Lonnie Donegan on Merseyside in 2001by Spencer Leigh
This is adapted from a feature I wrote for Now Dig This in May 2001 and was subsequently used in my book, Puttin’ On The Style – The Lonnie Donegan Story. (Details are in the Books section of this website.) I like to think that it is a fairly accurate picture of Lonnie on the road. What a character, what a loss.
Lonnie Donegan has such a long schedule of concert and club dates for 2001 that you could see it as a death wish. Why else would he put himself under such strain? Well, firstly, he regards himself as The Man Who Should Be King. Several critics have dismissed him as a novelty singer and there is an element of wanting to ensure his place in rock history. Another factor is to give his touring band regular work as otherwise he could lose them to other performers.
However, the prime consideration is easyJet. Lonnie is careful with his money (not tight – he bought me dinner) and discovering easyJet means he can commute back and forth to his home in Spain quickly and economically. In the Liverpool area alone, his dates include the Old Swan Conservative Club (March 2), Pontin’s Holiday Village, Ainsdale (March 24), the Cavern (May 24), the Mathew Street Festival (August 27) and Parr Hall, Warrington (November 2). Lonnie is everywhere – look at the festivals supplement in ‘Folk Roots’ and marvel at the hardest working pensioner in show business. (Three of those Merseyside dates were played – his fee could not be met for the free Mathew Street Festival and the Warrington gig was cancelled due to ill health.)
Lonnie Donegan plays superbly and he has shaken off the cabaret blandishments he had when playing for chicken-in-a-basket crowds. The music comes first and even in a small club, Donegan attacks the songs like a rock superstar. Most of all, he is singing better than ever, and knows it: “You could say that I’ve been practising a long time so I bloody well should be better – just like Tom Jones. My voice has gone deeper at the bottom end, it has broadened, it has dropped a bit at the top and I have learnt to breathe properly.
The only lesson I’ve had is from Anne Shelton who saw me at the Prince of Wales in 1956 and said, ‘Lonnie, that was wonderful, but you’ve got to learn to breathe.’ I thought, ‘What is she talking about? I’m breathing.’ I realised I should hold my breath so that I can hold notes. I can now hold notes longer than almost anybody on the stage.”
Fortunately, Lonnie has not priced himself out of the market. He will play small clubs if they can meet his fee. Hence, his appearance at the Old Swan Conservative Club, affectionately billed as ‘Lonnie At The Connie’. The Old Swan Conservative Club sounds like an oxymoron as I didn’t know there were any Conservatives in Old Swan. The club is a favourite with taxi drivers and is bigger than I thought. The capacity is still only 325 and the club’s manager, Frank Furlong, has to charge £14 a ticket. Part of the bar profit would have to go towards Lonnie’s fee and the likelihood of even a small profit was slim. “I don’t mind,” says Frank, “Lonnie has been my idol for years and I’m so proud to be presenting this.”
Being an ardent Europhile, I’m not keen on entering a club covered in ‘Keep the pound’ billboards, but that’s the Tories for you. The notice board announces future bookings – anyone with a record contract would look like a star in this plethora of tribute acts. As friendly as the surroundings are, I wondered if Lonnie had accepted something beneath his dignity: “No. What matters is the money. If someone phones up and says that he will pay the fee, I will be there.” So if I come up with the money, you’ll play in my front room? “Certainly. I play 60th birthday parties, no problem.”
Towards the end of the afternoon, I arrive for an interview with Lonnie at the Connie. Lonnie and his band are already there, and what other 69 year old looks like this? He is wearing a black and red check shirt with a brown track suit bottom held up by braces. With his substantial belly, he resembles a circus clown. Facially though, he doesn’t look 69 and indeed looks younger than his sometime partner, Van Morrison, 14 years his junior. The sound-check is marvellous, a show in itself, with ten of us applauding the numbers. It begins with an acoustic ‘Grand Coulee Dam’, which becomes more intense as the song goes on. I want to say, “Lonnie, this is only a sound-check, there’s no need to exert yourself” but nobody could ever tell Lonnie that. He attacks the lyric with such gusto and I wonder if anyone hearing the song for the first time would have a clue as to what it’s about.
The band join him for ‘Linin’ Track’ and a slow, creeping ‘Cajun Stripper’ is next with the emphasis on the sibilant “s”. Carl Jones, a Lonnie Donegan collector from Mold, is entranced, “Lonnie stayed with me last night and I showed him a video of the Wembley Country Festival in 1979. That was the time of the ‘Sundown’ LP and so that must have put ‘Cajun Stripper’ in his mind. I haven’t seen him do this for ten years.” Lonnie has fun with ‘It Takes A Worried Man’ and he sings ‘I Wanna Go Home’ with all the poignancy of a concert performance.
It is my first Lonnie Donegan show of the day, and I was reminded of a soundcheck in Southport ten years earlier. Lonnie was on stage with Chris Barber’s Jazz and Blues Band, and Chris said to me, “Once Lonnie gets on that stage, he’ll never get off and we won’t get round to the other numbers.”
Before Lonnie went on stage, he asked Carl Jones to show me his new publicity material. Lonnie had done this on his computer and it looks impressive. “But don’t point out any spelling mistakes”, warns Carl. “I told him it was Ronald Reagan and not Ronald Regan and he said, ‘You can spell it like that.’ ‘Yes’, I said, ‘but Ronald Reagan doesn’t.’” I decide to tell Lonnie that it looks good and not ask him who Rolph Harris is. I give Lonnie my new book, ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Rhyme?’, which covers a hundred years of hit songwritng. He flicks through it and alights on a photo of himself. “Why am I in 1924?”, he asks. “It’s the year ‘Chewing Gum’ was written,” I say. “No,” he replies, “That’s 1931.” I nod, sure I had checked the fact but not wanting to disagree with Lonnie before I had even switched on my recorder.
Lonnie is telling us how Liverpool becomes Louisiana for a night: “‘Rock Island Line’ is the archtypal Afro-American folk song with its slow rhythm, ponderous feel, speeding up and growing excitement. It has wonderful imagery with a great storyline of a guy smuggling stuff through on a train. I enjoy the first part immensely and I like to get it really atmospheric: I like to look into the faces of the audience and see them down there in Louisiana with the sweat trickling down their temples as they feel the heat and see this great train in front of them. Then we come to the action and the more you do it the faster you can do it. Now it’s very difficult to slow down. I get excited and when I get excited, the audience gets excited, and well, we go for it, you know.”
The interview has already started but Lonnie says, “Come for a Ruby Murray and we can do the interview while we’re waiting.” Lonnie and I get into Carl’s Mercedes for the short drive to the Travel Inn, where Lonnie will be getting changed for the show. A short drive, but still an experience as Lonnie is a front seat back seat driver. “Don’t drive like that, foot on the brake, swing round a little more, come on, that’s more like it” and this is before we’ve left the car park. Carl, a retired British Steel manager, takes it in good humour: he doesn’t mind being Lonnie’s lackey for the day. I surmise that, as a driver, Lonnie had better control of the accelerator than the brakes.
We walk from the car and go inside the Travel Inn. Lonnie points to a bog-standard table and two chairs and says, “What a palatial reception area.” The twenty-something manager ignores his comment and wecolmes him, “We have had many celebrity guests here. Atomic Kitten have stayed here and their manager is here all the time.” Lonnie tells us to get a table for four at the Stag And Rainbow next door, “Pete Oakie can join us as well. I’m going to my room and I’ll only be five minutes.”
Five minutes to Lonnie is always twenty so I chat to Carl and then Pete Oakman. He has been playing bass on and off for Lonnie for over 30 years. He was also part of Country Fever with Albert Lee and he tells how they backed Guy Mitchell in the early 70s on an Irish tour promoted by Clodagh Rodgers’ father. Guy had gone to South Africa to dry out and “if he’d come straight to Ireland to join us and perform, everything would have been all right. Unfortunately, he had three days on his own in Ireland before the tour began and he started drinking again. He was sozzled on stage and the second week had to be cancelled.”
I ask him to contrast working with Joe and working with Lonnie. “Neither of them has any stage fright,” he says, “They don’t get butterflies, but the adrenalin gets them going. Joe has a very good cheeky chappie image and I’ll go and see him whenever he is working locally. Unlike Billy Fury or Marty Wilde, neither Lonnie nor Joe were selling sex, and that’s done them well over the years as they get both the guys and the girls. I remember with Joe having our car blocked in and we called for some guys to lift the other cars out of the way. They did it and I don’t think they’d have done it for Billy.”