Infamous singer who made hits, court appearances and headlines
Josef Locke had a charismatic personality and was a huge success but no stranger to controversy.
Yesterday marked the centenary of the birth of one of the Fylde Coast’s most famous, or infamous, stars, Josef Locke.
During the 1940s and 50s, alongside Wigan-born comedians, George Formby and Frank Randle, Locke was regarded as one of Blackpool’s big three. Like them, he was proud to call the resort his home.
Once likened to a cross between Franz Hals’s Laughing Cavalier, Colonel Sanders and a contented walrus, the unconventional lifestyle of this magnetic performer, had more ups and downs than a Pleasure Beach roller coaster.
As local historian KENNETH SHENTON here reveals, the former drill instructor in the Royal Ulster Constabulary never failed to produce tabloid headlines.
With a voice that could have taken him to all the world’s great opera houses, instead he chose the more raffish life of variety bill-topper.
Invariably immaculate, in white tie and voluminous tails, Josef Locke would regale his mainly female audiences with powerfully-delivered songs. There would be military marching for Blaze Away, pious hand clasping for Count Your Blessings While You May and a romantic overdose on I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen, not forgetting Hear My Song, Violetta. His finale was always Goodbye, from White Horse Inn, the tale of a broken-hearted swain who joins the Foreign Legion to forget, always performed with Locke striding up and down the aisles, kissing the ladies without missing a note.
Born Joseph Mc Laughlin in Londonderry on March 23 1917, he was one of 10 children of a butcher, cattle dealer and part-time smuggler. The family were musical, Locke beginning his career by giving regular church concerts.
Adding two years to his age, aged 16, he joined the Irish Guards, was wounded when serving with the Palestine Police, before returning to Northern Ireland to join the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
His first big break in show business came at Belfast’s Empire Theatre when, on duty, he took the place of a singer who failed to turn up. With success in Ireland, Locke came to England as singing support at the Victoria Palace for The Crazy Gang in their post war 1945 revue, Together Again.
Discovering Joseph McLaughlin was too long to fit on the bill poster, band leader and impresario Jack Hylton, attempting to suggest hints of Austro-Hungarian sophistication, rechristened him Josef Locke.
Taking charge of his career were the Grade brothers, Lew and Leslie, who realised his ability to work a crowd, his over-the-top style and penchant for sentimentality would go down far better on the Northern variety circuit.
His resonant voice and charismatic personality was more than matched by his fondness for the ladies and a weakness for gleaming Cadillacs.
Locke’s various business interests included the ownership of a number of car dealerships, including one on Whitegate Drive. Signed for his first Blackpool summer season at the Opera House in 1946, Locke appeared in support of George Formby. The two became great friends and when Formby toured Australia the following year, he took Locke with him.
Like Formby, he was very much at home in the resort. Some 10 years on, when Locke was facing difficulties with rapidly encircling tax authorities, Formby helped him out by paying £15,000 cash to purchase his elegant St Annes home, Cintra, on Inner Promenade, close to Queen Mary’s School.
Another long-standing friend was comedian, Frank Randle. Together they caroused, brawled and lost a fortune on the horses, and as regulars at the old Palatine Hotel, their liquid lunches became the stuff of legend.
In 1948, signed by John E Blakeley’s Mancunian Film Studio, Locke sang several songs in support of Randle in low budget feature film, Holidays with Pay. The following year, he appeared alongside Randle in Somewhere in Politics. His third and final film, again made in Manchester for Blakeley, was frantic slapstick caper What a Carry On.
When not appearing in variety, Locke toured widely, in Britain and beyond. He did several pantomime seasons, often appearing in Aladdin, the first being in Liverpool alongside diminutive Blackpool comic, Jimmy Clitheroe in 1947. On television, he appeared on Top of the Town and Rooftop Rendezvous, while on radio his first broadcast was on the popular Happidrome Show, starring Blackpool comedian, Harry Korris.
Locke returned to the Opera House for the 1947 season, but now in the company of locally-based comedians, Dave Morris and Nat Jackley. In 1948, he was reunited with Jewel and Warriss, at the Hippodrome. Returning the following year, while her parents, Ted and Barbara Andrews, were on Central Pier, Locke was now sharing the stage with their 13-year-old daughter, Julie.
In 1950, Locke spent the summer at the Grand Theatre, returning to the Hippodrome 12 months later, alongside Vic Oliver.
It was during that summer season Locke met his second wife, actress Doreen McMartin, playing opposite her in that Opera House production of Starry Way. They married the following year at Sacred Heart Church.
The couple’s happiness proved short-lived when, in 1949, two of their daughters died within six months. Toddler Moira died in October, aged two-and-a-half. Her sister, Josephine, died six months later, aged only four days. They are buried together with their mother in Layton Cemetery. A third daughter, Violetta still lives in the resort.
Unfortunately for Locke, when the marriage took place, a decree nisi, granted to his first wife, Esther Woods McLaughlin, had not been made absolute. The singer had described himself as a bachelor on the marriage certificate. Criticising the actions of the singer, at Manchester Crown Court in 1951, the Judge, Mr Justice Wallington, expressed particular sympathy for Doreen.
He granted her a decree nisi of nullity of marriage, together with an ordering £6,000 to be paid to her by Locke. The following year, in a secret ceremony, Locke married Betty Barr, a 21-year-old actress playing opposite him in Cinderella, in Manchester.
Locke’s recording career began in October 1946 with the successful release of The Holy City. He recorded almost 100 songs on the Columbia label. His biggest hits came during the 40s when he sold more than a million records.
In 1949, he stood in for legendary Italian singer, Tito Gobbi at the Royal Albert Hall, who fell ill. Having been one of the stars of the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium in 1952, Locke got very upset at not being invited to participate in his adopted home town when the show took place at the Opera House three years later. He sold up and took off to tour America, vowing to never return.
In 1958, owing an estimated £17,000 and facing tax evasion charges, Locke fled back to Ireland with local Inland Revenue Inspector, a Mr Davies – father of author and radio presenter, Russell Davies – hot on his heels.
On the very day a warrant was issued in Blackpool for his arrest, Locke was in County Kildare paying 750 guineas for two horses. He named one The Taxman. He later bought a pub he named The White Horse.
Blaming extravagant living and lack of business acumen, having earned over £500,000 at the height of his fame, with debts of £20,000 and assets of only £5,681, he was declared bankrupt.
In 1968, he was back in court, accused of stealing documents from the Companies Registration Office of Dublin Castle. Initially jailed for four months, the sentence was later commuted to a fine. Then a former housekeeper brought a paternity suit against him, and he was ordered to pay for the upkeep of three further children.
By the late 60s, the Grade brothers managed to straighten out Locke’s business affairs and make peace with the tax authorities, but by then pop music had put an end to the days of music hall.
In 1968, in the company of Freddie Davies, Locke returned to the resort to play the Queen’s Theatre. Two years later, he showed he had lost none of his skill working a crowd when he appeared on Central Pier with Al Read, Nat Jackley, Lena Martell and Eric Winstone’s Showband.
On January 25, 1976, he was back heading a star-studded Centenary Command Performance at the Opera House. The event, commemorating the granting to Blackpool of its first Royal Charter, also celebrated the resort’s role as entertainment capital of Europe.
In the meantime, Blackpool-born Hollywood-based director, Peter Chelsom, captivated by Locke’s voice, created feature film Hear My Song. Loosely based on Locke’s reclusive years, with Ned Beatty playing Locke, the songs were voiced by Vernon Midgely. The film, costing £2m to make, took audiences by storm, proving a surprising hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Brought to London for the premiere in 1992, Locke serenaded Diana, Princess of Wales, with a song he had sung 40 years earlier at that year’s Royal Variety Performance, Danny Boy. He was ensnared by television presenter, Michael Aspel to become the subject of This Is Your Life.
Such was the film’s success a newly-released compilation of many of Locke’s vintage recordings saw him prove unexpected competition for the likes of Springsteen, Simply Red, and Wet Wet Wet, earning him a place in the record books as the oldest performer to break the Top 10.
Resisting lucrative offers to come out of retirement to undertake a series of live concerts, Locke was more than content to spend his days quietly with his usual three pints of stout and lunchtime crossword in the bar of his local pub in County Kildare.
Aged 82 and with his fourth wife, Carmel by his side, like his famous song, Josef Locke bid a last Goodbye on October 15, 1999.