger of getting a little ahead of ourselves here.
In terms of solid, commercial success, Skiffle’s Big Year was 1957. First to follow Donegan into the Hit Parade were The Vipers, who – after Lonnie, of course – probably left the genre’s strongest recorded legacy. Their personnel turned over continually during their relatively short life, but the mainstay of the group was the man who founded them, singer/guitarist Wally Whyton (23rd September 1929 – 22nd January 1997). After cutting his musical teeth in coffee bars like The Breadbasket and The Gyre & Gimble, Wally formed The Vipers in 1956, and they were immediately installed as the resident band at the legendary 2Is Coffee Bar. Their first settled line-up also included Johnny Booker (gtr/voc), Jean Van Den Bosch (gtr/voc), Tony Tolhurst (bass/voc) and John Pilgrim (washboard), whilst later members would include future Shadows Hank Marvin, Jet Harris and Tony Meehan. However, it was the original line-up who played on their hits.
They were discovered and signed to the Parlophone label by George Martin, who subsequently produced their records, and in early ’57 they made the Top 10 with ‘Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O’ and ‘Cumberland Gap’ – although ironically in both cases they lost out to Donegan, who covered each release, taking the latter to No.1 (Lonnie would top the charts again in ’57, with ‘Puttin’ On The Style’). They also charted with ‘Streamline Train’ and came close with a slew of other fine releases, whilst their live favourite ‘It Takes A Worried Man’ (another song perhaps more readily associated with Donegan) appeared on their EP Skiffle Music.
Next to make the UK charts were The Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group, whose million-selling ‘Freight Train’ remains one of Skiffle’s quintessential recordings. Glasgow-born Charles James McDevitt (born 4th December, 1934) was brought up in Surrey and as a teenager taught himself to play the banjo, at which point he began corresponding with American Blues artists Josh White and Lizzie Miles. By the early 50s he’d also learned to play the guitar and was playing in Jazz bands, in London’s clubs and coffee bars, although he invariably restricted his involvement to their Breakdown sets. He formed his own band in 1956, initially as The St Louis Trio, and in November ’56 they entered a talent competition on Radio Luxembourg, which they won four weeks running. This led to a recording contract with Oriole Records and in January ’57, at their manager’s suggestion, they added Scottish Folk singer Nancy Whiskey to their line-up. This brought their full personnel to Chas (gtrv/voc), Nancy (gtr/voc), Alex Whitehouse (gtr/voc), Dennis Carter (gtr/voc), John Paul (bass) and Marc Sharratt (washboard).
They were already performing ‘Freight Train’, a song Chas had first heard Peggy Seeger singing in Holborn’s famed Princess Louise pub, which had been in their set for months. However, he was taking it at a light, near-mournful tempo – which is how he’d learned it from Seeger – whereupon Nancy sped the number up, rendering it infinitely more commercial, and delivered a quirky, utterly irresistible vocal on the final recording. The disc took a while to register, but it burst into the chart in April, eventually reaching No.5 and going on to cross the Atlantic, where it made the US Top 40. This led to a US tour, during which they played the Ed Sullivan Show and pushed global sales of the disc over a million copies. They cut a number of great follow-ups, notably ‘Johnny-O’ (which featured in 1958’s Rock’n’Roll flick The Golden Disc) and ‘New Orleans’ (a song rather better known as ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’), whilst the driving ‘Badman Stackolee’ had appeared on the flip of ‘Johnny-O’.
Meanwhile, Donegan’s replacement in the Chris Barber Band, Johnny Duncan (7th September 1932 – 15th July 2000), had also embarked on a solo career. Raised in a coal mining community in Windrock, just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, Duncan had grown up listening to local Bluegrass, Country and Gospel radio. He’d been singing and playing guitar since childhood, had performed in public since his early teens, and had a massive repertoire of Bluegrass and Hillbilly songs. His stint in the US Army took him to the UK, to Cambridgeshire, where he married a local lass, and he was perhaps the perfect example of someone finding himself in the right place at exactly the right time. By all accounts he simply turned up at the 100 Club one night and asked Barber if he could sit in with the band; twenty-four hours later he was onstage with them at the Royal Festival Hall.
Duncan stayed with Barber for six or seven months, appearing on several of their releases (notably the aforementioned Chris Barber Skiffle Group EP) until indie producer Denis Preston persuaded him to go solo. A crack session band was assembled around him, called The Bluegrass Boys, comprising Bryan Daly (gtr), Jack Fallon (double bass), Danny Levan (fiddle) and Lenny Hastings (drums), and his second release, ‘Last Train To San Fernando’ – a song which, astonishingly, started life as a calypso! – became a massive success, spending several weeks at No.2 (stuck behind Paul Anka’s ‘Diana’), selling in the region of 350,000 copies. Briefly, Johnny Duncan-mania broke out in the UK and for a few months he enjoyed Pop Star levels of popularity – he even had his own BBC radio show, Tennessee Song Bag, on the Light programme. But although the portents for a big career looked to be in place, he was never quite able to register a significant follow-up; and after denting the lower reaches of the charts with ‘Blue, Blue Heartache’ and ‘Footprints In The Snow’, the hits simply dried up.
When Duncan joined the Barber band in the Spring of ’56, Dickie Bishop (born 16th April 1935 in West Ealing) was already ‘in residence’ as their second singer/guitarist, having been recruited some six months or so earlier, whilst Donegan was still a bandmember. A genuinely superb singer and guitarist in his own right (he played banjo on Chris Barber’s million-selling ‘Petite Fleur’, something which is frequently overlooked), Bishop was unfortunately destined to be Skiffle’s ‘nearly man’ as he always seemed to find himself in either Donegan’s, Duncan’s or The Vipers’ shadow. Towards the end of ’56 he became an occasional member of Lonnie’s band, juggling his time (with some difficulty, one imagines) between Donegan and Chris Barber. His recording opportunities with Lonnie were limited, although he featured on the celebrated Live At The Conway Hall concert, at which he sang ‘Precious Memories’.
In March ’57 he was offered a solo deal by Decca, but in truth he’d already left it too late. He assembled a fine backing group, The Sidekicks (who included guitarist Bob Watson) but – at Decca’s insistence – his first release was a cover of ‘Cumberland Gap’, in direct competition with both Lonnie and The Vipers, which didn’t stand a chance. On it’s flip was the self-penned ‘No Other Baby’, a far stronger song which appeared as the A-side in the United States, where it was covered by Bobby Helms. The following year Helms’ version was released in the UK, where it made the Top 30, attracting cover versions from The Vipers and…Dickie Bishop! But Dickie’s second recording of the song proved no more successful than the original – although in an unlikely twist, Paul McCartney revived the song in 1999 on his album of R’n’R covers, Run Devil Run, from which it was subsequently spun off as a single, putting in a brief appearance in the UK Top 50.
Les Hobeaux had been widely tipped for success, largely due to their charismatic main man Les Bennetts, an excellent singer and an even better guitarist (he would later join Donegan’s group). Bennetts, in fact, provides the only audible use of the dreaded “Eff” word on this 2-CD set – check out ‘Mama Don’ Allow’ (a track which – surprisingly, perhaps – became something of a floor-filler during the 70s R’n’R/Rockabilly revival).
There were, of course, a significant number of other Skiffle groups who enjoyed considerable grass roots popularity, particularly as live performers, but were unlucky in terms of hit records. The most well-known were probably The Avon Cities Skiffle Group, with Ray Bush, who hailed from the West Country and were the only Skiffle group of whom Ken Colyer was ever complimentary! Of a similar status were The City Ramblers, led by Russell Quaye, whose personnel included two fine-looking ladies, Hylda Sims and Shirley Bland, and who worked extensively with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, at that time based in the UK. Both bands were bill-toppers in their own right, made some great records, and were desperately unlucky not to register any chart action.
Just below them, in terms of popularity and reputation, came groups like Glasgow’s Delta Skiffle Group, Hackney Wick’s Lea Valley Skiffle Group, fellow-Londoners The Eden Street Skiffle Group (who were regulars on both TV’s Six-Five Special and radio’s Saturday Skiffle Club), the 2.19 Skiffle Group, from Kent, the Wescott Skiffle Group and the Brian Newey Skiffle Group (both of whom were also regulars on Saturday Skiffle Club but never recorded for ‘regular’ labels), and the excellent Station Skiffle Group, from West Kensington, who evolved into Jimmy Miller & The Barbecues and recorded ‘Sizzlin’ Hot’ for mad indie producer/engineer Joe Meek (his first independent production).
Skiffle bandwagon-jumpers included artists like Lorrae Desmond & Her Rebels, the Bob Cort Skiffle Group and Jimmy Jackson’s Rock’n’Skiffle. Desmond made a handful of genuinely enjoyable uptempo records – e.g. ‘You Won’t Be Around’ and ‘Preacher, Preacher’ – but although they were marketed as such, it’s debatable as to whether or not they really were Skiffle! Bob Cort was a highly-rated performer, and his original version of the theme tune to BBC-TV’s ‘Six-Five Special’ was expected to become a hit, but he had such a well-paid dayjob (he worked in an advertising agency) that he refused to turn professional! Whilst EMI Records were clearly unsure in which direction to push young Glaswegian Jimmy Jackson, hence his unholy ‘Rock’n’Skiffle’ billing.
Latecomers to the scene were The Worried Men, whose lead singer was seventeen year-old Terry Nelhams, a year or so before he morphed into Adam Faith (his dulcet tones can clearly be heard on ‘This Little Light Of Mine’), Johnny Christmas & The Sunspots and the Original Barnstormers Spasm Band, all of whom cut their first records during 1958, long after the horse had bolted and the barn door had been slammed!
Big Thanks to Pete Frame and Chas McDevitt.
Acknowledgments also to Paul Pelletier, John Beecher, Sandy Macdiarmid, Stu Colman, Tony Wilkinson, Roger Trobridge, Kevin Howlett, Steve Fay and Lucky Parker.
Essential further reading:-
The Restless Generation by Pete Frame (Rogan House Publishing, 2007)
Skiffle: The Definitive Inside Story by Chas McDevitt (Robson Books, 1997)