I see that today, February 8, 2023, is the 102nd anniversary of the death of George Formby, Sr. That implies the existence of a “George Formby, Jr, and indeed I see that the younger Mr. Formby is the one I’m familiar with via my family’s interest in comedy and music hall songs of the 1920s and 1930s. This was one of the ukulele-playing youngster’s biggest hits:
The words were imprinted on my brain about two-thirds of a century ago. Thank you, family.
But, I wondered, who was George Formby, Sr? So I started out–as I often do–with Wikipedia, not because it’s always reliable and accurate (because it is not), but because it’s easy, and because it generally provides other links and references to follow.
What I discovered is that the elder Mr. Formby grew up as “James Booth,” the son of an alcoholic cotton-weaver mother who worked a side-gig as a prostitute and who married James’s father some months after James’s birth. Life continued as before for them all, and James frequently slept outside, developing along the way a number of unfortunate respiratory conditions that were to plague him all his life. In his early years, he sang on street corners and in pubs for pennies, and eventually began to develop an act for the stage.
He enjoyed a fairly successful career in the north of England during the mid-to-late 1890s, marrying when he was 22, Martha Salter. The couple lived apart, and the following year he married (presumably bigamously) Eliza Hoy, with whom he had thirteen children, seven of whom (including George, Jr), survived.
His career took off for real in 1908, when he secured a London booking, and in 1913, he performed in a Royal Command Performance before the King and Queen. Unfortunately, his career was short-lived, as his lifelong lung problems were worsened by an accident in which part of a stage collapsed onto his chest in June of 1916, and then by a subsequent episode of tuberculosis. Formby’s health, never robust, steadily declined, and he died, aged 45, on February 8, 1921.
“Standing at the Corner of the Street” is generally regarded as his most famous composition (lyrics are here, for the–as it were–dialectically-challenged):
It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it? In fact, it’s a bit painful to listen to, and not only because of the primitive recording mechanism. Still, that’s what the crowds were buying in 1910, and if it’s a choice between that or the most recent “satanic” writhing and posturing at the Grammy awards, I’ll take Formby, Sr, every time.
George Formby, Jr enjoyed a considerably happier life than his father, beginning his life as a stable boy, and taking over his father’s persona and act at the age of 17, in 1921 when the elder Formby died. He married happily, his wife became his manager, he bought a ukulele, and the rest is history.
Like his father, Formby suffered considerable ill-health, and wasn’t especially long-lived. His wife died of uterine cancer in 1961, and he survived her by only ten weeks, dying on March 6 at the age of 55, after his last of several heart attacks.
I’m pretty sure, if only I could go back and question my paternal grandparents and their three oldest children, that they’d remember George Formby Sr quite well. (They were early adopters of the ‘gramophone,’ and no doubt had some of his early records.) I know that all my grandparents and all their children were well aware of George Formby Jr, and that (with the likely exception of my maternal grandmother who was a pretty starchy old broad), they enjoyed him very much, passing many of his party-pieces down to their children and grandchildren.
I do wonder, with the appalling state of popular music today, what people will be writing and saying about it a hundred years from now.
The mind boggles.