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Young, were carrying on the singing traditions that had been around for years but which were rapidly about to become out of date.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. English trumpet player, jazz enthusiast and merchant seaman Ken Colyer had visited New Orleans in the early Fifties, jumping ship in order to locate the source of the Crescent City jazz that he was so fanatical about. After mixing, and eventually playing with the Black musicians that he had met in the city, and with segregation still rife in the USA and McCarthyism rearing it’s ugly head, upon applying for an extension to his visa, Colyer was regarded as a troublemaker, and was placed in jail before being deported back to the UK. Whilst incarcerated he received word from some of the musicians that he had left behind that upon his return there was a band waiting for him. That band included both Chris Barber and one Tony Donegan. The Ken Colyer Jazz Band soon built a healthy reputation in the UK, primarily as no-one in England had heard authentic New Orleans Jazz played with such musical skill and enthusiasm before.

By this time, the word “skiffle” had been around for about 30 years. It was was one of many slang phrases used to describe “rent parties” held by black immigrant workers living in the cities of North America. In order to pay the landlord, an impromptu shindig would be organised, with a small admission fee, involving food, a barrel-house piano player and a little moonshine whiskey. These “knees-up’s” were commonly known as “breakdowns” or “boogies” but the term “skiffle” was also used to describe the impromptu party. It’s introduction into the American vernacular was further enhanced by the release of a record in 1925 by Jimmy O’Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers and by a further release, “Hometown Skiffle” in 1929 by The Hokum Boys. The term disappeared altogether from the American music vocabulary in the 1940’s but Colyer and his older brother Bill understood it’s meaning and it’s origins. Colyer had been introducing a “breakdown” session as part of his band’s live performances for quite some time, utilising smaller sections of the Jazz band to play blues and traditional American folk songs. During the recording of a radio session for the BBC World Service in 1953, a “breakdown” was included in the repertoire. When quizzed by the session producer about the change in the band’s line-up that were, fairly obviously, not playing jazz during this section, Ken’s older brother Bill gave the answer that this was the Ken Colyer Skiffle Group. Colyer wasn’t sure why he chose to use this particular term, as he could have used several others, but it stuck.

Ken Colyer was a difficult man to work with, partially due to his puritanical attitude towards what he considered “jazz” and his dislike of anything that he felt was “too commercial”. Arguments within the band simmered and then finally reached boiling point with the Colyer’s being sacked from their own group. Whilst Colyer assembled a new line-up (which featured Alexis Korner on guitar) Chris Barber took over the old band and in 1954 they recorded their first album for Decca, “New Orleans Joys”. At first, the music recorded for the album was straight Dixieland jazz, but short of material, Donegan & Barber had suggested that they perform some “breakdown” music in order to flesh the session out and on 13th July 1954, just 8 days after Elvis Presley had cut “That’s All Right” for Sun Records, “Rock Island Line” was recorded by Donegan, Barber and washboard player Beryl Bryden, along with 3 other songs, though it was not to be released as a single until December 1955.

To summarise, there may be claims that Ken Colyer had invented a vibrant new genre when skiffle first raised it’s head 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 been around for years. Having experienced New Orleans vibrant music scene personally, Ken Colyer’s stint in America fired the young trumpet player’s imagination to such an extent that he consequently returned to the UK in 1952 armed with a new band, a large selection of 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. 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 traditional American music with a UK equivalent. Because of this, Alan Lomax himself has suggested that Skiffle was almost as British as the Union Jack. 

KEN COLYER JAZZ BAND – This Train (1954) (live at The Royal Festival Hall) 

Skiffle, however, didn’t last very long.

Donegan had a rather unexpected No.1 hit with “Rock Island Line” in 1956, the song being released almost one year after it was recorded, primarily to cash in on the latest trend in the pop charts for “western themed” songs like Jimmy Young’s “The Man From Laramie”, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” and Bill Hayes “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”.  It’s success 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. Not only were people surprised to discover that Donegan was British, and was currently living in East London, 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 stature. By all accounts the first attempts to create a “scene” based around this latest musical phenomenon 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 still 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.

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