Thursday, May 5, 2011

George Formby

I'm a big You Tube fan. Whenever I think of something from the past, in the way of movies or music, I head straight to You Tube. It's like a time machine, allowing you to step back and re-watch, or listen to, anything that pops into your memory.

George Formby was always one of those shadowy memories to me. Like so many other of my early childhood film reminisces, George Formby dates back to WOR-TV Channel 9 in New York City. They showed all low budget, copyright expired stuff. Among the films I used to watch were some cheesy old British comedies. With their slightly different approach to humor I found these films to be intriquing. They were also very influential in the types of music I would eventually grow to enjoy. In the case of George Formby, that venue would be the British Music Hall variety of what we have always called "vaudeville."

George Formby was born George Hoy Booth on May 26th, 1904 in Lancashire, England. Although born blind, a violent coughing fit unclogged his vision when he was only 2 months old. It was the first act in what would be a charmed life, in which he would go on to become one of Britain's most beloved and entertaining performers. He adopted the last name Formby for the town of the same name, located just outside his native Lancashire.

Although apprenticed as a jockey when he was 7 years old, as a child he clearly was drawn to entertainment. Upon the death of his father, who was somewhat of an entertainer himself, George embarked, at age 17, upon his musical career, which would carry him through the next 40 years, establishing himself as one of the world's most beloved musical acts. (There is even a snippet of his banjo playing on a Beatle record- but I'll let you figure out which one.)

His "schtick", or gimmick, was in his lyrics. Bordering on the bawdry, and always infused with double entendre, his songs are at once self effacing, as well as pointedly satirical. He played a 5 string banjo, sometimes called a banjo ukulele or banjolele.

Although he was signed by Columbia Pictures, his films were never released here in America, and were it not for WOR-TV I might never have been aware of his talent. But through the magic of You Tube, I am able to enjoy George Formby anytime I want to. I even have his songs converted into MP3 so that I can listen to him in the car.

Although his first record was released in 1926, his humor didn't catch on until about 1932 when he recorded "Chinese Laundry Blues." He followed this up with a series of records concerning the life of "Mr. Wu", the ficticous owner of the Chinese laundry. In various recordings, Mr. Formby has him working as an Air Raid Warden in "Mr. Wu's an Air Raid Warden Now", as well as a window cleaner in "Mr. Wu's a Window Cleaner Now." These recordings, along with his later records of the 1940's earned him an eternal place in the hearts of most of his countrymen. His songs, along with Vera Lynn's, were sung in the air raid shelters during the German "Blitz" of London during the Battle of Britain.

If you've never listened to George Formby before, then you are missing out on a real treat. The songs may seem a little corny in today's high tech, 24/7 world. The lyrics may even seem tame in comparison to today's standards. But the genius of his word play, along with his stacatto style of playing, make him a unique and wonderful part of British Music Hall History, as well as an icon of the indomitable British spirit.

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