I’m making good progress with the massive Beatles biog Tune In, about which I posted a brief review last week, and I’ve now reached the skiffle boom that gave birth to the Quarrymen, John’s first band. The touch paper beneath skiffle was lit by Lonnie Donegan, a tight-fisted Scotsman whose recording of ‘Rock Island Line’ reached number eight in early 1956 and encouraged John to get his first guitar. Lonnie, the banjo player in Chris Barber’s jazz band, was paid a £3.50 session fee by Decca for the track, a source of deep resentment to him after it became a hit and which led him to forsake Decca and sign with Pye. I thought he was brilliant until he switched to making novelty records. Much later in life I had two close encounters with Lonnie, both unusual to say the least.
The first occurred circa 1989 in an Italian restaurant in Brentford in West London called La Rosetta, where I had a nodding acquaintance with the proprietor, Roberto by name, who used to run a similar establishment round the corner from me in Shepherds Bush. One Friday night the future Mrs C and I decided to take a chance on his new place. The meal was great, but I was bemused by the fact that the canned music being played was Lonnie’s greatest hits, over and over again, not what you would expect to hear in an Italian joint in Brentford in 1989. A bit odd, I thought. Then I chanced to go to the loo and passed a solitary diner in a corner. I know that face, I thought. It’s Lonnie Donegan himself. What’s going on? Emboldened by the wine I’d consumed, I approached him and confirmed his identity. He told me he lived nearby and dined at La Rosetta regularly. “Why are they playing your records?” I asked. “Because I told them to,” he replied.
The second occurred in the late '90s at Nomis Studios around the back of Olympia where Donal Gallagher, younger brother of Rory, had an office. Donal had a casual managerial relationship with Lonnie at this time and had approached me because Lonnie wanted to write his autobiography and needed a publisher. A meeting was arranged and Lonnie was present. First we discussed potential ghost-writers, it being clear that Lonnie was not up to actually writing it himself. Then we discussed timing and, eventually, money. Lonnie stated that his book would definitely outsell David Niven’s The Moon’s A Balloon and Bring On The Empty Horses, two books he evidently admired. “But they sold millions,” I pointed out. “So will mine,” he said confidently. I offered him an advance of £10K. He demanded £100K, all paid up front, excluding the ghost writer’s fee. End of meeting.