Josef Locke: Still Blazing Away

A century after his birth, a new biography and exhibition of artefacts will give a definitive account of the celebrated singer's life in show business

Ask anyone in Derry over the age of 50 about Josef Locke and a smile will come over his or her face. They will have a story to tell, an anecdote or some other reminiscence of the city’s most famous and loved tenor, who reached phenomenal heights of fame and fortune in the 1950s. They will talk fondly of the things he got up to, his disregard of convention, and, of course, most of all his unsurpassed ability to sway audiences by the power and sensuous quality of his singing.

For younger people, any ideas they have of Josef Locke will come from the 1991 film Hear My Song in which ‘Jo’ makes an undercover return to England for a concert, where he is still being sought by the police for non-payment of tax. There is a love interest too, in the shape of a former ‘Miss Dairy Goodness’ with whom he long ago had an affair.

The film’s storyline is, of course, fantasy. Locke settled his scores with the taxman – however grudgingly – when he returned to sing in England in 1967 and was soon once again the biggest thing in the north of the country's clubland scene. And by the early 1970s he was at last a happily married man, with his fourth wife Carmel.

Now in the centenary month of his birth, a new book and accompanying exhibition tell the full Joseph Locke story, with a series of celebratory events taking place over the next few months, starting off in Derry where Josef (then named Joseph McLaughlin) was born in Creggan Street on March 23 1917.

The Josef Locke Centenary Exhibition opens in Derry’s Central Library on Thursday, March 9, launched by the Mayor, Alderman Hilary McClintock. It contains the largest collection ever assembled of over 200 items relating to Locke’s life and career in Ireland, the UK, Canada and Australia. Show and theatre programmes, photographs, recordings and contemporary newspaper articles are on display to illustrate the singer’s 50 year career in show business. Amongst them are six framed telegrams from industry colleagues welcoming him back to Blackpool for the 1968 summer season, later found in the attic of a Donegal house where Locke had once lived.

Josef Locke Album

A selection of the items will then visit Blackpool’s Central Library in later April, before the full exhibition moves to Belfast’s Linen Hall Library, where it will be augmented by programmes from the Linen Hall’s own Theatre and Performing Arts Archive.

Accompanying the exhibition is a new book, Josef Locke: The People’s Tenor by Nuala McAllister Hart which gives a full account of the tenor's life and performing career. It draws upon contemporary newspaper notices, conversations with fellow performers (such as Phil Coulter, Dana and Maureen Hegarty), and stories from his many fans. Research for the book was carried out in archives in Blackpool, Dublin and London, as well as in Derry and Belfast.

Josef Locke Derry Poster

This is the first biography of Josef to have input from members of the wider McLaughlin/Locke family, who have generously provided some of their own photographs, letters and memorabilia. Together with Hart’s own research and writing, it makes for a more rounded and complete account, which promises to be the singer’s definitive biography.

Josef Locke was known affectionately as ‘Big Joe’ by his fans and peers in Ireland, recognition of both his height – he stood over six foot in his socks – and of the love and affection with which he was regarded locally and abroad. Author Nuala McAllister Hart says that she hopes that some of this ‘love and affection’ will have rubbed off on her biography of the man.

One of Josef’s most popular songs was ‘Blaze Away’, whose chorus begins, ‘We’ll make a Bonfire of our Troubles, and watch them blaze away…’. In the wake of the RHI scandal and on the eve of this week’s Assembly Elections, it might seem that one or other of the political parties is missing a trick by not taking it up as their campaign song.

The Josef Locke Centenary Exhibition and the book Josef Locke: The People’s Tenor are both launched in Derry’s Central Library on Thursday, March 9 at 6.30pm. An enlarged version of the exhibition will run at the Linen Hall Library, Belfast on May 3 - 31. Nuala McAllister Hart will be speaking about the book and exhibitions on Front Row on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, March 7, and on Pure Culture on Radio Ulster on Friday, March 10. Further news and updates can be found on Facebook.