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Big Band Database

the pre-Beatles era

In terms of innovation it has to be said that pre-Beatles Britain, from the ending of the First World War right through to the closing years of the 1950's, was a fairly sterile era for popular music. The main vehicles for popular song in the 1920's, music hall and musical theatre, were inward looking and rather parochial, and in the case of the former, at the beginning of a long decline. And during the 1930's, Britain's Big Bands were a pale shadow of their American counterparts, a kind of dilute reflection of the scene Stateside.
The wartime years 1939 - 1945 of course stand out. The patriotism and longing captured by the popular songs of the day have a special resonance. When Vera Lynn sang "We'll Meet Again" and "The White Cliffs Of Dover", for example, she sang for a fearful but determined nation.
The immediate post-war years once again revealed a fairly barren musical landscape. Across the Atlantic early r&b was beginning to take over from the Big Band sound, but Britain, lacking ethnic and cultural diversity, had a moribund pop scene still dominated by dance orchestras fronted by cabaret singers. Television was just beginning to get off the ground, but it was through the radio, the era's main vehicle for mass home entertainment, that the increasingly insistent rumblings of the seismic shift taking place in American popular music could increasingly be detected.
In the early 1950's Lonnie Donegan, Ken Colyer and Chris Barber picked up on 1920's Chicago "spasm band" jazz and the jug-band traditions originally found in turn of the century New Orleans and, by combining them with bluegrass, came up with was skiffle, a style which didn't really have a direct equivalent in America. Donegan had a huge hit by applying the style to "Rock Island Line", a Leadbelly song from the 1930's, setting in motion a mini-craze which lasted until the late 1950's. By this time, however, a musical revolution called rock & roll was really beginning to stir up the turgid British music scene.
One of it's earliest beneficiaries was Cliff Richard, whose early hits include Ian Samwell's 1958 classic "Move It" and "Livin' Doll" in 1959, a song written by Lionel Bart. Another heart-throb of the time, Adam Faith, went to No.1 with "What Do You Want ?", courtesy of Johnny Worth ( a.k.a. Les Vandyke ), who also had a big influence writing for and promoting another early rocker, Eden Kane.
But it was Johnny Kidd who came up with perhaps the most significant British song of the time, the rock & roll standard "Shakin' All Over", which was a smash hit for Johnny and The Pirates in 1960. It's revolutionary sound had a formative influence on many early British rock bands which followed, particularly The Who.
Rock & Roll sparked Britain's dormant youth culture into life, and, inspired by The Beatles and the pioneers of the British Invasion, it has been at the forefront of popular music ever since.

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Prominent songwriters

Lonnie Donegan
Chris Barber
Ian Samwell
Lionel Bart
Johnny Worth
Johnny Kidd


audio : Nostalgia

books : on Skiffle


audio : Ladies 1930's-50's

books : on skiffle