BY KAREN PETERSON
As a young man, George Formby Jr. had no ambitions to become the UK’s highest-paid entertainer. He wanted to train horses. Instead, his mother shoved the 19-year-old into show business just a few weeks after the death of his father, George Sr., a well-known music hall performer in the early 1900s, whose shtick with a cane was the inspiration for Charlie Chaplin’s “Tramp” character.
Whether or not George Jr. aspired to follow in his father’s successful footsteps is irrelevant. In a matter of years, he became one of the UK’s most beloved celebrities and he remains a popular and influential ukulele player nearly a century after his birth in the working-class north England town of Wigan.
Self-taught and hailed as one of the finest rhythm ukulele players, Formby helped write and recorded more than 200 tunes—some say 300—among them his trademark, “When I’m Cleaning Windows,” which, in true Formby form, is a ditty about a window-cleaning Peeping Tom.
Far and away the man of his day, or, rather decades, Formby tickled the masses with his goofy-guy—or “gormless,” as the Brits say—persona so powerfully that by the end of the 1930s he was earning more than £100,000 a year. Whether onstage as a stand-up comedian in 1920s minstrel shows, in later performances at major music halls, or in his films, Formby charmed audiences with his buckteeth, bumpkin manners, and distinctive “lower-class” dialect.
They also enjoyed tittering at his risqué (for the day) lyrics. His songs were rife with slapstick sexual innuendoes and “wink-wink” metaphors, all ribald and silly and not unlike the humor to come from British comedians Benny Hill and Monty Python.
Formby starred in 21 feature films between 1934 and 1946 and was hailed as a national hero for entertaining 3 million troops during World War II, receiving the Order of the British Empire for his efforts. He also inspired a coterie of followers known as Formbyites, many of whom today fill the ranks of the official, 1,000-member George Formby Society.
Founded in 1961, the year Ukulele George died—an estimated 100,000 people lined the streets to mourn as his funeral cortege passed—the society proudly notes that Queen Elizabeth II is a fan. (Formby reportedly performed privately for the royal family when the Queen was still just a princess.)
Most notably, while not necessarily a household uke-name in the US, he gave to the Brits what Arthur Godfrey and, later, Tiny Tim, bequeathed to American audiences—an unbridled passion for both the ukulele and showmanship.
“The secret of his success was a unique combination of personality, natural ability, and talent,” the late Dennis Taylor, then-president of the George Formby Society, said when Formby was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 2004. “George could hold a live audience in the palm of his hand as he sang and played the ukulele in his own inimitable style.”
Formby’s playing style was the split stroke, a fast-paced, syncopated technique that begins with a sweeping all-string downstroke followed by a quick catch of the first, then fourth string on alternating upstrokes. His ukulele of choice was the “banjolele.” With the neck of a ukulele and a banjo’s body, the banjolele (or banjo-ukulele), invented in 1917, was a mainstay in vaudeville acts because of its ability to sound like a sweet little uke while projecting out to the audience, as only a larger instrument could.
George Harrison, who reportedly had a ukulele in every room of his home, was also a fan of Formby’s (as well as a member of the George Formby Society) and owned the gold-plated banjolele that Ukulele George played at live performances.
Harrison’s Beatles band mates apparently also appreciated Formby: In 1977, John Lennon recorded a demo of a tune called “Free as a Bird,” and nearly two decades after his death, the remaining Fab Three added to the song and released it as a single and a music video (both of which won Grammy awards in 1997). The video for “Free as a Bird” closes with a man standing onstage with his back to the camera, playing a ukulele. It’s Ukulele George, as played by a professional Formby impersonator.
Even better, if true as claimed, the song itself ends with a coda that includes Harrison strumming a ukulele, then John Lennon’s voice. Played backwards, Lennon is purportedly saying, “It’s turned out nice again”—a line from Formby’s 1941 movie of the same name that became his catchphrase.
This article originally appeared the Winter 2016 issue of Ukulele magazine.