The Quarry Men Skiffle Group from Liverpool featured a young John Lennon and his school chum Pete Shotton. In 1957 they covered several skiffle songs made popular in England in the mid 1950s by The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group including Putting On The Style, Rock Island Line, Alabamy Bound, Cumberland Gap, and Jump Down Turn Around (Pick A Bale Of Cotton). These songs were simply constructed and could be played on a tea chest (eg packing case), washboard, an upside-down washing bin, and a cheap guitar ! In the stark England of rationing post World War II these up-beat, foot-stomping songs offered the youth some level of escape. Basically, it was ... "we can make some noise here". In fact, Lonnie Donegan's 78 RPM disc "Gamblin' Man / Puttin' On the Style" single (Pye Nixa PYE N.15093) was number one on the English charts (NME and Melody maker) for two weeks spanning the months of June and July 1957 .. this also at the very same time that John Lennon had first met Paul McCartney at the Woolton Church Fete in Liverpool. Notably from Wikipedia ... "A low quality recording of the song (Puttin' On The Style) performed by the Quarrymen, John Lennon's group live on July 6, 1957 exists although it has never been released officially. It was recorded the same day that Lennon met his song-writing partner Paul McCartney, and is the earliest Beatles related recording that exists."￼ ￼ ￼
In England, Rock Island Line (recorded in July 1954) had been a top ten hit in 1956 when it was issued by Lonnie Donegan on the UK Decca label. The single was issued later in 1956 by London Records (London 1650) in the USA and Canada. In the USA the single was issued (and charted) on the blue London label and in Canada it was issued on the black London label. In 1956, Lonnie Donegan moved label to Pye from Decca. For Pye, Donegan would issue a number of singles based on and around American folk standards. A number (but not all) of his Pye singles from this period were issued by Mercury Records in the USA and Quality Records in Canada.
Because these were quirky covers of American originals and not really essential rock and roll per se ... it is easy to understand why none of his 1955-1957 records charted in Canada. His later novelty songs (eg Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It's Flavour..., My Old Man's A Dustman, etc.) recorded for Pye starting in 1959 did chart in Canada however, after Pye had moved Canadian distribution from Quality Records to Astral Records (see links below).
The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group:
London 45-L.1650 Rock Island Line / John Henry (45 and 78)
(probably issued in Canada sometime in or shortly after January 1956)
A Canadian London release of his second UK Decca 45 "Digging My Potatoes / Bury My Body" has not been verified and his subsequent British Pye releases in 1956 and 1957 for Canada were on Quality Records pressed in Toronto. Below left is the original UK 78 and below right show that the two UK Decca singles were also packaged on a cool UK Decca Extended play 45 RPM disc with a picture sleeve that highlighted the American musical roots.
Quality Records Discography - Lonnie Donegan And His Skiffle Group:
Quality K1606 Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O / I'm Alabamy Bound
(Note: Both of these tracks were also included on the LP "An Englishman Sings American Folk Songs" - see below)
Quality K1619 Cumberland Gap / Wabash Cannonball
Quality K1629 Putting On The Style / Gamblin' Man (probably September 1957)
Quality K1689 My Dixie Darling / I'm Just A Rolling Stone
Quality K1705 Jack O'Diamonds / Ham 'N Eggs
(Note - the above Quality 45 RPM discs were also released simultaneously on 78 RPM without the K prefix - just like the Chuck Berry "K Series" single releases of the period)￼￼
Given that 'Putting On The Style" was the very first song that John and Paul played together in July 1957 ... for those Canadian Beatles complete-ists it is worth hunting down an original Canadian Quality Records copy ... and it is worth noting that the song is a commentary on "young folks" ... "Sweet sixteen goes to church just to see the boys ... putting on the agony and putting on the style !". This track was a live recording and chugs along with lyrics that convey a real sense of humour. "Gamblin' Man" is also a live recording and it starts slow and builds to a big crescendo .. tough for The Quarrymen to cover this one !
And here are both of these tracks in video format on Youtube showing Lonnie and his band in full flight circa 1958 ... just a short time after both songs had topped the British charts:
These videos offer an important look at how the British teenagers in the audience were really grooving to the music. That excitement was not missed by The Quarrymen in the first week of July 1957..
Quality Records also issued a really interesting album of Lonnie Donegan's skiffle music in 1957 and this album is quite hard to track down nowadays. The album was pressed on heavy-gauge vinyl and shipped in heavy card jackets just like the early Chuck Berry albums on the same Quality Records label .. made at the very same time. This Donegan LP was in fact the same material that was issued in England in December 1956 as the "Lonnie Donegan Showcase", a special 10 inch album (Pye Nixa Records NPT 19012, plum label, see cover inset below). Three extra tracks were added for the Canadian LP though ... Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O, Railroad Bill, and Old Riley. It is difficult to say whether the Quality album was actually issued in early 1957 ... it was most probably issued in Canada some time later. At the time this album was issued in Canada, Pye was licensed and distributed in Canada by Quality Records. The front cover shows the PYE logo at the top left. As an interesting side note, The Beatles, then with Pete Best on drums, would record a later version of "Nobody's Child" for German Polydor in 1961 when they were a backing band for Tony Sheridan.
How Long, How Long Blues
The Wreck Of The Old '97
Frankie And Johnny
Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O
I Shall Not Be Moved
I'm Alabammy Bound
None of Lonnie Donegan's Quality 45s, 78s, or LPs sold well when released here. Very few teenagers in Canada bought copies of "Putting On The Style". Certainly not a British Invasion as that was still a few years off. The Skiffle movement did not transfer well to Canada in 1957 and it is interesting to see that the records were issued here in Canada AT ALL in the face of the onslaught of the pioneering Rock And Roll records from the USA. Their release in Canada is perhaps explained somewhat by the colonial relationship to England. many Canadian teens were plugged into the pop music of England more so than the USA.
The importance of Lonnie Donegan's early Skiffle singles to the history and development of The Beatles music should, however, not be under-estimated relative to those other early Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Coasters 45s and 78s and LPs.
In my own opinion though, the Skiffle era looks very interesting now more than 50 years after the fact. I can see how it was so attractive to many young people in England at that time. There was a slight air of exotic interest in discovering those obscure folk songs from America during a time of austerity at home. They were so different to what had been on the radio beforehand. The Skiffle songs that became hits were played with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, and some have argued that Donegan's influence on the wave of British pop acts that followed looms even larger than Elvis.
A few years later, Pye Records ended their agreement with Quality Records in Canada and set up new and subsequent distribution agreements with Astral, Allied, and then Phonodisc.
The complete Canadian Lonnie Donegan discography is found under the "Non-Capitol Artists" tab in the menu,
otherwise, simply click HERE to access it.
For information on PYE 45s, click HERE
For information on PYE LPs, click HERE