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Johnny Duncan

Essay by review  •  December 12, 2010  •  Essay  •  814 Words (4 Pages)  •  620 Views

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In the summer of 1957, the Tennessee singer Johnny Duncan, who has died of cancer in Australia aged 67, achieved a one-off hit, Last Train To San Fernando.

It epitomised the spirit of the British skiffle boom, remained in the top 20 for weeks and featured an irritating, compulsive catchline that reverberated down the rest of the century.

Duncan had not wanted to record the song - he was a hillbilly country singer with one eye on rock 'n' roll - and he was to pay a price for his association with skiffle. But he had a good voice, a talent for the guitar and mandolin, and, in an era when inept imitation of transatlantic rock 'n' roll plagued British pop, he was, at least, a real American.

It was a time when Musicians Union restrictions limiting the entry of American stars increased the exoticism of those few transatlantic imports. And Duncan was the first in a line of US pop singers - Geno Washington, the Walker Brothers, PJ Proby et al - whose careers blossomed in Britain.

Duncan was a miner's son, born in Oliver Springs, Tennessee. He sang with his local church choir and later with a gospel quartet before heading for Texas in his mid-teens. There he learned guitar and performed with a hillbilly trio. Then came the draft. He arrived as a serviceman in England in 1952. A year later he married a Cambridgeshire girl, Betty. After a brief return to the US, her illness and homesickness brought them back, and he briefly worked on her father's market clothes stall.

It was while performing at the American Club in Bushey Park that Duncan attracted the attention of Dickie Bishop, banjoist with the then hugely successful Chris Barber jazz band. The band had been the launchpad for the "king of skiffle", Lonnie Donegan, who had quit Barber following the phenomenal success of Rock Island Line. Bishop recalls inviting Duncan to the White Hart in Southall to meet Barber - and he was taken on for Ј10 a week. The American stayed with the band - or with the Chris Barber Skiffle Group, within it - for a year, performing live, recording and broadcasting.

By early 1957, alongside the impact of American rock 'n' roll, skiffle, that "peculiar mixture of country, gospel, folk and blues" as Duncan's sometime recording manager Keith Glass labelled it, had emerged as a British phenomenon, and indeed the seedbed of domestic rock 'n' roll, with Donegan and others enjoying a string of hits.

Thus did Duncan leave Barber and, guided by producer Dennis Preston, recruited the Blue Grass Boys, Lennie Hastings, Denny Wright, Jack Fallon and Danny Levan. Their first single, Hank Williams's Kaw Liga in April 1957, flopped. Then, two months later, came Last Train To San Fernando. The Duke Of Iron had recorded the song as a calypso, and Preston's Caribbean wife had drawn the song to her husband's attention. "I'd have chucked it in the trash can,"

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