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.
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: ‘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 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.