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Retro Redux: Johnny Duncan’s ‘Skiffle’ Inspired The Beatles

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If you were to ask current music fans what they know about Johnny Duncan, most would either not recognize the name or would think of the country music star who first rose to prominence in the 1970s. But there was an earlier Johnny Duncan and his story makes for a fascinating tale, one that involves early rock and roll, the Beatles, and something called skiffle.

It's a story that starts with Duncan's Depression-era birth, which — depending on the source — was either in Tennessee or Michigan. What is for sure is that he was drafted and sent to England in the early 1950s, where he met and married a pretty local girl. Eventually he and his new wife returned to the States, but Duncan's English rose seemed to wilt so far from home and they ended up going back in England.jd

Duncan's musical side was beginning to appear by then, and he began trying to make a living playing and singing bluegrass-flavored country music for British audiences. He helped sell himself by affecting a broad Southern accent and claiming experience with Bill Monroe's bluegrass group. He began to attract some fans and was also noticed by bandleader Chris Barber, who had recently lost budding skiffle star Lonnie Donegan to a solo career.

Donegan would go on to become the "king of skiffle," but maybe we should pause here for a definition. Wikipedia puts it this way: "Skiffle [is] a type of folk music with jazz, blues and country influences, usually using homemade or improvised instruments…as well as more conventional instruments such as acoustic guitar and banjo."

And Merriam-Webster adds that is is "a derivative form of music formerly popular in Great Britain featuring vocals with a simple instrumental accompaniment."

Skiffle also bore a passing resemblance to rockabilly, which was growing in popularity in the States during the same period that skiffle was taking Great Britain by storm. That made it a natural fit for Johnny Duncan, and after spending some time with Barber's band, he decided in 1957 to go solo, backed by his newly-formed Blue Grass Boys. Although his sound might have been a little different than traditional skiffle, British audiences liked it and a recording contract followed.

Duncan's first record was a four-track EP that included several traditional country songs such as "Freight Train Blues" and "Blue Yodel," but the lines between genres were a little blurred in those days and his musical style suited British skiffle fans just fine. That included several young musicians from Liverpool whose fledgling group — the Quarrymen — would later evolve into the Beatles.

While he was hot, Duncan continued to hit the recording studio, generating a series of records that included what would be his biggest hit, "Last Train to San Fernando," a song that was actually a reworked calypso piece. He also had good sellers with "Blue Blue Heartache" and "Ella Speed." (Video below.)

Although Duncan was tremendously popular in Great Britain, he was unable to export his fame to the States, where he was considered just one of many rockabilly-style country singers. Eventually his popularly lessened among British fans too, but for many years he was still able to make occasional spot appearances for his loyal fans. He also continued to do the occasional recording over the next decade or two, but eventually retired. He died in 2000.

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  • http://lifeofthebeatles.blogspot.com life of the beatles

    Interesting – I hadn’t heard of him, but it’s quite possible the Beatles were influenced by his early skiffle records. The Beatles also of course knew Chris Barber, whose band recorded McCartney’s “Cat Call.”

  • http://patrickbakermusic.com Patrick Baker

    Hi,
    My grandmother, Elizabeth Duncan, was Johnny’s cousin and knew him as a boy. I can confirm that he raised in Oliver Springs, TN on Windrock Mountain. His father, Columbus Duncan, worked in the mines there and after his parents divorced his mother, Ruth Duncan, who lived in Knoxville, would often go up to visit him and his brothers along with my grandmother. My grandmother recalls seeing him play guitar and sing as a teenager before he moved away. His mother later moved to Michigan and my grandmother thinks that some of the boys may have moved there with her.

  • bruce melton

    johnny is my cousin, i was born in wind rock,my dads sister was his mother.i also play guitar and sing,i played in a band in the sixtys.i never got to meet him,but i have wanted to be like him sence i was 8 years old.i now live in crossville tn

  • Julie Beach

    Hallo, my name is Julie & Johnny was my Dad & I was just in Oliver Springs where the Historical Society has memorabilia on him. I live in Ontario Canada & would enjoy hearing anymore stories/information that comes to light on Johnny Duncan.

    • sondra

      Hi My name is Sondra Duncan Smithduncan smith and Johnny was my uncle. I am Ray Duncans daughter! I would love to know my family, I wish our dads were here. Please contact me through my email littlemom4020@yahoo.com

    • Kelvin Favell

      Hi Julie. I tried to message you earlier this month as I knew both you and your dad when you lived in England. In fact we were the fastest runners of our respective gender at Hartford school and our dad’s often drank in the local pub and played dominoes. Your Dad was always friendly to me whenever I saw him as I think he was to most people. I pass by your old home just about every day. Kind regards.

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