“The world is full of grey people. Josef Locke was multi-coloured.”
Those who remember the Irish tenor’s years in the Fylde might say: “Spot on.”
The quote is from a new biography of the singer and is said by songwriter, musician and record producer Phil Coulter, his fellow Ulsterman.
New biography? Amazingly, it’s the only biography of a legendary performer whose fame was fostered in Blackpool summer shows in the 40s and by a repertoire that included Here My Song, Violetta, Blaze Away, Goodbye (from White Horse Inn) and I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.
Josef Locke, The People’s Tenor, by Nuala McAllister Hart, is the full life and times of the singer who came to Blackpool for a week in 1945, loved it, and lived on the Fylde Coast, building an archive of vivid headlines in the Gazette. It is published in the centenary month of his birth, meticulously researched and beautifully presented by musician Dr Hart, who chronicles the history and culture of her native Derry, Northern Ireland, and in this case journeys through the Irish myths of Mr Locke.
Derry was where Joseph McLaughlin was born on March 23, 1917, although he liked to claim he was born on St Patrick’s Day, the 17th. Well, Joe would, wouldn’t he?
His early life with the Irish Guards is covered, moving into his singing career and his arrival in Blackpool for a week in variety at the old Palace theatre in October, 1945.
He was billed for the first time as Josef Locke with his singing partner, May Devitt, above the epithet “Irish Opera Stars.” The abbreviation of his name was dictated by agent Jack Hylton to give a bigger presence on posters. The act was spotted and featured in the 1946 summer show at Opera House, Starry Way, with the programme naming him Josef Locke.
But after that season a concert poster from the Guildhall, Londonderry, billed him as Joseph McLaughlin “World Famous Derry Tenor.”
Was he undecided about this variety lark in England? He wasn’t going to give up his previous status in his home town.
What changed his mind was his return to the Opera House for the 1947 summer season – without May Devitt – winning handsome reviews and a Colombia recording contract in the name Josef Locke. The author notes for several years he was the label’s best-selling UK artist.
Three summer seasons at the old Hippodrome and one at the Grand gave him a remarkable run of six consecutive seasons, to which he added the Queen’s in 1953 and the Central Pier in ‘58. It was after that season he departed for the Irish Republic, skipping an appearance at Blackpool Bankruptcy Court and his main creditor, the taxman. It was nine years before he returned to face the music, making an arrangement to pay his debts and then starring in summer seasons at the Queen’s, 1968 and ‘69.
The book charts Joe’s return in 1976 to star in the Mayor’s Command Performance to mark Blackpool’s centenary as a borough and tells the story behind Peter Chelsom’s 1992 film Hear My Song, a fictional piece written around Joe’s troubles with the taxman. In 1996, he celebrated his silver wedding with his fourth wife, Carmel. He died in 1999.
There is much to learn and enjoy in this well-illustrated book, partly researched in Blackpool Library’s local history section. It can be ordered through Waterstone’s at £11.95 and is also available on Amazon.