Formby’s Recordings and Stage Act
In August 1906, George began his recording career in London, his first song to be recorded was The Man From Lancashire No. 2, for the Louis Sterling Cylinder Company. He took to the new medium with relish, easily adapting his stage act to the challenging task of performing ‘cold’ with no audience interaction. For an artist like Formby, who relied heavily on participation with his public this could have caused his recordings to become stilted and unrepresentative. Instead, he would make asides to the conductor, while keeping up a running commentary to the listener between verses. Often, the song became a mere backdrop to his chat with the listener, which would eventually run through half the song, while the band patiently repeated its two bars of intro to the next verse. All of a sudden, there’d be a “Now lads!” to the band, and he’d be in on the next line of the song. He adopted the role of a friendly commander to his musicians, offering them encouragement and gently instructing them as the song progressed: “Start with me now, boys”, as soon as I go – now!”  “Don’t go so quick boys, take your time, we shall all get there when we’ve finished”. 
Sometimes, he or the band would make a mistake, but instead of spoiling the song, he would turn it into part of the act itself, commenting on their error to the ‘audience’. He became famous for his patter, often strangely surreal, especially after the song had finished; instead of the sound of the record’s run-off groove, you suddenly hear Formby talking directly to you:
“I’m getting a bit, er, rotten in my voice, I know. I bet anyone can tell I’m husky when I’m singing. Have you finished now? That fella behind that trap-door, he’s got a fine set of teeth.” 
Contemporary accounts describe his “subtle allusion in a phrase; there were such fine shades of expression in a mere closure of the eyes.” His gentle humour was described as being born out of “a sympathetic perception of human vanities and weaknesses.” He was a great satirist, frequently making reference to another music-hall star, the sophisticated, urbane, George Lashwood, known as ‘The Beau Brummel of the Halls’. Lashwood must have been the inspiration behind Formby’s Lancashire character who, like a fish out of his Wigan water, would travel to London’s West End and ‘swank about’ – the clash of cultures creating some of his finest comic songs, Looking For Mugs In The Strand, Did You See The Crowd In Piccadilly?, and Playing The Game In The West.
I’ve compiled a list of George Formby ‘Senior’s’ songs.
The ill health which had dogged him since childhood had become severe, and, unable to control his painful coughing while on stage or in the studio, he was forced to integrate this too into his act. Eventually, it became one of his trademarks, causing increasing amusement for the audience, as he would stop and cough while the band continued, then once recovered, say to the audience,
“Coughing better tonight. I’m a bit tight on’t chest – bronchitis.”
Sometimes he would stop the band altogether:
“Just a minute boys, just a minute boys, [coughs] let’s clear out before we start [coughs] That was a good cough! That’s best cough I’ve done this year. That Zam-Buk does do you good. I’ll cough anybody here for five shillings, and I’ll give them five coughs up to start with. Nobody accept my challenge? Right, go on, start music.” 
It makes for hard listening on record, and to imagine a large crowd laughing at him, every night, as he suffered in pain, unable to breathe with the tuberculosis which would soon take his life, is positively macabre. Never have life and art been so inextricably, and painfully, combined.
“…he holds himself up to ridicule, a kind of martyr in the cause of public merriment. He jests woefully and cuts a playful caper with a gasp of pain.” 
In 1911, George and Eliza’s first son Georgie, destined to become the George Formby for most people, was now seven years old, and was sent away to train as a jockey. It is sometimes suggested that this decision was taken because he was so unhappy at the harsh treatment he received at his Catholic school, but it was mainly because George had a real ambition for his son to race, and many of Eliza’s family were either horse trainers or jockeys, and so was not an unexpected decision. George owned several racehorses himself, and planned to open a stables of his own one day. Georgie was unhappy and lonely at every stables he was sent to; he could neither read nor write, so could have had no contact by letter with his family. He was often mistreated, and made frequent attempts to escape, always being marched back; sometimes Eliza would give them a piece of her mind, instructing them not to lay a finger on him again, but this had little effect. He rarely saw his mother, or his father for that matter, who was by now a rising star, constantly working all over the country. Ten years later he would learn his father’s act word for word, step for step, from gramophone records, and with his mother Eliza teaching him every move, and attempt to perform the great man’s act on stage.
1. From ‘I Sobbed And I Cried Like A Child’ (Lipton, Formby) Matrix 19039e / Cat. No. Zonophone 1520 · Recorded April 23rd 1915
2. From ‘Gathering Nuts And May’ (Connor) Matrix 19035e / Cat. No. Zonophone 1520 · Recorded April 23rd 1915
3. From ‘The Man Was A Stranger To Me’ (Connor) Matrix 19040e / Cat. No. Zonophone 1536 · Recorded April 23rd 1915
4. The Manchester Guardian, Obituary of George Formby, 9 February 1921
6. The Manchester Guardian, Hippodrome Review, 29 October 1918
7. From ‘Looking For Mugs In The Strand’ (Formby) Matrix 20854e / Cat. No. Zonophone 1935 · Recorded August 10th, 1917
8. The Manchester Guardian, 25th June 1918