Singer-guitarist-banjoist Lonnie Donegan is a key figure in the foundation of British Rock and Roll. In 1954, long before Rock reached the British Isles, the Scottish-born Londoner created Skiffle, an upbeat acoustic variation on American blues and folk that made Donegan a major star. Donegan’s infectious music and exuberant performing style captured the imaginations of a generation of young English boys. That generation included John Lennon and Paul McCartney — whose skiffle group the Quarrymen evolved into the Beatles — along with many of the performers who would populate the British Invasion.
As a teenager in the post-World War II 40s, Donegan began absorbing and performing the songs of such American Blues performers as Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bessie Smith, amassing a large repertoire at a time when this music was largely unknown in Britain. While a member of the Chris Barber Jazz Band, a Trad-Jazz group, Donegan began performing his personalized variation on the American material he'd picked up over the years. The resulting style — which Donegan dubbed Skiffle, a term that had been used by American jug bands in the '20s — caught on with the Barber group's fans, and Donegan recorded a few Skiffle numbers for one of Barber's albums. One of those tracks was "Rock Island Line," which sold 3 million copies — an unprecedented amount in Britain at the time — when it was released as a single, credited to the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group. The song even reached the Top 20 in America at a time when it was almost unheard of for British records to succeed in the U.S.
The success of "Rock Island Line" made Donegan an instant sensation among England's teenagers, who related to the music's earthy energy. An added element of Skiffle popularity was its D.I.Y. appeal, since kids with access to a guitar or banjo could start their own Skiffle combos using such makeshift instruments as washboards and tea-chest basses. Hundreds of Skiffle bands popped up as a result. Meanwhile, Donegan continued to score U.K. hits with such tunes as "Lost John," "Puttin' On the Style," "Cumberland Gap" and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Over Night)." The latter became Donegan's biggest hit in the U.S., where he made numerous TV appearances and became a popular concert attraction.
Although the Skiffle craze began to die out around 1958, Donegan continued to have hits in Britain until 1962, when his sound was supplanted by the very Rock and Roll bands he'd helped to inspire. Donegan spent several years concentrating on producing other artists, but a European Skiffle resurgence led him to return to performing and recording in the mid-70s. Donegan remained musically active until shortly before his death in 2002.