The show business career of George Formby spanned exactly FORTY YEARS, beginning in 1921 until his death in 1961. During that period he appeared in 21 hit films, cut over 230 records, made hundreds of stage performances, appeared in two Royal Command Performances and entertained an estimated THREE MILLION Allied Servicemen and women during World War II throughout Europe and the Middle East. Although he never performed in the U.S.A. he did make personal appearances and was quite popular in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
By 1939, George Formby was the most popular and highest paid entertainer in the British Isles and was estimated to be earning over £100,000 a year. The secret of his success was a unique combination of personality, natural ability and talent coupled with the driving force of his wife, Beryl as his Manager. With his natural human warmth and friendliness, George could hold a live audience in the palm of his hand as he sang and played the ukulele in his own inimitable style. He seemed to have the ability to make people enjoy what he did, and his audiences always called for more.George Formby helped write and perform over 300 original songs, largely flavoured with his own brand of English North Country humour. He was well known for playing the Banjo Ukulele, a hybrid instrument combining the Hawaiian ukulele and the big American Banjo, which had been invented by Alvin D. Keech and christened by him as the 'Banjulele'
Born in Wigan
The story behind George's rise to popularity in show business is an interesting and fascinating one. He was born George Hoy Booth on 26 May 1904 in Wigan, Lancashire. He was the eldest of seven children having four sisters and
two brothers. His father, George Formby Senior (real name James Booth), was already a famous stage actor and comedian when young George was born. He never wanted any of his family to enter show business and so young George was sent to become an apprentice jockey at the age of seven years. He rode his first professional race at the age of ten and weighing only three stones thirteen pounds.
When his father died suddenly in 1921, encouraged by his mother and being too heavy to continue horse racing, he decided to follow in his father's footsteps. Calling himself George Hoy (his mother's maiden name) he took to the stage using his father's material. The results were disastrous. After a couple of years learning the business and getting married to Beryl, he met a fellow actor who strummed a Banjo Ukulele for fun between shows. He sold the instrument to George for £2/10 (£2.50) and George quickly learned a couple of songs. Accepting a bet that he dare not use the Banjo Ukulele in his act, George played it at the Alhambra Theatre in Barnsley - and brought the house down! George and his 'Uke' were inseparable from that point on.
In 1932, George made a record with the famous Jack Hylton Band. The 'A' side was called 'Do De O Do' and the 'B' side was a song called 'Chinese Blues'. When the record was released it was the 'B' side that became all the rage across the North and the Midlands and Formby adopted it as his signature tune renamed as 'Chinese Laundry Blues', complete with the now famous 'Mr. Wu'.In 1934, George made his first film, 'Boots! Boots!', which launched his film career. A contract to make 11 films for ATP at the Ellstree Studios soon followed resulting in George Formby becoming the most popular entertainer in the British Isles earning an estimated £100,000 a year.A further contract worth Columbia to make seven films earned him a further £500,000.Each of his films contained three or four songs which were invariably released as 78 rpm records and on sheet music. These included such titles as:- 'The Window Cleaner', 'Fanlight Fanny', 'Riding In The T.T. Races' and probably his most famous song, written by Noel Gay, 'Leaning On A Lamp Post'.
He continued to entertain throughout the war as part of ENSA throughout Europe and the Middle East and was one of the first entertainers into Normandy after the invasion, where he was personally invited by General Montgomery to entertain the front line troops.
Zip Goes A Million
After the war, George toured and entertained throughout the World. In 1951, he was offered the part of Percy Piggott in the musical show, 'Zip Goes A Million' by impresario Emile Littler. It was based on the play, 'Brewsters Millions'. When it opened in the West End it was acclaimed by the critics and George was a shining star again. However, six months into the run and George suffered a heart attack, which caused him to leave the show and rest.After 18 months of recuperation, he began to do one-night stands, seaside summer shows and pantomime gradually easing himself back into work.
The Friday Show
In 1960, George made his last record, 'Happy Go Lucky Me' and in December of the same year made what was to be his last television programme. A forty minute, one man show called 'The Friday Show'. It was to be a confessional with George admitting that Beryl had been the driving force behind his success, that he couldn't read and write properly, that he didn't understand music and that he regretted not having any children.
Beryl is ill
His wife, Beryl, watched the programme from her sickbed. She was dying from leukemia, but was still able to offer her usual critique of George's performance.Beryl died on Christmas Eve, 1960. George was appearing in pantomime in Bristol and returned to the show immediately after the funeral.
There was still a few surprises to come. A few weeks after Beryl's death, George suddenly announced his engagement to Pat Howson, a young 36-year-old schoolteacher. George knew her through having purchased some motor cars from her father's garage. The wedding was planned for the early spring.
06 March 1961
Unfortunately George had another heart attack and although he appeared to be recovering, he died in Preston's St. Joseph's Roman Catholic hospital on the 6 March 1961 at the age of 56 years.He was buried in Warrington Cemetery in the family grave, and an estimated 100,000 mourners lined the streets on the day of the funeral to show their respect for one of the greatest entertainers this country has ever known.