This ‘ere is a story about the Lonnigans
By Donny Lonnigan
I remember during the late 50s early 60’s my younger brother Johnny and I would rummage through grandmother’s collection of 78s, selecting appropriate discs to use in our make believe world of cowboys. These old records would be an integral part of the action as we acted out bar-room brawls inspired by the latest episode of Wagon Train. SMASH!!!! The Stargazer’s ‘I See The Moon’ would shatter into a hundred pieces as I hit Johnny painlessly about the head with the fragile record. He would reciprocate and we tumbled across the living room floor, brawling. Of course I was always the guy in the white hat and Johnny would be a black hated miscreant about to get his ‘comeuppance’. CRASH! Guy Mitchell finishes the job and Johnny is bought to justice.
These ‘fight’ re-enactments were always accompanied by nan’s gramophone player at full volume belting out Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Cumberland Gap’ or ‘Rock Island Line’. John and I having worked ourselves into a frenzy driven on by the frantic music of Lonnie, the chards of black shellac littered the floor and feathers from the pillow cases hung in the air before gently coming to rest on the cold linoleum floor. We would be collapsed on the floor in fits of laughter, I don’t think we were ever so happy, but the jollity soon faded when ‘muvver’ burst into our make believe cowboy world to give me a clout for being the eldest, and we were made to clear up the mess before being taken home in disgrace.
I can pin point both our love of skiffle and our musical energy, back to these occasions. Of all the 78’s that we smashed (nan never objected), we didn’t touch records by Lonnie, The Vipers nor Roy Rogers’ ‘A Four Legged Friend’.
As I began to develop an interest in the harmonica and John in the guitar and later the trombone, we would play music from our childhood and skiffle would never be far away. A tea chest bass and washboards were always about the house for some reason.
It wasn’t until I was at art school in the early 1970’s that I thought about forming a group called the Lonnigans in honour of my boyhood hero Lonnie Donegan. When the group finally came into being many years later, I would of course be become Donny Lonnigan and John would become Johnny Lonnigan.
John and I had formed a number of bands together before becoming the Lonnigan Brothers around 1990. The musical line up didn’t finally settle until about 1992, as various adopted ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ came and went. The Lonnigans out of the Square Peg Skiffle Band, a bunch of street performers and buskers led by John and I.
The Lonnigans started gigging in early 1990s when Derek Mason (Ronnie Lonnigan) walked into our lives after a tip-off from the BBC who had been doing a programme on skiffle. Apart from being an excellent washboard player, always a fraction ahead of the beat, which gives us our momentum and drives us along, Derek also gives the group skiffle credibility. His association with the New Station skiffle group and their defeat of Adam Faith’s Worried Men on ITV’s ‘6.5 Special’ in the semi finals of the 1957 National Skiffle competition, still carries an immense amount of kudos amongst his peers.
Derek Mason (Ronnie Lonnigan), washboard, percussion and vocals. Through Derek’s inspiration and vision we have achieved much and our greatest success was in 1999 and the Royal Albert Hall concert ‘Skiffle, the Roots of British Rock’, a show conceived, produced by Derek and the Lonnigans. The evening sold out and featured amongst others Lonnie Donegan and his band, Chas and Dave, Nancy Whiskey, the Chris Barber Band, Diz Disley, Chas McDevitt, Wee Willie Harris, Bill Colyer, Tony Sheriden, Ray Bush and the Lonnigans.
A young Derek in the Station Skiffle Group
The much missed ‘100 Club Skiffle Sessions’ and the ‘Lead Belly Tribute’ album, were all initiated by Derek. In many ways Derek IS the Lonnigans. His love of blues and early jazz music plus his driving washboard rhythms help keep the group on course.
John Armer (Johnny Lonnigan), guitar, trombone and vocals is my long suffering, jazz loving brother. When he is not skiffling he has his own swing quartet ‘Art Deco’ which is made up of four instrumentalists and a girl singer, making them the largest quartet in the world. He has been tempted many times to give up skiffle to follow a musical career…..but I have always managed to dissuade him. Here is a picture of John and I with the Schultz & Kurly Band.
Andy 'Hans' Mather, John 'Kurly' Armer, Freddie Boy White,
Eddie 'Schultz' Armer
Steve Simpson (Laurie Lonnigan) guitars, mandolin, fiddle and vocals. Steve joined the group around 1997 and is quite staggering as a musician and multi instrumentalist. He started out in jug and skiffle bands in the1960s before pursuing a career as a jobbing musician including working with Lonnie Donegan and Joe Brown.
He has an impressive CV which includes working with Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, Eric Bibb, Roger Chapman and Meal Ticket. I remember seeing Steve playing with London band Juice On The Loose during the 1970s, I had never seen or heard anyone play blues mandolin before and the memory stayed with me until the opportunity arrived to invite Steve to become a Lonnigan.
Sharon Drain (Connie Lonnigan) is a superior jazz vocalist and one half of the Lonnettes, the other being Bonnie Lonnigan (Harriet Thomas). Bonnie is a sometime member with the group and sings ‘Careless Love’ on the Album. Sharon is one of our principal singers and plays tea chest bass when we are gigging. Her big personality means that she and I vie for position as ‘front man’. Sharon also has her own jazz trio and is a member of ‘Ooh Baby Ooh’ an all girl acappella trio.
Derek, Steve, John, Eddie....and Sharon
Eddie Armer (Donny Lonnigan), harmonica, mandolin and vocals. As originator of the Lonnigans I got to choose my ‘adopted’ musical family. My thirst for blues, country and jazz is quenched by working in various duo's including Nigel Bagge, Kevin Barber and Dave Beckett, but the Lonnigans are my first love and it is a great privilege to work with such exciting musicians.
The fine double bass playing on the ‘A Tribute to Lead Belly’ CD, is thanks to the talents of one time Lonnigan Chris Rodell and the equally impressive banjo playing of Chris Comac. A special guest appearance by Dick Quinnell on Sousa phone, courtesy of Derek’s old band ‘The Washboard Serenaders’ and Derek Bond a survivor from the 60s Hamburg years, plays double bass on ‘Rock Island Line’. Sam Spoons plays rhythm pole and spoons whilst fellow Bonzo Dog band mate Rodney Slater blows alto sax. John ‘Gieves’ Watson formerly of the Temperance Seven, sits in on tenor banjo.