In late 1962 the sun was setting on the commercial career of Lonnie Donnegan.Embed from Getty Images
The man who had run up an astonishing 24 successive top 30 singles (31 in total) including 3 Number Ones in the UK as well as 2 top 10 hits in America, now, it seemed, couldn’t get a hit to save his life.
Perry Como wasn’t calling up to invite him back on his show (where he had appeared alongside Ronald Reagan!).
The man who had strummed the first immortal chords of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Britain with Rock Island Line in 1956 and who had inspired thousands of teenagers to form a Skiffle group found that the caravan of popularity had moved on.
Moved on to the Beat Groups whose members had almost all been electrified, transformed, by listening to Lonnie from the mid 1950s.
Moved on above all to The Beatles.
But the Beat Group Boys never forgot their debt to Lonnie.
Listen to Roger Daltrey of the Who :
‘I wanted to be Elvis .. I knew that. But the man who really made me feel I could actually go out and do it was Lonnie Donegan’.
Listen to Paul McCartney :
‘He was the first person we had heard of from Britain to get to the coveted No 1 in the charts. We studied his records avidly. We all bought guitars to be in a skiffle group. He was the man.’
Lonnie had adopted his first name in homage to the legendary Jazz/Blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson after the Chris Barber Band shared a Royal Festival Hall Concert with the great man in 1952.
Maybe it was thinking back to Lonnie Johnson’s smooth vocal delivery and elegiac tone on songs from the 1930s and his own melancholic situation that set Lonnie’s creative juices flowing when he came to write, ‘(It Looks Like) I’m Never Going To Fall in Love Again’.
Lonnie Donegan had developed since boyhood a deep love and understanding of the heritage of American roots music – Folk, Blues, Jazz and Country.
Songs from that treasury swirled about in his memory.
One of those songs was a wistful ballad, ‘Wanderin” or ”I’m Never Going To Cease My Wandering’ which recurred from the 1920s on in versions by Vernon Dalhart, Eddie Arnold and Milt Okun among many others.
Using that template and collaborating with Jimmy Currie he took ‘Wanderin” to the piano and crafted a timeless classic.
Lonnie didn’t have the vocal prowess to sell the song in the bravura manner that it would later receive.
No, his own version is distinguished for me by its hesitant charm.
This is a man, a man wounded by love, singing the song softly, tenderly, to himself in regret after the storm of emotion has largely subsided.
There can be great beauty and sometimes unexpected peace in the stillness after the storm.
The song wasn’t much played on the radio and it wasn’t a hit.
Lonnie carried on playing clubs and cabaret always singing his heart out.
Singing his heart out.
But, like I’ve said here before and will surely say again – a true message always gets through.
Sometimes, it just takes a while.
So, scroll forward four of five years and Lonnie runs into an old friend, Tom Jones, and he thinks – now here was a man who can sell a ballad!Embed from Getty Images
In Lonnie’s home the two troubadours sat down, no doubt fortified by strong liquor, and talked about songs they had loved growing up.
Lonnie took out, ‘It Looks Like …’ and said.:
‘ Tom, I have this song – you’d sing the pants off it. I recorded it but I can’t really sing it (like you could)’
Tom remembered that, ‘Wanderin” had gone down a storm as a singalong in the pubs of his native Wales.
Listening to Lonnie’s song he knew that the chorus was just made for his own Alpha male full throated style.
And, so it proved.
Tom’s version hit Number 2 in the UK Charts in 1967 and appeared twice on the US Charts – top 50 in ’67 and Number 6 when re released in 1969.
When Tom Jones takes on a ballad you know there will be no half measures.
Tom has vocal power and range aplenty and is capable of bringing shade and nuance to a lyric.
Here, he takes us on a passionate journey through a man’s bewilderment at his current situation.
Though he thought he knew the score and cast aside his pride now, now, he can’t take anymore.
There is time for tears in the wake of lost love.
And, then, it will feel like you’ll never fall in love again.
Yet, Tom’s version has such force, such strength, even in defeat, that you are sure this is a champion who will, though he has to take a count, get up off the canvas and get back in the game again.
The eternal Game of Love.
A true message always gets through.
For there are always those for whom the message seems personal, heaven sent.
So scroll forward to the mid 1970s when Tom Jones appears regularly in Las Vegas.
And, of course, no Tom Jones show is complete without his scintillating take on, ‘It Looks Like ..’.
Frequently in the audience for Tom’s shows is another Vegas Star – in fact the greatest Vegas Star, Elvis Presley.
And, Elvis knows a storming ballad when he hears one.
When Elvis comes to record the song it’s sadly near the end of his storied career.
Now, though he’s still a Lion he’s a Lion in Winter.
So, Elvis brings a depth of melancholy to the song that’s beyond either Tom or Lonnie.
Though his royal robes may have seemed threadbare in those days he was and always would be The King.
And, when a King sings we should all pay full attention for there are many pretenders but only one King.
Only One King.
So, Lonnie’s little regarded song from 1962 had proved a true wonder and before his death in 2002 Lonnie must have reaped some handsome royalty cheques to add to the pride he had in his song writing.
And, that is where I had planned to end this Post.
But, what do I know of the strange forces of synchronicity and serendipity?
For, as I began to write it happened that Lonnie Donegan’s son, Peter, a fine singer and musician in his own right, appeared on the UK talent show, ‘The Voice’ and that also on the show as Judge/Mentor was none other than Tom Jones!
The format of the show involves the Judges listening to the contestants with their chairs turned away from the stage so that they assess purely on the basis of the voice rather than looks and age.
Listening to Peter Tom’s interest was immediately piqued and he was the judge whose chair turned around.
Then, in story book fashion, Tom learned that Peter was the son of his old friend and writer of one of his signature songs – Lonnie Donegan.
And then to make the movie complete Tom and Peter put on a tear inducing impromptu performance of, ‘It Looks Like ..’ that brought the house down.
Somewhere, the shade of Lonnie must have smiled and thought, ‘I told you so …’
It is impossible to overestimate the influence of Lonnie Donegan on Rock ‘n’ Roll In Britian.
Billy Bragg’s book, ‘Roots, Radicals and Rockers’ is a fine primer on Lonnie’s role in the Skiffle movement.
Chas McDevitt’s book, ‘Skiffle – The Definitive Inside Story’ is filed with wonderful anecdotes from those who were there.
There are many fine single CD collections of Lonnie’s hits.
I listen with great pleasure to the 5CD, ‘Lonnie Donegan Collection’ on the Spectrum label which amply demonstrates the breadth of his talents.