Chas McDevitt

Biography by Sharon Mawer

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Along with Lonnie Donegan, Chas McDevitt was one of the only original British skiffle acts to break into the American charts in the 1950s and is also in that select list of artists who were still playing…
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Artist Biography by Sharon Mawer

Along with Lonnie Donegan, Chas McDevitt was one of the only original British skiffle acts to break into the American charts in the 1950s and is also in that select list of artists who were still playing on, the same style of music, over fifty years later. His most famous hit was the archetypal skiffle track, Freight Train which reached no.5 in the charts at the height of the craze in the summer of 1957.

He was born Charles James McDevitt in Glasgow on the 4th December 1934 and the family moved south to London at the start of the Second World War. During a prolonged bout of illness in 1950, he learned to play the banjo and developed an interest in jazz and blues during this period, eventually joining the local Dixieland band while at college, The High Curley Stompers. At this time in the mid 1950s the music was known as barrelhouse rather than skiffle and his band featured a piano, bass, banjo and a washboard keeping the rhythm instead of drums. By 1955, he had become the banjo player with The Crane River Jazz Band along with Ken Colyer, Sonny Morris and Marc Sharratt playing the washboard. He would also play impromptu street gigs with Redd Sullivan, a powerful blues singer and the band would set up quickly and play a couple of numbers in shop doorways before being moved along by the law. Later that year, Chas McDevitt became a featured artist at the Cy Laurie Jazz Club during the intervals as a trio with Marc Sharratt still on washboard and Pete Timlett on piano although they were joined eventually by regular guitarists Dennis Carter and Alex Whitehouse. Other gigs included the usual jazz haunts, pubs and coffee bars including the famous ~2 I's. At the end of 1956, the band entered a local talent contest promoted by Pye Records on Radio Luxembourg. One of the songs they performed was the Paul James and Fred Williams composed number, Freight Train on which Chas McDevitt performed the lead vocal. By then, the style of music had its own label, skiffle and although The Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group had already recorded the song as a demo for Oriole Records, their new manager Bill Varley suggested they recruit a female vocalist to help them stand out from the myriad of groups who had sprung up in the past year. Folk Singer, Nancy Whiskey (born Anne Alexandra Young Wilson) had also been one of the singers in the talent show and she joined the band who re-recorded Freight Train this time with her on lead vocals. Other songs recorded at the same session included Don't You Rock Me Daddy O, New Orleans and The Cotton Song, the former track being released by Embassy Records, the budget subsidiary of Oriole that only sold through the store Woolworths and therefore allowing Lonnie Donegan to steal a march on them in the charts. In April 1957, the group played the Royal Festival Hall in London's first big skiffle session which included Johnny Duncan, Ray Bush, The Avon Cities Jazz Band, Bob Cort and Dickie Bishop and by this time, their new version of Freight Train listed as The Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group featuring Nancy Whiskey had broken into the charts, eventually peaking at no.5 in June which was immediately followed by Greenback Dollar, another top 30 single, but the final time the group would appear in the charts. By September 1957, Nancy Whiskey had left the band to get married and was replaced by another girl singer, Shirley Douglas. The early summer of 1957 was the high point for the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group with the two hits and appearances on the SS Royal Daffodil, taking skiffle across to Europe on a sponsored tour by the 2 I's, named Rock Across The Channel. They were also booked to appear on the Ed Sullivan show singing Freight Train on the same show as The Everly Brothers first performed their debut hit, Bye Bye Love. They also made a guest appearance in the movie The Tommy Steele Story, however it was also the low point for the group as Dennis Carter and Alex Whitehouse both left to form a rival group, The Oldtimers Skiffle Group. Part time member Jimmie MacGregor also departed and all three were quickly replaced by Tony Kohn, Lennie Harrison and bass player, Bill Bramwell. The new line-up of the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group were invited to join numerous nationwide tours with, Slim Whitman, Frankie Lymon & Teenagers, Freddie Bell & Bellboys and also on the ill fated tour with Jerry Lee Lewis at the time of the scandal surrounding his marriage to his 13 year old cousin. Les Bennetts and Red Reece were recruited to replace further members who had departed and during the late 1950s the band recorded for a number of labels including Top Rank, HMV, Columbia and Fontana but skiffle was no longer a mainstream force and Chas and Shirley who by then had also married in April 1959, broke up the band, continuing as a duet on the cabaret circuit well into the 1970s and on supporting tours with The Beatles, Cliff Richard, The Shadows, Dave Clark Five and Chubby Checker. The couple finally split up in 1975 even though their daughter, Kerry was also an occasional singer and washboard player with the band. McDevitt re-formed his old original band with Marc Sharatt and John Paul along with Nick Lawrence on guitar, appearing at rock and folk festivals throughout the 1980s until the untimely death of Sharratt in 1991 in a head on car collision. John Paul played on for a while but he too died in 1994 of cancer. Continuing during the 1990s as a solo performer, Chas McDevitt began to devote more time to charitable works, particularly his involvement with The Grand Order Of Water Rats, a specialist show business related charity promoting good works of which he was elected King Rat in 2003 and 2004. Nancy Whiskey did not live to see this however as she died on the 1st Of February 2003. Musically he hosted The Roots Of British Rock concert at The Royal Albert Hall in November 1997, celebrating 40 years of skiffle music and featuring a reunion with Nancy Whiskey as well as The Chris Barber Band, Chas & Dave, Tony Sheridan, Wee Willie Harris, Lonnie Donegan along with special guests, Adam Faith, Joe Brown and Bill Wyman. As of 2008, The Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group still survives with Steve Benbow on lead guitar, Jack Fallon on bass and Chas' daughter, Kerry on vocals and washboard. Occasional members include Martyn Oram on fiddle, Mike Martin, guitar and banjo and Richard Sharp on bass and several CDs of his songs have been released on the Rollercoaster label.