WHEN people see or hear a ukulele-banjo (or banjo-uke or banjolele), they almost invariably think of George Formby, the English comedian with the naughty songs and the dynamite right hand. But there was another British entertainer treading the boards and strumming up a storm during the same period as George – the magnificent Tessie O’Shea.
Born in Cardiff, Wales on March 13, 1913, Tessie was something of a child prodigy. She reportedly started working at the age of six and was booked for a solo appearance at the Bristol Hippodrome in England when she was 12. At 15, while starring in a revue in Blackpool, she first performed the song Two-Ton Tessie From Tennessee, which quickly became her signature tune.
By the mid-1940s, Tessie was topping the bill at the London Palladium, a bona fide music hall star. Movie roles and hit records followed and, in 1963, Noël Coward created a part specifically for her in his Broadway musical The Girl Who Came To Supper. Tessie’s turn as Cockney fish’n’chips seller Ada Cockle garnered her a Tony Award and an American audience. She was a guest on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 and proved so popular that she was invited back the following year to share the stage with The Beatles.
“Tessie was a powerful player,” says Chris Jameson, the owner of O’Shea’s Gibson UB5 uke-banjo. “You probably wouldn’t have lent her your favourite ukulele, if not because of her enthusiastic fan stroke, then maybe for her habit of throwing her uke in the air at the end of a song and not always catching it.”
As Tessie’s career wound down, she moved to Florida, USA, where she lived with her friend Ernest Wampola, a well-known pianist and composer she had met during World War II, when they were both entertaining the troops. Ernest became Tessie’s musical director and manager and welcomed her into his family.
In 1995, Tessie died of congestive heart failure at the age of 82. A fantastic player with an infectious lust for life, she deserves to be remembered as a ukulele legend.
By Cameron Murray
This article originally appeared in Issue 9 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in the Store