Ken Colyer © Terry Cryer
© Terry Cryer

If you’re one of those happy souls who likes to remember important dates in social history here’s one to add to your list – July 13th 1954 when — just up the road from where you are reading this — the fuse was lit on the great British pop music explosion!

The story starts in 1948 when Ken Colyer, an amateur musician living in Hounslow, put together a band to play the old time jazz music of New Orleans. As they had been rehearsing in Cranford on the banks of the River Crane they called themselves the Crane River Jazz Band – and took the jazz standard ‘Down by the Riverside’ as their theme tune. By the summer of 1949 “The Cranes” were confident enough to start their own jazz club in the White Hart pub in Cranford. It was an immediate success. True to the spirit of old New Orleans instead of playing records during the interval Ken bashed out American folk songs on a guitar, accompanied by kazoo, washboard and double bass.

In 1952 Ken Colyer decided to make a pilgrimage to New Orleans to check out his favourite music at first hand. In his absence two of the former ‘Cranes’ – clarinettist Monty Sunshine and guitarist/banjo player Tony ‘Lonnie’ Donegan started a new band with trombonist Chris Barber. Hoping that Ken would join them on his return they continued with Ken’s popular ‘guitar and washboard’ interval sessions. But Ken wasn’t coming back so quickly. He was locked up in New Orleans for not having a work permit!

Lonnie Donegan

On July 13th 1954 the Chris Barber Band went into a studio to record an album. During the session Chris and Lonnie with Beryl Bryden on washboard recorded a couple of their ‘interval’ songs and in so doing changed the musical and social face of the U.K forever. Eventually released in December 1955 ‘Rock Island Line’ and ‘John Henry’ reached the Top Ten in both the UK and America and launched a musical revolution called Skiffle. In a world of primped and powdered professional singers, where musical tastes were determined by middle aged bandleaders and instruments were taught, not learnt Skiffle was exactly the musical rebellion that bored teenagers were looking for. It was wild, improvised and above all – very, very easy to play. That’s why anyone with a guitar, washboard or tea chest bass was doing it! Every school, every youth club, every coffee bar had at least one skiffle group thumping away in a corner. There were skiffle programmes on the radio and skiffle clubs in every basement. Its detractors may have protested that “skiffle was piffle” but it was selling a lot of vinyl and because of it thousands of young people were learning how to make music. From out of these primitive groups came some of the most famous and successful bands of the 60’s. The Shadows, the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and a thousand others have acknowledged their debt to skiffle. Ken Colyer may have identified it but it was Lonnie Donegan who demonstrated that anyone could play it — and so everyone did! Now, 50 years on, the children and grandchildren of those early skifflers are still picking up guitars, learning those first three chords and turning them into hit records. In 2002, a performer to the very end, Lonnie Donegan died as he lived – in the middle of a sell out tour!

The Delta Skiffle Group

This all might seem a long way from Ken Colyer and the murky waters of the Crane but there is a pleasing circularity to this story. In his later years Lonnie Donegan, the godfather of Britpop, stored all his guitars and tour equipment in a garage in Brentford Dock – just a mile or so from Old Isleworth where the River Crane lazily empties into the Thames. Ken Colyer died in March 1988, largely unrecognised and unrewarded for the part that he played in making British popular music the success that it is today. Still, he would have been pleased that the seed he planted in the mud of the River Crane nearly 60 years ago has done so well.

— from Martyn Day