Pete Oakman credits some of Joe’s success to his mother’s enthusiasm. Mrs. Oakman was a classically trained pianist who wrote the vaudevillian ‘Good Luck And Goodbye’ for Joe Brown and ’My Sweet Marie’ for Lonnie Donegan. “My mum would be playing ‘Czardas’ and Joe would say, ‘Oh Mrs. O, you’ve got to teach me that.’ She loved Italian tarantellas and that’s why there are quite a few unusual songs on Joe’s albums.”
Lonnie joins us and immediately joins in. I ask him why he and Pete haven’t written together: “We’ve done the odd thing, but we’re lazy songwriters. We’ve never been encouraged to write our own songs and so it’s just a sideline. I have lots of ideas, but I’m lazy about sitting down and doing the graft. I suppose I’m saying that I am not a natural songwriter.
If someone wants me to do something, I do it: otherwise, I don’t. I should do more. Tom Jones has told me that ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ is his favourite song of all-time. Tom was in Las Vegas and Elvis saw his show many times. They hobnobbed and Elvis liked it too and recorded it. I always think of Elvis as a ballad singer, he really did the ballads best.” Did Colonel Parker make you give up some of your royalties? “No, but now you mention it, it’s quite surprising, isn’t it?”
We order our meal, Lonnie wanting a shank of lamb with medium white wine and making recommendations for everyone else: “Tempos are going to be a bit down tonight. ‘Tom Dooley’ for the encore – after the tap-dance, that is.”
“Don’t you get fed up doing ‘Rock Island Line’?”
“No, I said to Dickie Valentine once, ‘People keep asking for ‘Rock Island Line’. How long do I have to go on singing it?’ and he said, ‘For as long as people want to hear it.”
We talk about music books – Lonnie had been reading Kitty Kelley’s attack on Sinatra, ‘His Way’: “I believe all that stuff about the Mafia. I saw it myself. I could have worked for Sinatra in Las Vegas but it would have been working for the Mafia.” When I mention Charlotte Breese’s biography of the entertainer, Hutch, Lonnie takes out his handkerchief and does an impersonation of Hutch singing ‘These Foolish Things’, a moment I will always treasure.
“Wasn’t he reputed to have a large willy?” says Pete. “Not reputed, my son, he did have. I saw it at the East Ham Granada.” Lonnie is so funny: “First impressions are often the best. It was instant dislike when I met George Melly and I haven’t changed my mind. There aren’t many people that I can’t take to, but he’s one of them.”
I want to talk about Lonnie’s forthcoming appearance at the Cavern. Outside the Cavern, there is a wall of bricks showing everyone who has played there. “I’ve got a brick there,” says Lonnie, who visited the club the previous evening, “but they’re wrong because I haven’t played it yet. I was at the Liverpool Empire in 1958 and I rented it for my skiffle club one Saturday morning. Nobody in Britain knew very much about American folk music, more specifically Afro-American folk music, and so I thought it would be a good idea if I could enlighten the public.
I formed the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Club and we issued a monthly magazine in which I highlighted a different American blues singer each month like Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White and Burl Ives and gave instructions on how to play their better known songs. We also gave news of what we were doing and where we were playing. We played everywhere for a week in those days and when we were at the Liverpool Empire, which seats 3,000, we would do two shows a night six days a week. That’s 30,000 people a week, a football stadium a week if you like, and we never stopped working.
It’s 100,000 a month and a million people a year. I did that for six years and that’s a bloody lot of people. The Rolling Stones never played to crowds like that. Who plays to a million people a year now?” Quite. The boy bands complain of stress after a couple of gigs and Lonnie keeps on going. He still holds nothing back and hurls himself into it.
Quite simply, the Cavern which opened in 1957 was not big enough for Lonnie at the time. “Even when I was in a semi-pro jazz band, the Ken Colyer Jazzmen, we were too big to play the Cavern. We played the Picton Hall and that is where we always played in Liverpool.”
Lonnie is planning a new album but he is not sure what he wants to do: I say, “You once told me that you would like to do Hank Williams’s narrations as Luke the Drifter.”
“I still would like to do that. Nobody has managed to recapture that intensely emotional, personal recitative form. You not only have to have a good singing voice, but you also need a particular kind of speaking voice as well, which Hank did have. That concept was original to him, I would love to be able to do that.”
“It could be an unplugged album, perhaps just you and a guitar.”
“If I thought my guitarplaying was up to it, I would. Martin Guitars want to issue a Lonnie Donegan Martin, which is incredibly flattering, that’s the apogee of my career. I said to my wife, ‘All I’ve got to do now is to learn how to play the thing. I’m no Eric Clapton.”
“What about a live album from the Cavern?”
“No way, the sound would be dreadful.”
“It was good enough for Paul McCartney in 1999.”
“But he had so many people working for him, scores of people getting it right. I can’t afford that. We would have to re-do parts in the studio and it could go for a long time.”
“It’d be like the Eagles’ live album where the only thing left was the applause.”
“That’d be the first thing to go. They want a lot of people in the Cavern and so they will be standing up. No matter how much you like an act, you can’t applaud with a glass in your hand. The applause won’t be that hot.”
Lonnie has the drummer Jerry Allison of the Crickets playing on his ‘Muleskinner Blues’ CD, and he praised his work with Buddy Holly. “English drummers were very wooden, a lot of them still are, and this guy was flowing and you never knew what he was going to play from bar to bar. He had a wonderful full sound as if he were playing three drum-kits at once. I asked him what style it was, and he said, ‘I guess it’s Texas drumming.’ That sounded funny at the time but I found out later that there was a Texas style, which had a semi-military sound to it.”
Who’s been the most electrifying person you’ve seen on stage? “Probably Mahalia Jackson way back at the Royal Albert Hall when I was 17. She filled that hall with no microphone, just her singing and an acoustic piano and a church organ. It was spine-tingling. Since then, I have wanted to sing some genuine gospel music but I’ve always been thwarted and ‘Fancy Talking Tinker’ is as close as I’ve got. I asked Sam Brown who is a wonderful singer to hand-pick two other girls and we tried to get this gospel sound, and we’ve done a reasonable job on it.”