After the meal, it’s into the Merc to return to the Connie. Lonnie is even worse: “What the hell are you doing, Carl? Can’t you get out of this car park. Go the other way. No, you’re blocking everybody now, get your arse moving. Come on, I want you to leave me this Mercedes in good condition.” And so on. Line him up for the next Celebrity Big Brother.
Back at the club, the supporting acts are working hard. As Lonnie had instructed, there are no comedians but the Fabtones (Frank Johns and Paul Ogden) don’t take themselves seriously, although their playing of familiar oldies is good. They go down well but Jody Stevens and her backing tapes have a mixed reception. She’s a belter and she has her PA too loud. She acknowledges this, pretends to make adjustments and continues as before. An elderly couple have seats at the front for Lonnie and put their hands over their ears. Jody berates them for being wimps and not being able to take the sound like the rest of the audience. If only they’d said, “We’ve got our hands over our ears because we can’t stand you.”
Lonnie comes onto the small stage to rapturous applause. They open with ‘Linin’ Track’ and ‘New Burying Ground’. I love the combination of saxophone and washboard for ‘It Takes A Worried Man’ and Lonnie straps on his banjo for ‘Putting On The Style’. The gospel medley of ‘Rock O’My Soul’, ‘Michael Row The Boat’ and ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ transform the club into a revivalist meeting.
Lonnie says, “This show is a test of memory more than anything else. See if you remember this, see if we do.” Lonnie has a 12-string guitar for ‘I Wanna Go Home’ and hits some tremendous low notes. A powerpacked ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ comes next and then Donegan’s own ‘When I Get Off This Feeling’, a highlight from his ‘Muleskinner Blues’ CD. He now calls it ‘Brand New Man’ and the live version is as good as the record. Alan ‘Sticky’ Wicket has a military drum for ‘Battle Of New Orleans’, which turns into a percussion battle with Chris Hunt, who is playing very well despite a recent illness.
Then comes the bluesy ‘Rocks In My Bed’ with Lonnie’s own guitar solo. ‘Corrine Corrina’ is such a good number for audience participation that someone gets out his banjo and plays along. Lonnie imagines himself in Louisiana for his closer, ‘Rock Island Line’. The applause is deafening and Lonnie returns for an acoustic ‘Goodnight Irene’. This is not an easy song to perform, but he does it to perfection. Lonnie goes off and the audience starts singing ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’. Pete Oakman comes out, “Give him a break. The poor sod’s nearly 70 and he’s knackered.”
Carl calls his wife Barbara and asks her to ensure that the heating is on in Lonnie’s room. He takes Lonnie to the Travel Inn to change and then takes him home. Later he tells me that Lonnie spent the early hours reading my book, ‘Halfway To Paradise’, and doing a lot of humming and hawing. “I don’t know why,” I told Carl, “I’d reproduced what he said word for word.” “Oh, it’s not that,” said Carl, “It’s what Chris Barber was saying.”
I had recorded the show and I sent a copy to the noted Bob Dylan analyst, Michael Gray. He sent me an e-mail: “‘Lonnie At The Connie’ is a curious mixture. There’s something about him that confirms that my teenage self was right in dismissing him – too British and too ‘Boiled Beef And Carrots’ music-hall – and yet…he’s using a surprisingly good band, a lot of his material is impeccable, he’s as good as he ever was, and for a man of 70, he’s in fine fettle indeed: impressive.”
I have a second date with Donegan on Saturday 24 March as Lonnie is starring at ‘Another Fabulous Billy And Wally Weekend’ at Pontin’s Holiday Village in Ainsdale. It is Billy Butler and Wally Scott’s 33rd promotion at the camp and they total 50,000 visitors, the majority being fans of Billy Butler’s radio show who return again and again. The weekend breaks present value for money – £55 for three days’ entertainment and two night’s board and lodging – but, without sounding snobby about it, Pontin’s is not for me.
After getting through Checkpoint Charlie and a maze of slot machines, I reach the theatre where Billy is appealing to the audience for the return of a stolen wheelchair. Looking at the gaudy décor, you might think that the designer had had a traumatic experience with a kaleidoscope, but the back wall of the theatre features large black and white murals of film stars. When you perform, all you can see is Jack Nicholson in his crazed ‘Here’s Johnny!’ moment.
Or possibly ‘Here’s Willy!’ I had missed the strippers, the Centurions. These men who braved the cold had a clause that they would strip to G-strings, but would do a full strip if the audience wished. What audience wouldn’t? “This is a family weekend,” I say to Billy Butler, “so why have you got strippers on?” “Oh, they’re hilarious,” replies Billy, “and the bigger the dick the better it is.” “Maybe,” I say, “but there’d be an outcry if you booked female strippers.” I fully accept that times have changed and you can even book John Allison of the Allisons as a stripping singer. If you want the Full Monty combined with ‘Are You Sure?’, John Allison’s your man.
Billy tells me that Lonnie has done a sound check: “He saw the forms on the tables asking who they would like to see at future events and I heard him tell the band to write down ‘Lonnie Donegan’.” On stage at present is the Cy Tucker band, an excellent club act. Cy was part of Earl Preston and the TTs in the 60s and his powerful, beat-ballad singing has made Cooper’s Emporium the busiest pub in Liverpool. Admittedly, he always plays too loud and the best place to listen is in the street. Cy gets a very good reaction and the audience enjoys singing along. I had missed the tribute acts to Elvis Presley, Billy Fury and Doris Day, although a real life Doris Day would never have worked with male strippers.
I sit down with Lonnie’s band and say this is the ideal place for ‘Cajun Stripper’. The drummer Chris Hunt praises my review in ‘Now Dig This’. “But I haven’t written it yet,” I say, “I’m combining it with this show.” “No, not Lonnie,” he says, “The one with Dana Gillespie at the Cavern. I was with her for a long time and she used to get ‘Now Dig This’. One of the perks of the job was getting ‘Now Dig This’ after she’d read it.” “Thank heaven you weren’t drumming for Tommy Bruce,” I say, “His manager thinks I’ve been most unfair to him.
Apparently, Tommy demands respect because of all the gold, silver and platinum discs he’s got at home.” “Ah, but whose are they?” says Chris. Chris looks sad but he has a good sense of humour. Still, there’s not much to be happy about here. The band are in Pontin’s chalets and Chris’s hadn’t even got hot water. Go backstage and it’s like entering a Third World country.
Because Lonnie is the star, he doesn’t have to stay at Pontin’s but he’s faring little better at the Scarisbrick Hotel. He ordered Steak Diane at 7.30pm as he thought it wouldn’t take long. The food wasn’t ready until 9.00pm and was so stewed that Lonnie brought it up before he went on stage. Still, he’s in good form when I see him. “After we spoke,” he says, “I came across an interview we did in 1999. I was giving you a hard time.” “You always do,” I reply. I remember the interview well. I had commented quite innocently that his new CD was on RCA. He said it was on Capo. Both company names are on the record and I remember thinking, “Am I ever going to get off this topic? Who cares what label it’s on?” It was a typical Lonnie Donegan interview: he’s putting on the bile. His way through the boredom of regurgitating stories is to correct interviewers at every opportunity.
I assemble the group for a photograph: “Come on,” says Lonnie, “Gather round. This is for ‘Kerrang!’” Lonnie prepares for the stage show by singing an oldie with the band. Their voices soar on “Not for all the dreams in dreamland” and Lonnie goes into a softshoe shuffle.
At the record stall I find Mel Roberts who has been involved in Lonnie’s management for 30 years. In other circumstances, I would say that he was the artist’s manager, but Lonnie manages himself. Dave Radcliffe, who is running the record stall, compiled the impressive “Lonnie Donegan Discography, 1953 – 1982”. It lists, for example, Lonnie’s commercials – Sugar Puffs (mid 50s), Chivers Jellies (1962), Smith’s Crisps (1967), Wrigley’s Spearmint (1977) and, bizarrely, Erith And Co (1981).
The holidaymakers have been drinking and are in a party mood when Lonnie goes on stage. There is dancing at the front and Carl says, “This’ll be a good one. Lonnie loves it when they’re dancing.” There is line dancing for ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ and they improvise firing guns for ‘Battle Of New Orleans’. A bus pass groupie walks onto the stage and, who knows, propositions Lonnie. The audience sings along with ‘It Takes A Worried Man’: “Let’s do it again,” says Lonnie, “I’ll play it for you.” You couldn’t imagine Lonnie working with Van Morrison at Pontin’s.