Contrary to popular opinion, it was not The Beatles who lead the British Invasion of popular music into America. Rather, it was Anthony Donegan, a jazz band guitarist and singer from Scotland. Donegan admired American country, folk and blues music; he changed his name to Lonnie in honor of bluesman Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie developed his own style of Skiffle music, which he played between band sets, using a washboard, an old Spanish guitar and a tea-chest bass. When Lonnie released his single, “Rock Island Line”, it rose to number eight on the charts in both the United States and the United Kingdom in 1956. Later that year, his next single, “Lost John” was also a hit in America. The British invasion had begun!
Between 1958 and 1962, Lonnie had 30 more songs in the U.K. pop charts; but his popularity as a performer dwindled in the 1960’s. He went back to the cabaret circuit. In 1977, he released a comeback L.P. album; but his relaunch was short lived. Lonnie’s legacy still lives on, however, as many popular artists have listed him as an important and profound influence. [Examples include: Brian May of Queen; Elton John; Gary Brooker of Procol Harem; Albert Lee; Ron Wood; Rory Gallagher; and Ringo Starr of The Beatles.] Lonnie also performed with Van Morrison.
The year was 1957, a sixteen year old schoolboy, named John Lennon, persuaded his Aunty Mimi to buy him a cheap guitar so he could realize his dream to form his own Skiffle band. Lennon’s mother, a banjo player, taught him how to banjo-tune the top 4 strings. Lennon formed The Blackjacks with three friends who played a washboard, a home-made tea chest bass, and a banjo. The band lasted one week. Lennon then founded The Quarrymen with friends from his school, Quarry Bank School, Liverpool. The guys practiced in a makeshift World War II air-raid shelter. Their first local performances were disastrous due to the fact that they still used banjo tuning for the guitars and were complete musical novices. Paul McCartney was invited to join the band a few months later purely because he knew how to tune a guitar. (He himself played the guitar upside down because he was left-handed!)
McCartney introduced his first song, “I Lost My Little Girl”, to the group. John and Paul began to write songs together. Their first songs included “Keep Looking That Way”, “Like Dreamers Do”, and “Too Bad About Sorrows”. In 1957, the band played it’s first gig at the now famous rock and roll venue, The Cavern in Liverpool. They were to play during the interlude between the two headlining bands. Though warned against it, the boys tried to play a rock and roll ultimately, agitating both the owner and the audience.
Though John was originally influenced by Lonnie’s Skiffle music he began to be interested in rock and roll. Paul leaned more towards the rock and roll of Little Richard and Buddy Holly. George Harrison then joined the group and began co-writing with McCartney, beginning with “In Spite Of All The Danger”. The group also wrote and performed instrumental music such as McCartney’s “Catswalk” and Lennon & McCartney’s “Looking Glass”. In January 1959, The Quarrymen disbanded. They had been a little-known regional band that had performed for school dances and other local venues.
George Harrison went on to join a resident coffee club quartet in August 1959. Lennon and McCartney continued to write songs together. As one of the band members missed rehearsals, Harrison invited Lennon and McCartney to complete his band; they retained the name of “The Quarrymen”. Lennon’ McCartney and Harrison auditioned for a local T.V. talent show as “The Quarrymen”, but failed, in 1957 and early 1959. They entered another T.V. talent show as Johnny and the Moondogs in October 1959; this time, they reached the finals and took second place. John and Paul also did local bar performances as The Nerk Twins. Meanwhile, another young man, called Ringo Starr, joined The Hurricanes. (He was not to join The Beatles until 1962.) They then changed their name from The Beatals to The Silver Beatles and toured with Johnny Gentle in May 1960. (Although they failed to land a tour with Billy Fury, they did share venues with him.)
In August 1960, Pete Best joins the trio as their drummer; and they rename themselves The Beatles. Ringo Starr did substitute for him as drummer when The Beatles backed The Hurricanes for their recording, though he recorded his tracks separately to the other three. (This recording is now untraceable.) Whilst backing singer Tony Sheridan for his album, in June1961, they were allowed to record a couple of their own songs. Brian Epstein took on managing The Beatles in November 1961, he arranged an audition for them with Decca Records; they were rejected.
In June 1962 the band auditioned for EMI. Even though the producer, George Martin, thought that they were, “pretty awful”, he signed them on. At his behest, they fired Pete Best as drummer and enlisted Ringo Starr from the Hurricanes. Five years after John Lennon had obtained his first guitar, and after many more failures than successes, The Beatles were at the threshold of a career that would rock the pop industry worldwide. Who said that persistence never pays off?
To be continued….