Growing up in the home of the man responsible for changing the musical direction of popular British music it was inevitable that the son of Lonnie Donegan would also find himself equally at home on the stage. His entertainment education started at the age of five and by the time he was 18 had not only achieved Grade 7 for piano but was also proficient on harmonica, banjo, mandolin and guitar. It was at this age that he joined the Lonnie Donegan Band as the keyboard player, on what was to be his father’s last tour.
He said: “I started by learning a few chords on a guitar but by the age of nine or ten I wanted to play piano, and that is my main instrument. I still play guitar but not as good as my dad did. My dad was my first music teacher and he was self-taught. He was thrown out of music school because he didn’t read music but just played what he heard. He used the same tuning for guitar and banjo, which I do now.
“Dad really did change the music industry in Britain. He was the pioneer of American songs which were a mix of blues, folk and jazz which became known as skiffle. Before him people were listening to what you could call ‘the crooners’ like Max Bygraves, Dickie Valentine and Ronnie Hilton then dad came along with Rock Island Line and everything changed. Everyone from The Quarrymen, before they renamed themselves as The Beatles to Bruce Welsh of The Shadows all started out copying dad’s style of music. I remember Jack White of The White Stripes thanking Lonnie Donegan for his music.”
Not only did being on stage develop Peter’s musical abilities but he also learned the whole essence of showbiz itself – the communication between artist and audience and what makes a concert a pleasurable and memorable experience for all.
“With my dad, no night was the same as the previous night,” said Peter, “and it is the same with me. It’s a free and easy affair. If you play a venue like The Stables at Milton Keynes the audience there is more jazz orientated and don’t really want ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ thrown at them but more of the bluesy songs. I am more than happy playing the traditional songs my dad did, that’s what people want and they are great songs. I chose the songs for the venue but love taking requests and I will also tell a few stories – I’ll also throw in a few of my own songs if the audience are not behaving themselves.
“I have a new critic for my own material. My son, Eric, had his first birthday on March 4 and already he knows what he likes. He will smile if he likes a tune but ignores me if he doesn’t. I think he will also be a musician as he screams if I put the guitar away.”
Peter also uses multimedia to reach his audience. In earlier years musicians would slip a new tune or two into a set-list and according to the reactions, would either develop that tune or go back to the drawing board and start again. The growth of social media has taken away some of that nerve-racking experience and, like many others, the new litmus test is uploading home videos of new music and monitoring the response.
Music is never far away from Peter, and music he says is like food – something everyone needs and, depending on your mood, can vary immensely.
He said: “One day you may fancy bacon and eggs, the next Peking Duck with egg fried rice. Music for me is like that. I could be in the mood for listening to country music one day and the next something like Latin or maybe gospel music. If you go to the cinema most of the time people don’t realise they are listening to a classical orchestra soundtrack and liking it without maybe realising what it is.”
When asked which song is his personal favourite to perform he replied choosing just one is difficult.
“It has to be one of my father’s songs, ‘Rock Island Line’.” he said. “We perform it later in the set every night because it is full of guts, like so many of the songs he did. I think any great song has to be one that has a catchy tune and people can sing along with it. We may be adding a bit of harmony to give them a fresh boost but we love doing the old traditional songs. As they say ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ We love it when people join in. It makes them feel they are taking part in the night, and it makes us feel great because we can see people are enjoying themselves.”
You too have the opportunity to hear Peter, who describes himself as; “positive, slightly carefree, jovial and convivial” when he and the Lonnie Donegan Band take to the Kettering Arts Centre stage on Friday, May 6. They will be performing ‘Have a Drink on Me’, ‘Pick a Bale of Cotton and many more of the songs made popular by Lonnie.
Tickets £12 (Concessions £10)
Doors open 7.30pm – start 8pm
Peter Donegan is an accomplished musician who started his education in the entertainment business at the age of five at the Barbara Speak stage school in London – supplemented by lessons from his father, the legendary Lonnie Donegan. Continue reading…
Tickets for this and other events are available from Waterstones, High Street, Kettering. By post including an SAE to Jaime Ferreira at 4 Litchfield Close, Kettering NN16 9BS (cheques made payable to “PCC of St Andrew’s Kettering”).