Get to know The Beatles’ George Harrison’s unlikely musical hero
“It’s Formby-mania and it’s sweeping the nation. There’s nothing more to it.” – George Harrison
The influence of The Beatles still has a striking presence in music today despite it being nearly 60 years since John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr announced themselves on the world stage and started their domination of the 1960s. Harrison was often labelled as the ‘Quiet Beatle’ in the pack and he never cared about people fawning over him or went out of his way to act cool which, inadvertently, made him cooler than the other three — his unlikely musical hero is a perfect example of how pure he was.
One of the greatest pop music guitarists of all time, The Beatles’ own mercurial and mystical man George Harrison had a secret obsession with one of the squarer facets of British iconography. While we have often shared the huge impact artists such as Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry and Eric Clapton all had on Harrison both in and out of The Beatles, there is one man whose influence is far greater than everybody else’s, one man who you could call Harrison’s hero—George Formby.
Now, this one may take some explaining, so please do bear with us. Harrison’s unlikely musical hero came from just up the road from Liverpool, in the neighbouring area of Wigan, and was the ukelele-armed entertainer George Formby, a figure who helped make Harrison fall in love with the instrument as a child. Formby was the archetypal all-round entertainer, a man who could turn his hand to anything, he was a singer-songwriter, comedian and an actor who starred in films throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He was well known across Britain for his irreverent and irrationally catchy songs that he would sing with a glint in his eye, a spring in his step and invariably with a strum of his ukelele or banjo.
Formby’s father, also named George, was also an impressive comedian and vaudevillian, the younger Formby pretty much borrowed his father’s entire act when Formby Sr. died in 1921 and left the stage door open for a new star to grace the music hall stages across the north. His use of comedy and music was revolutionary in many ways and, where other acts had championed one or the other, Formby was able to transcend all of the mediums in his path and become a gigantic star. It was the music which caught the eye and ear of George Harrison.
Through a series of songs, most notably his tracks ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’, ‘Mr Wu’ and ‘Leaning on a Lampost’, Harrison and the rest of The Beatles had fallen in love with the singer. He is arguably responsible for influencing their song ‘Her Majesty’ as well as the band’s penultimate song ‘Free As A Bird’ which not only includes Harrison strumming a ukelele (and a rendition of ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ solo) but John Lennon singing Formby’s catchphrase “turned out nice again” backwards too.
Following Formby’s death in 1961 when he was aged 56, a small group of fans formed the George Formby Society, a group which had its inaugural meeting at the Imperial Hotel Blackpool. One of the members of this society who remembered Formby annually was George Harrison who tried to make it every year to Blackpool right up until the late ’90s when he got ill.
At one such meeting in 1991, Harrison was asked about Formby’s influence on him by the BBC, to which he replied: “The best thing about it for me is that it’s just funny music. It’s very light-hearted and it’ hard to play a ukulele or banjo without smiling, y’know it tends to lighten life up a bit. This is one extreme, The Formby Society, where everybody is thrashing away — that is good fun.” Harrison has been a longtime supporter of ukeleles, often giving them out to his friends and family and providing nearly everyone who graced his residence with the instrument. A lot of what he thought was great about the small guitar came from Formby.
Harrison even purchased a ukulele that used to belong to Formby, an instrument which he cherished for decades before deciding to generously gift it to The George Formby Society before his death. The organisation held on to it until it was purchased in 2008 by the owner of The Beatles Story Exhibition in Liverpool. The instrument was then on display until 2015 in Harrison’s hometown before it went to auction in 2018 and sold for a staggering £28,500.
Aside from the music, a lot of what Formby did that Harrison made his own is also what we may describe as typical “northern humour”, meaning jokes based on innocent innuendo, a cheeky smile and a knowing wink. It was the exact same charm The Beatles had employed themselves during the early sixties. “I think growing up,” reflects Harrison, “all them songs were always in the back of my life.” For many kids growing up in the forties and fifties in Britain, Formby and his charm had become a part of the family.
In fact, in many ways, you could argue that there isn’t so much difference between The Beatles and Formby. Aside from the sheer numbers, which we will chalk up to a globalised selling structure being implemented more readily in the sixties, the band and Formby were so intertwined with British pop culture that many of their songs have been stored away in one’s brain, awaiting the right moment to reconnect. They have become as ubiquitous as nursery rhymes. It was certainly the case for Harrison’s life, whose childhood was littered with people singing Formby songs. It made the ukulele an integral part of his life growing up and growing old.
In a note from 1999, which you can see below, Harrison affectionately describes the playing and music of the humble ukulele, “everyone I know who is into the ukulele is ‘crackers,’” writes George, “you can’t play it and not laugh!” It was a way of Harrison staying determinedly upbeat even when faced with multiple life-threatening situations, including throat cancer which would eventually take his life too soon.
As he was approaching the end of his life in 2001, Harrison used the ukulele to keep his spirits up as can be seen in the clip below, one which sees Harrison, despite the hoarse throat, whistling away in utter glee. They soon became a mainstay of any Harrison residence and when the party would end up at his place, he was always quick to break out the uke.
His bandmate and friend, Paul McCartney fondly remembers Harrison’s obsession, “Whenever you went round George’s house, after dinner the ukuleles would come out and you’d inevitably find yourself singing all these old numbers.” In the footage, you can see Harrison in his element in this clip from 1988 which sees George pick up the ukelele and sing alongside Jools Holland on piano, as they take on ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’.
All of this joy, all of this humour and candour can all be traced back to George Formby. Harrison may well have been The Beatles guitarist and one of the band’s musical directors but he took many of his cues from Formby. Not to take life too seriously, to always add a touch of humour where you could and never, ever get distracted from the job at hand. With this in mind, it is easy to see how Harrison’s hero, George Formby became one of the greatest influences on his career.
Listen to George Harrison describe his love of George Formby from a 2005 BBC radio production: