Britishness, History, Music

George Formby, Senior and Junior

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.


2 thoughts on “George Formby, Senior and Junior”

  1. There was a stand up comic about 15-20 years ago who was musing over just such a question: what will people of the future say about the trash of the present? He cited a number of big rap and pop hits and quoted their lyrics (often overtly obscene) – then for comic effect painted a scene where such garbage was, say, a bride’s favorite song, the favorite number played at a funeral, or fodder for “Oldies” stations. The absurdity of it all had the audience fidgeting with embarrassment, while sniggering uncomfortably.

    1. It’s a conundrum, to be sure. Frankly, I’m not sorry I won’t be around to see it. A recent post on Ricochet dealt with the Grammy broadcast (I didn’t watch it, but I was unfortunate enough to have an excerpt thrust (carefully chosen word) upon me while I was perusing something else.) I commented that it’s the unrelenting ugliness of it all that repels and disappoints me most; that people with all the money in the world spend it on rendering themselves hideous, and then writhing around in public in hideous ways, while impersonating bizarre and sacrilegious sex acts which are supposed to horrify and shock those who are too “white” or uptight to appreciate them, and as they congratulate each other on their superiority to the rest of us.

      I’m not surprised that Western youth are as miserable and anxiety-ridden as they are about what is to come. When their elders and their idols clearly hate themselves, why should the youth feel any differently or believe that any aspect of life has a future or is worth living?

      While transgressive idols have always been with us to one extent or another (I’m just old enough to remember some of the flap about “Mr. Swivel Hips,” Elvis Presley, and then there was “Rubber lips” Mick Jagger, and Alice Cooper, and many others over the years.) But they were–at the time–actually transgressive, and even, one might say, somewhat brave in their rebelliousness. The freaks of today are actually part of the mainstream culture. There’s nothing brave or transgressive or remotely interesting about them. They’re just predictable and boring.

      Now, a Christian barbershop quartet, singing hymns on the Grammy show?

      That would be brave!

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