BORN George Hoy Booth on May 26, 1904 in Wigan, England, one of the greatest ukulele players who ever lived almost didn’t pick up the instrument.
The son of an Edwardian music hall star who never wanted any of his family to enter show business, George was forced to become an apprentice jockey at age seven and rode in his first professional race when he was 10.
Following his father’s unexpected death in 1921, George was encouraged by his mother to perform his dad’s old material, so he took to the stage. Spectacularly unsuccessful at first, he bought a banjo-ukulele from a fellow actor and accepted a bet that he wouldn’t play it in his act. Naturally, the audience loved the uke and George was soon topping the bill all over the country.
By 1932, he had adopted his father’s stage name of ‘Formby’ and had his first hit record with a funny song called Chinese Laundry Blues. In 1934, George starred in a high-grossing comedy called Boots! Boots! and subsequently signed a contract worth an incredible £100,000 to make a further 11 films with Associated Talking Pictures. He later agreed to make another seven movies for US studio Columbia for the mind-blowing sum of £500,000.
With the help of his shrewd wife Beryl, George Formby became the top comedian in Britain between 1934 and 1945, and also found considerable fame in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In 1946, he received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his tireless work entertaining Allied forces in Europe and North Africa during World War II. In fact, he was one of the first entertainers to enter Normandy after the D-Day invasion, where he was personally invited by General Montgomery to play for the frontline troops.
In 1951, while starring in a critically acclaimed West End musical called Zip Goes a Million, Formby suffered a heart attack and was forced to leave the show. He went back to work 18 months later, but it didn’t last as long as it should have. After another heart attack, George Formby died on March 6, 1961, aged 56.
But even though the great man is gone, he’ll never be forgotten. Songs such as Leaning On A Lamp Post and The Window Cleaner have become timeless classics, and ukulele players everywhere have been trying to emulate his legendary ‘split stroke’ for more than 70 years. To quote his much-loved catchphrase, “It’s turned out nice again!”