Friday, August 08, 2003

Chas McDevitt

You’ll have noticed from the tributes to Nancy Whiskey and the great Lonnie Donegan in previous issues, as well as my nickname, that I’m a big fan of skiffle. It’s a never ending source of frustration to me that when you mention the word skiffle, people look blankly at you despite it being one of the most important and influential movements in the history of British popular music. It’s boom may only have lasted 4 years in the mid-50’s, but it’s ethics echo even today. At the centre of the movement with Lonnie was Chas McDevitt, and we asked him a few questions about his skifflin’ career.

>Do you find many young people take an interest in skiffle, or am I the exception that proves the rule?

Quite a few young people take an interest in Skiffle. In recent years with the rise of World music, skiffle seems to be attracting a new audience. It is after all do-it-yourself music, and that is as modern as you can get.

>If someone younger did show an interest, what 5 songs would you choose as defining skiffle? You can choose your own, if you so wish!

Difficult one this. 1950's skiffle encompassed so many styles, jug music, current pop, jazz, country, blues and R&B. The record that caught the public's imagination was of course Lonnie's 'Rock Island Line', our 'Freight Train' was popular but different in style. I always liked Ray Bush and The Avon Cities Skiffle Group on 'This Little Light O' Mine' and The City Ramblers' 'Boodle am Shake' also Ken Colyer's 'Sportin' Life'.

>Do you get frustrated by the often held view that British pop music began with The Beatles?

I don't claim that skiffle was the sole creator of British pop music, there was Trad Jazz and the early UK Rockers like Johnny Kidd, Vince Taylor, Terry Dene and a host of other bands that came through the coffee bar and jazz club scene. The Beatles just found music through skiffle and this together with the American influences we all had, created their unique approach to pop. Our first demo for Oriole not only included 'Freight Train' but also 'Giddy Up A Ding Dong'! We could have gone either way.

>What are your best memories of the skiffle years?

Playing the Ed Sullivan Show in New York in 1957, six years before the Beatles and a couple of weeks after Elvis. Whilst there we went to The Paramount Theatre in New York to see Alan Freed's Summer Festival, we were due to join this on tour. It was fantastic; Big Joe Turner, Chuck Berry, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, The Everly Bros, The Kalin Twins, Paul Anka, Clyde McPhatter, The Moonglows, The Cadillacs, Teddy Randazo, Ruth Brown, La Verne Baker and a host of others.

>How have the years since the skiffle boom ended treated you?

Fairly kindly. I have never stopped working and as the years go by I enjoy it more and more.

>Is there anything else you'd still like to achieve musically?

I'd like to make a really good album of some of my all time favourite songs, from Cajun to R&B with great musos backing me.

>You have written a book concerning the skiffle movement - was this out of frustration at there being very little literature available on such an important landmark in British music?

Precisely. Skiffle was being ignored as one of the big influences in Pop. Even the Radio stations only started their retrospective programmes from 1960. So much good music is ignored by doing this including, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and the early Blues and R&B artists.

>The skiffle movement has obviously been rocked recently with the loss of both Lonnie Donegan and Nancy Whiskey. Could you give us your thoughts on their contribution to the movement?

Lonnie built on the foundations laid down by the likes of Ken Colyer to become the fountainhead of Skiffle, even though he abandoned the washboard until recent years and never ever used a T-chest bass (neither did we come to that). With 30 entries in the Hit Parade his influence on pop culture can't be denied. Nancy never really liked skiffle and always professed to being a folk-singer. She was only with my group for about 8 months, but with the success of Freight Train she could have gone on to greater heights, had she not stopped to get married and concentrate on a family.

>Which recent musicians interest you?

Recent in pop terms means yesterday. But my heroes vary from Mark Knopfler and Eric Clapton to Van Morrison, Moby, The Neville Bros etc. etc.

>What annoys you about the modern music industry? How has it changed do you think?

Can't stand the obviously manufactured groups (they are not bands). The odd act breaks through with genuine talent, but the 'powers that pay' have no knowledge of the past and no interest in the music and how it has developed. It is merely a money-making excercise. It always was of course but there was often a creative genius to guide the bankrollers.

>Could you choose your 6 non-skiffle desert island discs.

Ken Colyer Jazz Band – ‘Goin' Home’, Georgia White – ‘Was I Drunk’, Van Morrison – ‘Madame George’, Joe Brown – ‘Come On Joe’, Little Richard – ‘Lucille’ and Jimmy Rogers - ‘Treasures Untold’.

>How about a desert island book and a luxury item?

Cheating about the book, I'd like The Encyclopaedia Britannica, and if not the real thing then a 'blow-up' Marilyn Monroe.


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