George Formby senior was born James Lawler Booth on 4 October 1875 in Ashton-Under Lyne, Lancashire. His childhood was harsh, his Mother was an alcoholic who sometimes worked as a prostitute. His Father was a coal miner and his parents married when he was six months old, but had a turbulent, violent marriage, leading to neglect of George. He began earning money for himself by singing on street corners for pennies. His health was affected by his poor upbringing, as he regularly ended up sleeping outdoors when his Mother didn’t come home at night. He stopped attending school before he was ten years old, and his Father died when he was just 15, by which time he had started developing his act and singing in pubs, performing with another boy as The Glen Ray Brothers for a while. Until 1897 he was billed as J. H. Booth, then he changed his stage name to George Formby. In the same year he married for the first time, to Martha Salter. This marriage was unsuccessful but the couple never divorced, meaning that Formby’s marriage to Eliza Hoy two years later was bigamous. Formby continued polishing his act, inventing characters such as John Willie who became one of his staples, and in 1902 appeared for the first time in London where he soon became a success in the music halls. In 1904 the couple had their first son, George Hoy Booth. Two years later Formby senior made his first recordings on wax cylinder for the Louis Sterling Cylinder Company. A year later he signed a contract with the Zonophone label, who he stayed with until his death. His fame continued to grow and in 1913 performed before King George V and Queen Mary in a Royal Command Performance in Liverpool. When war broke out in 1914 he was unable to enlist because of his health problems but instead appeared at recruiting rallies. In the same year he also appeared in his only (silent) film, “No fool like an old fool”, which, like many films of the time, has been lost and is presumed not to exist.
Formby’s stage act, and many of his recordings, referenced his ill health; he would often cough on stage and used the phrase “Coughing well tonight”. In 1916 his health was affected again by an on-stage accident during rehearsals at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane when a stage collapsed onto him. This caused further lung damage which was then exacerbated by the onset of tuberculosis. In 1918 he also caught influenza during that year’s pandemic. All these worsening health problems meant that he cancelled more and more performances, although he continued recording. Things got so bad an oxygen tent would be erected off stage during his performances, and he would suck ice to prevent internal bleeding. Formby collapsed early in 1921 after a performance of the pantomime Jack and Jill in Newcastle. He died on 8 February of pulmonary tuberculosis, aged just 45.
Formby senior recordings on this Podcast are :
- John Willie, Come on (Jumbo, 1909, recorded 1906 for release on Wax Cylinder)
- Commercial Traveller (Zonophone, 1914)
- Looking for mugs in the strand (Zonophone, 1919)
- Weeping Jinnie (Zonophone, recorded 1919, released 1920)
As noted above, George Formby junior was born in 1904,in Wigan. Due to his Father’s burgeoning fame and fortune he had an easier childhood than his Father and he originally wanted to be a jockey, working as a stable boy from an early age. This suited his Father, who didn’t want him to have a stage career. He did, however, appear in a 1915 silent film, “By the shortest of heads”, which, like his Father’s film of the previous year, no longer exists. The younger George continued his career as a jockey but was largely unsuccessful, never winning a race. When his Father died in 1921, he decided to carry on his act, initially appearing under the name George Hoy (using his Mother’s maiden name). Initially he was unsuccessful, but by 1923 he felt he was sufficiently popular enough to take his Father’s name. Around this time he met Beryl Ingham, who he married in 1924. She became his manager and revamped his stage act and it was from this point that he started to become popular enough to warrant a recording contract. Thus, in 1926, he recorded 3 records (6 songs) for the Edison Bell Winner label (of his Father’s old songs). No other recordings were made until 1929, when he recorded a one off 78 for the Dominion label (“In the congo”/”All going back”). Another 3 years passed until, in 1932, he signed a record deal with Decca and his career really took off. Several of Formby’s best known songs were recorded for Decca, including “Chinese Laundry blues”, “Why don’t women like me ?”, “Swimmin’ with the wimmin” and “Fanlight Fanny”. During his time with Decca, Formby began his film career, appearing in two low budget independent films, “Boots Boots” (1934) and “Off the dole” (1935). Towards the end of 1935 Formby signed an 11 film, 7 year deal with ATP (Associated Talking Pictures) and the first of these, “No limit” was released in December 1935. Shortly after this, with his Decca contract expired, he signed to the Regal Zonophone label and with films and records being produced simultaneously he began his period of greatest success. Over the next few years records such as “The Window cleaner” (aka “When I’m cleaning windows”), “Leaning on a lamp post”, “Our Sergeant Major”, “Grandad’s Flanelette nightshirt” “With my little stick of Blackpool rock”, and “Oh! Don’t the wind blow cold”, alongside films such as “Turned out nice again”, “Trouble brewing”, “It’s in the air” and “Keep your seats please” made George the biggest UK star of the time. During the war George spent much time entertaining the troops and raising moiney for charity. In 1941 he signed to Columbia for his film work, the first under the contract being “South American George.” He made several more films for Columbia, but in 1946 made his final film, “George in Civvy Street”. This coincided with the expiry of his Regal Zonophone contract, and the songs from this film were released on 2 78s on Columbia.
Although George made no more films, he carried on with stage appearances, including pantomimes, and foreign tours, then in 1950 re-signed to Decca Records where he re-recorded a few of his former hits. The following year he recorded a couple of 78s for His Master’s voice, featuring songs from his stage shows. He made many TV appearances during the ’50s (few of which survive) then in 1960 made his final record for the PYE label, a 7″ Single (78s having just about died out by then) coupling “Banjo boy” and “Happy go lucky me”. His final TV appearance was in December 1960 on “The Friday Show” (which survives in the archives). He died a matter of weeks later, on March 6 1961, aged 56.
Formby junior recordings featured on this podcast are :
- John Willie, Come on (Edison Bell Winner, 1926)
- Why don’t women like me ? (Decca, 1933)
- Keep your seats please (Regal Zonophone, 1936)
- The left hand side of Egypt (Regal Zonophone, 1941)
- We’ve been a long time gone (Columbia, 1946)
A Complete list of George Formby junior’s Recordings, Films and TV appearances can be found HERE