Johnny Duncan

Lonnie Donegan's last recordings with the Chris Barber Band, before he left to pursue a solo career capitalising on the success of "Rock Island Line", were made on 4 April 1956. He was replaced on banjo by Dick Bishop, who also soldiered on with the skiffle group (known both as Chris Barber's Skiffle Group and Dick Bishop's Skiffle Group). Lonnie's other replacement, a young American by the name of Johnny Duncan, seems to have joined the band almost by chance. There are, in fact, several slightly conflicting stories about how he came to be a member of the Chris Barber outfit. In one of the earliest Chris Barber Club booklets (Volume 1, Number 2), we read:

"When our particular part of the jazz world was buzzing with the news of Lonnie Donegan's rapidly approaching visit to the States, Johnny Duncan walked onto the scene... He came into 100 Oxford Street one evening to see if there was any chance of 'sitting in' with the band some time, and conversation soon developed. We discovered him to be an American guitarist and folk singer, over here because his wife (who is British) had to have a heart operation. (Successful, we are glad to say). At home, Johnny was well-known in his native Knoxville, Tennessee, leading his own group, broadcasting, televising and recording. Here, he is now a member of Dickie Bishop's Skiffle Group, and hopes to do some recording in the fairly near future. Incidentally, we are told that skiffle is, to Johnny, 'Blue Grass Style' music, as it originated, and still exists, among the hillbilly folk of Kentucky's 'blue grass' area."

In another account, "Dickie Bishop, banjoist with Chris Barber, says he invited Johnny along to the White Hart in Southall to meet with Barber after seeing Johnny perform at the American Club in Busbey Park." The same article also says, however:

On a whim and because he'd always liked Dixieland jazz, Duncan went to central London to see Chris Barber's Jazz Band at a club run by Humphrey Lyttelton, 100 Oxford Street. He swears he knew little about Lonnie Donegan, or the fact Lonnie had just left Barber's employ. Johnny says Ottilie Patterson spotted him from the stage and at the end of the set came up to him to remark on his resemblance to Donegan. Duncan said he was a singer too and somehow a meeting was arranged with Barber which led to an invitation to attend a rehearsal in Southall a few nights later. With Johnny an 'authentic' hillbilly and Barber's open minded attitude to the peculiar mixture of country, gospel, folk and blues that made up skiffle the deal was clinched for Johnny to perform for 10 pounds a week. It was an attractive arrangement all round and Duncan stayed with Barber for nearly a year and made his first recordings with the trombonist and part time bass player thousands of miles from his home.

Finally, Diana Robinson, who as Diana Gardner was the Barber Band's secretary at the time, tells the story this way:

The odd thing about the appearance of Johnny Duncan - unless someone had coached him behind the scenes - was this: Lonnie Donegan most frequently wore a burgundy coloured corduroy jacket, was slightly built, had dark wavy hair, and of course carried a guitar case. There was much publicity when he was leaving the band to do a solo tour in the U.S. and so everyone knew that he would be gone. But, mysteriously, almost the first week after he left there appeared in 100 Oxford Street a man wearing a burgundy colored corduroy jacket, slightly built, with dark wavy hair, and carrying a guitar case. I heard several people asking "Didn't Lonnie leave yet?" But of course the band either got to know Johnny almost immediately or had already met him, and the rest is history. He was a nice man - I was saddened to read the extensive web site that reported that his later life was so sad.

Judging by a brief note in Chris Barber's letter in the very first edition of the series of Chris Barber Club booklets, and the fact that Johnny Duncan was the first member of the band to receive his own photo-feature (in Volume 1, Number 2), it seems as though Johnny Duncan's membership in the band was expected to be a long-term affair. However, it was not to be: although one gets the sense from various archival documents that there was personal friction, it's more likely that a combination of musical differences and Johnny's desire to follow in Lonnie's footsteps as a solo artist with his own band accounted for his relatively rapid departure. As Chris Barber remarked in a 1994 interview:

But then in the end I said, "Listen, I don't really want to do interpretations of 'Footprints In The Snow', that's not the sort of stuff we did skiffle for. It's supposed to be country blues.' Didn't mind getting a bit out of the way but that's ridiculous. So we stopped doing that."

According to the Bielderman-Purser discography, Johnny played on only eight Barber tracks, six with the skiffle group and two (on guitar, accompanying Ottilie Patterson on piano) at the famous Royal Festival Hall concert on 15 December 1956. The front cover and sleeve notes for one of the records, a four-track, 7-inch EP by the Chris Barber Skiffle Group, are shown below. Most of Johnny's Barber recordings are now available on various CD reissues.

For details about Johnny Duncan's recording career after he left the band, and his subsequent life in Australia, there is a great deal of information on the web, which you can find via the links towards the bottom of this page.

Music: Doin' My Time (with the skiffle group, recorded 14 September 1956) and Bearcat Crawl (with Ottilie Patterson on piano and Chris Barber on bass, recorded 15 December 1956).

Links to Johnny Duncan information on the web:
  • Johnny Duncan (& The Blue Grass Boys)
  • Johnny Duncan
  • From Tennessee to Taree: The Johnny Duncan Story

  • Back to the Former members of the band page.