From the files of the DIB…

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2010), Volume 18

78_small_1274268143LOCKE, Josef (1917–99), singer and entertainer, was born Joseph McLaughlin on 23 March 1917 at 19 Creggan Street, Derry city, one of ten children of Patrick McLaughlin, butcher and cattle-dealer, and Annie McLaughlin (née Doherty). Educated by the Christian Brothers and awarded for his singing at local feiseanna, he performed at St Eugene’s Cathedral. He left school at fourteen and took casual jobs until enlisting under age (sixteen) in the Irish Guards. Serving in Egypt, McLaughlin was the regiment’s youngest sergeant at eighteen. He sang with the regimental band, whose BBC concerts were his earliest broadcasts. His vocal range was extraordinary and he continued singing throughout his short police career, initially in the Palestine police and latterly in the RUC, which he joined in 1938 on his return to Northern Ireland. ‘The singing bobby’ grew disillusioned with policing and availed of opportunities to advance his growing celebrity, including voice instruction in Italy.
In 1941 he successfully auditioned in Belfast for the visiting Dublin entertainer and producer Jimmy O’Dea, and played Gaylord in Showboat at the Gaiety Theatre and sang at the Theatre Royal. His critically acclaimed work for the Dublin Grand Opera Society, first as Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and then as Enzo Grimaldi in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda at the Gaiety, encouraged his ambition and he moved to a war-weary London in 1945. Beginning at the Victoria Palace, he established himself in variety with the legendary Jack Hylton and his band, but deliberately extended his repertoire to include religious and popular operatic selections, rousing anthems for which his clear, piercing voice was suited. Further advised, reputedly by Hylton, to shorten his name for billboard display, Joseph McLaughlin became ‘Josef Locke’.
For a new star he had phenomenal popular appeal, unquestionably the product of his powerful voice and passionate delivery but also of his magnetic stage presence and physical energy. His deep eyes and military bearing, complete with turned moustache, gave him the appearance of a large and likeable rogue, which remained with him for life. His Derry accent was audible in performance as he earned fame and fortune in Britain, particularly in the north, in the late 1940s. Nor did he abandon his roots in other ways, including his ‘Irish’ repertoire, which typically featured ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘I’ll take you home again, Kathleen’.
Locke blended easily into his new surroundings. From 1946 he began a long annual engagement in Blackpool’s Opera House holiday shows, living locally as proprietor of a garage and public house on the proceeds of his lucrative career. In 1947 he starred in pantomime in Liverpool and toured Australia with Blackpool co-star George Formby. He had recently begun recording his lifelong standards, notably ‘The holy city’, ‘Hear my song’, ‘Goodbye’, and his most dramatic standard, ‘Blaze away’, which remained in the ears of audiences long after the singer had left the stage. Few artists outside grand opera could claim such an entrancing effect on listeners, and Josef Locke compensated for his merely ‘popular’ status with a sizeable income that increasingly drew the attention of the Inland Revenue.
Locke’s first broadcast since the Irish Guards’ BBC concerts was on radio in 1949 in The Happydrome. Other engagements included television, then in its infancy. He appeared on screen in Rooftop rendezvous, in Top of the town and in the Frankie Howerd Show. Within a decade Locke was a star of every medium. His brief film career at the turn of the 1950s (Holidays with pay, Somewhere in politics and What a carry on) was inauspicious but helped earn lasting fame for the songs he included. Allegedly for being excluded from Blackpool’s 1955 Royal Variety Performance, he sold up and relocated to the US. Unhappy in America, Locke returned to Blackpool. By 1958 the revenue inspectors clearly suspected tax evasion, complicated by the inexact science of gambling on horses. Locke worked undaunted until tax notices turned into an arrest warrant. Going to ground, he eventually reappeared in Ireland as a farmer, publican and racehorse-owner. From this safe distance he settled his British tax liabilities.
Settling in Clane, Co. Kildare, Locke tenuously recreated an international career, performing at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre and other Irish venues. By 1970 he faced bankruptcy and was fined for removing company registration documents. Although his star faded, a special 1984 RTÉ television tribute on Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show restored some of its lustre. In 1992 the unexpected success of Peter Chelsom’s semi-biographical fantasy film Hear my song, starring Ned Beatty as Josef Locke, revived his career. Attending the film’s London première, Locke famously received an ITV This is your life tribute. Genuinely amazed at his renewed popularity, Josef Locke lived out his remaining seven years in Clane with his fourth wife, Carmel Dignam. By his previous marriages he had had six children. He died at a Clane nursing home on 15 October 1999 and was cremated at Glasnevin cemetery. In 2005 a bronze memorial bust, designed by Terry Quigley and sculpted by Maurice Harron, was unveiled in Derry.  HI
Patrick Long was formerly an editorial assistant with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.


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