We could go on forever, but I know you’re performing tonight and will want to save your voice. Just a couple more. What about “The Second Time Around”?
“The Second Time Around” is one of the most important songs I’ve written, because when people say to me, “You’ve written my song”, they invariably mean “The Second Time Around”. It is a hymn of hope for failed romance or whatever. That song was written for the film, “High Time”, in which Bing Crosby plays a widower who has achieved everything in life. He goes back to college – it’s the same plot as Rodney Dangerfield’s “Back To School” – and he meets a French teacher who’s a widow. I said to Van Heusen, “What are we going to write for a widower and a widow? ‘I’m glad that you’re dead, You rascal you.’ ‘You’ll be the death of me’.”
We kicked around some funny titles and I said to him, “Are we going to be the only team that couldn’t come up with a ballad for Bing Crosby? “What do you think of the title, ‘The Second Time Around’? ‘Love is wonderful the second time around, Just as beautiful with both feet on the ground.’” He said, “No, ‘Love is lovelier the second time around, Just as wonderful with both feet on the ground.” The song was then written very quickly. We sang it to Bing Crosby and he just nodded. The great, great artists know that you are doing your part, so it is very simple to write for them.
You won an Oscar for “High Hopes”, which is really a children’s song.
Oh yes, but that was a unique song. (Sings)
“Just what makes that little old ant
Think he’ll move a rubber tree plant,
Anyone knows that an ant
Move a rubber tree plant.”
The song is very infectious and people love to sing it. At the theatre tonight, you’ll see, people love to singalong: it’s a very, very interesting song. You see, originally I only had the idea for the title. “High hopes, High hopes, High apple pie in the sky hopes”, that was all I had and then Van Heusen came back with some music. (Sings the chorus to the melody of “It’s Going To Be A Great Day”) Something like that, and I said, “No, no, maybe we should write this from the viewpoint of the animals.” I realised that I had made a faux pas as he had written the best animal song ever in “Swinging On A Star”. We were in a bungalow at 20th Century Fox and I looked around and I saw a stream of ants. I said, “No, I don’t mean animals. I mean insects. Those ants have a sense of fulfilment, going up and down all day. Feller gets a sock on the jaw and as he falls to the ground, a stream of ants goes past his nose.” What makes the song funny for me is that I have never seen an ant near a rubber tree plant, but when you say,
“Just what makes that little ol’ ant
Think he’ll move a…”
It can’t be anything but “rubber tree plant”. You can’t say “acacia” because the architecture of the song calls for “rubber tree plant”. When we sang the song to Sinatra, he laughed, and the song became a smash, smash hit.
Is it true that you reworked the song for JFK?
Yes, and that’s the real miracle and the true adventure of songwriting. When he had to write a campaign song, the word “Kennedy” didn’t fit into “High Hopes”, although the title was right. Van Heusen said, “All right, Big Mouth, what are you going to do now?” I said, “There’s always a way. Supposing we spell it.” He said, “Spell it?” I said, “Remember ‘H-A-double R- I-G-A-N spells Harrigan’.” He said, “We’re trying to elect Kennedy.” I said, “I know who we’re trying to elect but listen to this.” I had,
“Just what makes that little ol’ ant…”
and it became,
Jack’s the nation’s favourite guy.
Everyone wants to back Jack,
Jack is on the right track.”
That’s the great fun of writing special lyrics.
Your fourth Oscar song was with “Call Me Irresponsible”.
That song was written for Fred Astaire to sing in the film, “Papa’s Delicate Condition”, but he never made the film. He never recorded the song and that is one of the disappointments of my life. The greatest thrill of my entire life was standing in front of Fred Astaire and doing the song. I came to the lines,
“Do my foolish alibis bore you,
Well, I’m not too clever,
I just adore you”
and Astaire said, “Stop!” Van Heusen almost fell off his piano bench as this had never happened before. Astaire said, “That is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.” I said, “That is one of the best half-songs you’ve ever heard. May I finish it?” He said, “That’s a great, great song. Would you like to know how you got this job?” I said, “Yes, I would.” He said, “Johnny Mercer wasn’t available.” He said, “I consider that a high compliment.” He said, “No, I’ll give you the high compliment now. The next time Mercer leaves town, I won’t worry.”
Are contemporary performers are doing your songs?
What gives me a great deal of pleasure is that Al Jarreau has just made another smash out of “Time After Time”, which has been a hit any number of times. Our songs seem to gain more and more importance by the deluge of one-hit wonders. I am on the board of directors for ASCAP, which is equal to your PRS here, and there was a reception for Bob Dylan, and I knew him because I had inducted him into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. He said to me, “I’ve done one of your songs.” I said, “YOU have done one of MY songs?” He said, “Yes” and I expected him to say something like “Teach Me Tonight”, but he said, “It’s ‘All My Tomorrows’.” Now this song was in the same film as “High Hopes” and it was sung by Sinatra and the girl: (Sings)
“Today I may not have a thing at all,
Except for just a dream or two,
But I’ve got lots of plans for tomorrow,
And all my tomorrows belong to you.”
Pia Izadora did it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Dinah Shore has done it, so all of a sudden everyone is doing “All My Tomorrows”. It proves what Jimmy Van Heusen said, “Write the best song you know how and don’t worry about it.”
How does Bob Dylan appeal to you as a lyric writer? In one song, “Señor”, he rhymes “Armageddon” with “heading”.
If he says “headin’” and “Armageddin’”, I could buy it, but “heading” and “Armageddon”, no. My problem with the new writers is that they don’t respect title. If I’m going to write a song about Chicago, I know that there is a song called “Chicago”. (Sings)
That toddlin’ town.”
I will not write a song called “Chicago”, so I wrote,
“My kind of town,
Stephen Schwarz wrote “Day By Day” for “Godspell”, and yet I have a song called “Day By Day”. Cyndi Lauper did a song called “Time After Time” and she has diminished both titles. PRS and ASCAP have monitors who listen to what radio stations are playing. They write down “Day By Day” or “Time After Time”, but who can say which it is. The younger songwriters should respect title. That’s my only complaint.
How high do you rate Lennon and McCartney?
I am the president of the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, a presidency bequeathed to me by Johnny Mercer, who was the first president, and we’ve just put them into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. They were the first recipients of an international award. They wrote words and they wrote music that will be here forever. “Yesterday” is wonderful but “Here, There And Everywhere” is an absolutely marvellous composition, and it has great words and great music. Paul McCartney and I share the same birthday and we exchange greetings on June 18th.
Does it surprise you that Lennon and McCartney were able to write all those great songs, although they were not musically trained?
No. Mr Irving Berlin had no musical talent whatsoever. Jerome Kern said to him, “Irving, you must learn how to write. You gotta be able to sit down and write your notes.” Irving Berlin respected Jerome Kern so he started very laboriously to study music. (Sings) “A, B, C, D, E, F, G.” After a month, he said, “Why, that son of a bitch. While I was learning how to write, I could have written twelve songs.” (Laughs)
Sammy Cahn, thank you very much.
My great pleasure, Spencer.
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 noticeboard 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.”
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.”
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.
The repertoire is largely the same as at the Connie. When he launches into ‘Rocks In My Bed’, Billy Butler says to me, “This is self-indulgent, he could lose them.” But Lonnie knows exactly what he’s doing and the next song is one of his hits.