In the great global scheme of things, Rock N’Roll’s origins are not that easy to track down. We know that it’s an American invention, we also understand that it was conceived from a successful amalgamation of Rhythm N’Blues with some of the more vibrant strains of Country & Western. But it’s emergence was not something that happened overnight, consequently it was always likely to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Theories abound as to what the first rock n’roll record may have been but no-one really knows for sure. As comedian Rich Hall recently put it “Trying to determine when rock n’roll was formed is like trying to work out when blue turns to purple”. However, tracing the UK’s rock’n’roll roots is a little easier as pre-1956, we didn’t have any kind of pop culture in this country at all. If we take a look at the records that reached the top of our singles charts during the 12 months that spanned the year of 1955, one discovers a proliferation of crooners both male and female. Some of these, such as Dicky Valentine and Rosemary Clooney, were descendants from the big band days, whilst Tony Bennett, Ruby Murray and our own beloved Jimmy Young, were carrying on the singing traditions that had been around for years but which were rapidly about to become out of date. On the 25th November 1955 Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” suddenly appeared from nowhere to achieve No.1 status and remained in that position for 3 weeks before finally succumbing to the vocal charms of the aforementioned Mr.Valentine on the distinctly seasonal “Christmas Alphabet”. One imagines that Haley’s record, apart from sounding like nothing else that had preceded it, was regarded by many as nothing more than a “novelty hit” and there were certainly enough of those around in the charts at the time with which to keep it company. But as we now know, Haley’s cameo appearance in our Top 5 unsuspectingly became part of a forthcoming musical upheaval with the record positioned at the tip of a very large cultural iceberg. During the following year, the music of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Carl Perkins & Fats Domino flooded the UK airwaves and at that point all hell broke loose.
Lonnie Donegan was UK’s first musical pioneer, but even though the product he was peddling – skiffle – was based on black American music, it ironically became a predominantly British invention. It has been suggested that skiffle was “discovered” by the English trumpet player Ken Colyer after he had visited New Orleans in the early Fifties, but this isn’t strictly true. The word “skiffle” had been around for about 30 years by the time Colyer had stumbled across it though it’s origins remain obscure. A number of theories exist regarding it’s birth, but in musical terms it would appear to have originated during the early part of the 20th century and was a combination of both jazz and blues as played by jug bands, a loose aggregation of musicians that used instruments such as the jug (fairly obviously), the washboard, the tea chest bass, the kazoo, the fiddle, and the musical saw, as well as more conventional instruments such as acoustic guitars and banjos. In order to add to the general confusion, this style of music was not actually called “skiffle” at all, but it does bare a very strong resemblance to the Colyer template that became so popular in the 1950’s. As for the term itself, “skiffle” was one of many slang phrases primarily used to describe the music that was played at “rent parties” by black immigrant workers living in the cities of North America. It was first recorded in Chicago in the 1920’s, and may have been brought there as part of the great African/American migration that occurred around this time. The first use of the term on record was in 1925 as performed by Jimmy O’Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers and thereafter it appeared as a general description for country blues records though the legendary Ma Rainey used it to describe her repertoire when performing to rural audiences. The term disappeared altogether from the American music vocabulary in the 1940’s – Colyer’s own version was somehow a mixture of all of the above, but was primarily a combination of two strains of Americana. Traditional American folk music and the blues. There may be claims that the British jazzer had invented a vibrant new genre when skiffle first raised it’s head in 1954 but even though the majority of British audiences had not previously experienced this music first hand, this was not the great discovery that some people may have suggested. In was in fact a British take on a form of American traditional music that had largely been discarded and was waiting to be re-discovered. Having experienced New Orleans vibrant music scene personally, Ken Colyer’s stint in America appears to have fired the young trumpet player’s imagination to such an extent that he consequently returned to the UK in 1952 armed with a large selection of new/old songs and a great deal of enthusiasm. Upon his return, artists like Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly were soon important names to drop with the latter, a twice-reprieved murderer, having been discovered by the pioneering musicologist Alan Lomax whose field recordings of Black American artists had begun to trickle across the Atlantic into the UK at roughly the same time as Colyer’s return. With artists like Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson and the duo Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee playing in London during the early 50’s the stage was set for a new music revolution in Britain. A host of young British jazz musicians began replicating this roots music in their own inimitable style whilst adding a few ideas of their own. Colyer’s brother apparently coined this “new” music “skiffle” and with the catalogues of various American artists being plundered unashamedly (it was Leadbelly who had recorded the original version of “Rock Island Line” and Anthony Donegan became “Lonnie” after he had appeared with Lonnie Johnson at the Royal Festival Hall in 1952), the music suddenly became a curious fusion of Black American rhythms, and England’s own folk and jazz music traditions. The Brits, as they always have done, took what the Americans had originated and added their own unique twist to it, augmenting American arcania with a UK equivalent. Because of this, Alan Lomax himself has suggested that Skiffle was almost as British as the Union Jack. Donegan became Chris Barber’s banjo player in 1953, and after Ken Colyer’s return from the USA he too joined the line-up, his influence becoming so significant that the group changed it’s name to accommodate his arrival. Donegan and two other members of the “Ken Colyer Jazzband” as they were now called, began introducing “skiffle” sessions during the interval at their gigs, and pretty soon these were proving to be exceptionally popular.
KEN COLYER JAZZ BAND – This Train (1954) (live at The Royal Festival Hall)
Skiffle, however, didn’t last very long.
Donegan, buoyed by the success of these musical skits, had a No.1 hit with “Rock Island Line” in 1956 and by doing so created a huge wave of interest that not only spawned other professional skiffle bands like the Chas McDevitt Group and The Vipers but inspired teenagers all over the United Kingdom to take up thy washboard and rock. It’s easy to see why skiffle was so popular. It was simple to play, infectious, rhythmic and perhaps most importantly, cheap. Musical instruments could be fashioned from bits and pieces discovered in your parents back garden. But on the down side, it was also repetitive with one skiffle song arrangement sounding much like another and even though the BBC popularised it by introducing the program “6:5 Special” to our TV screens in 1957, by the end of that year skiffle had already seen better days as a commercial success. Donegan continued to have hits but probably realised more than anyone that it was a dying art form and began recording novelty songs like “My Old Man’s A Dustman” and “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavour On The Bedpost Overnight”, the latter a song that Leadbelly would have undoubtedly killed for again, if only to avoid. As Karl Dallas states in the encyclopedia “The History Of Rock” “The record sales for the skiffle movement never reflected the level of mass participation. Skiffle was meant to be played, not listened to.”
LONNIE DONEGAN – Lost John (1955)
And skiffle was played, by thousands of individuals, the length and breadth of the country. From John Lennon’s Quarrymen in Liverpool to The Dick Teague Skiffle Group in London featuring a young vocalist called Harry Webb. From Van Morrison’s Sputniks in Belfast to the Roger Daltrey-led Detours featuring Pete Townshend and John Entwistle, also from the capital city. Even a young 13 year-old whippersnapper called James Page could appear on television playing skiffle as he did on the BBC-TV talent program “All Your Own” in 1957. (Host Huw Wheldon “And what do you want to do when you leave school?” Young Master Page “I want to do biological research”)
So what did all of this mean to a small market town like Bridgwater? Well, not a lot actually. Even though the sudden popularity of skiffle might have been responsible for creating a lot of would-be Presley’s there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that any of them came from my home town. Of course there must have been some individuals within the locality who picked up on the new fad but due to it’s geographical location and size, a town like ours was never going to provide the UK with the “next big thing”. Bridgwater was also a little slow in presenting both skiffle and rock n’roll to it’s wild and willing audience, though in that respect it was also no different to any other town of similar size and stature. By all accounts the first attempts to create a “scene” based around this latest musical fad was a Rock N’Roll club that ran on a weekly basis at the old Rex cinema or “The Bug House” as it was referred to locally. Largely run by word of mouth, it provided the opportunity for local punters to dance to 78’s played on an wind up gramophone.
The Top Twenty’s Bridgwater story begins in 1960 but leading up to the period just before it’s debut a quick thumb through the Bridgwater Mercury’s archives confirms that for a small industrial town in the middle of Somerset, Rock N’Roll simply did not exist. “Trad Jazz” was supposedly the choice of music among young people at the time and even though it enjoyed a brief renaissance in the U.K. during the early 60’s it was only as an alternative to the schmaltzy pop music that was still dominating the British singles charts. In June 1960 the Bridgwater Round Table put on an “Open Air Festival of Modern & Traditional Jazz” at The Rugby Ground at Taunton Road with Johnny Dankworth and his Orchestra as headliner. The festival was a financial disaster and reported a loss of £250.00, undoubtedly a lot of money in those days. As the Mercury reported “The festival had everything – except cash customers. Two top-line bands were engaged and every detail of organisation was perfect. But only 1,000 people passed through the turnstile instead of the 2,000 needed to clear expenses or the 6,000 hoped for. Mr.G.E.Horsey an officer from the Table told the Mercury “We thought we were giving the modern teenagers what they wanted, but we were wrong. Whether they don’t want live shows and prefer their entertainment canned all the time I just don’t know”
There could have been several reasons for the lack of interest shown but I would guess that the Round Table had simply misjudged what the “modern teenager” was actually listening to. Trad Jazz’s resurgent popularity coincided with the appearance of Dankworth in our home town but as a “modern” culture it may well have been marketed as a “young person’s” music but it’s image of bowler-hatted beardies wearing dickie bows and multi-coloured waistcoats always seemed far too square and middle-aged.
There was, it seemed, a gap in the teenage market but it took an individual from Wiltshire to fill it.