Dig This: Ron Diggins and The First Mobile DJs
In the wilds of Lincolnshire a recent auction of ’40s and ’50s DJing equipment sheds light on the career of a pioneering post-war disc jockey, one of the very first mobile DJs. Monster wooden consoles, ancient bakelite gear and big clunking wind-up double decks, strictly for 78s. The equipment belongs to Boston hero Ron Diggins, who died last December aged 91, having started DJing in 1947 and enjoying a career spanning 50 years.
It was Jimmy Savile who revolutionised British nightlife by spearheading the Mecca organisation’s move from dance bands to DJs at the end of the ’50s. But in the austere post-war years leading up to this Savile wasn't alone in realising the mass entertainment potential of recorded music.
Ron Diggins was a professional radio engineer with a business providing public address systems. "I'd been playing background music and doing voice-overs out the back of my van at school sports days and the like,” he told the Boston Standard. “It was nothing to do with dancing – that was the last thing on my mind." But in September 1947, the farm girls from the Swineshead Land Army decided Ron’s gear could be put to better use: "They were passing the office, saw the van and came in to ask if it could be used for dancing. They were having a harvest supper with some of the Italian POWs. Well, I'd never thought of it before, but I didn't want to lose the booking – so I said I'd give it a go."
"Back then there was just the waltz, the quick-step and the Palais glide – and I always ended up with the National Anthem," he explained. "It was unheard of at the time to play records at a dance and it just took off from there – although I had no idea how things would snowball."
Ron’s 78s proved wildly popular, no doubt because his record selections gave audiences slightly grander music than they were used to. "When I started out, the ordinary village halls danced to live piano and drums – that's all. If it was something extra special, they'd have a violin as well."
In 1949 he built his famous ‘Diggola’ a wonderful art deco mobile DJ booth modelled on the bandstands of the jazz era. The first of six, it came complete with double decks for 78s, a home-made mixer, lights, microphone, amplifier and ten speakers. "It took me about six weeks to build the first Diggola. We couldn't get plywood in those days, so soon after the war. So I had to make it out of coffin boards."
Diggins was not alone in his pioneering efforts. In his Radio 4 documentary ‘The Other Mobiles’ Chris Eldon Lee tracked down a series of DJs operating in the 1940s and ’50s, including Bertrand Thorpe, who as far back as 1941 was rocking the crowds with his 30-watt amplifier. Bert recalls how he’d stand with his back to the audience flicking three 40-watt light bulbs on and off in time to the music.
In the ’50s Ron Diggins’ fame had spread so widely around south Lincolnshire that he had to hire two other DJs to keep up with his bookings. His success angered the Musicians’ Union, who used their clout to prevent him playing larger venues. So sadly, though he’d set his heart on it, Ron never played Boston’s Gliderdrome. He retired in 1995 after playing around 20,000 parties. The most he ever charged was £50.
"I've invented nothing," he insisted on his 90th birthday. "I put the same things to a different use, that's all."
© Frank Broughton, 2008
A DJhistory original
The Boston Standard
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