Josef Lock: Ireland's First Superstar

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The simple headline in the New York Times of 16 October 1999 said it all: ‘JOSEF LOCKE, 82, Irish Tenor Who Inspired Tears, Is Dead.’

Born humble Joseph McLaughlin on Derry’s Creggan Street, Big Joe was the most popular and highest-paid singer in Britain and Ireland for an entire generation. His voice was so resonant and emotive that the legendary Italian singer Beniamino Gigli begged him to move to Milan and take up opera. 

He appeared in three Royal Command Performances in the 1940s and ’50s, sang regularly on radio, TV and film, and was a bill-topper at Blackpool for nineteen seasons. He was the first singer in Britain to earn £1,000 per week. And his average salary, before leaving England in 1958 after a run-in with the taxman, was £100,000 per year. 

Paying tribute to him, his friend the comedian Hal Roach said: ‘There isn’t anybody like him who could create such an ambience of love. And that’s what it’s all about. Joe Locke was one of the greatest of all time.’ 

What was less well known, until a Late Late Show special about his life was broadcast in 1984, was that Joseph McLaughlin was actually sacked from his first singing job – as boy soprano in Derry’s St Eugene’s Cathedral. He’d been appointed soloist in the choir after incumbent Charlie McGee’s voice broke. And he was setting a high standard, by all accounts, until one day, after working up a sweat pumping the organ, he started spitting onto the bald heads of the parishioners down below him. 

His father was a butcher, with a family of nine. And as a young teenager, Joe worked for a while in the fowl store, plucking chickens, alongside John Hume’s father and uncle. Hume, indeed, remembers meeting the singer on his return to the store after he’d hit the big time: ‘He was the first famous man I’d ever met. I was the delivery boy. And he gave me half-a-crown, which was exactly the price of two-and-a-half fish suppers!’ 

In 1933, at just sixteen years of age, Joe enlisted in the Irish Guards (assuring them he was two years older). He later served with the Palestine Police Force before returning to Ireland in the late 1930s, where he joined the RUC. 

He was promoted to acting sergeant and began teaching Physical Training at the Enniskillen Depot, but he was unimpressed with the wages of £15 per month. So when, in 1940, he heard that Jimmy O’Dea was looking for a singer for his show in Dublin, he gatecrashed the auditions at the Gaiety in full police uniform. He sang I’ll Walk Beside You and then, at O’Dea’s request, Ave Maria, to demonstrate his range. 

Joe, who had no classical training, later told RTÉ’s Morgan O’Sullivan that getting the start was the highpoint of his professional career: ‘O’Dea said to me, 'I can give you a job – but you’re a policeman.' I told him, 'You give me a job and I’ll not be too long in the police.'’ 

For a while, Joe adopted the soubriquet ‘The Singing Bobby’ and would saunter onto the stage in police dress as part of his act. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. In another RTÉ interview with Mike Murphy in the 1980s, Joe confessed that the songwriter Harold White was initially appalled at his handling of his love ballad 'Macushla': ‘He told Jimmy O’Dea, 'Take that young fella off. He’s not to sing that song. He’s murdering it'. He then took me for three whole days, telling me exactly how to sing it, and it made all the difference. We put it back in the show again and it started to fly.’ 

Soon after, Joe became a founding tenor of the Dublin Grand Opera Society, appearing as Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. ‘But there was no money. We were getting just ten pounds for a whole opera,’ he complained. 

The world-famous Irish tenor John McCormack advised the Derry singer that his voice wasn’t suited to opera and to try a lighter repertoire. He also told him to find an agent, which he did – Jack Hylton. Joe teamed up with the soprano May Devitt, and Hylton got them a job at the Victoria Palace in the West End almost immediately. 

‘It was 1944 and the war was on. I went down to the theatre and saw the poster 'May Devitt and Josef Locke'. What the hell is going on? I thought. It took me a week to find out that there wasn’t enough room on the bill for 'Joseph McLaughlin', so Jack Hylton had cut it back to Locke.’ 

Despite the surprise name-change, the partnership was a huge success. They were sharing the bill with Wilfred Pickles and Jack Warner (later Dixon in Dixon of Dock Green), but nobody wanted to follow them. So eventually, they wound up with the prime spot, closing the first half with the show-stopping Miserere from Verdi’s Il Trovatore

‘After that, we were booked from all over,’ Joe recalled. ‘From forty pounds a week, we went straight to a hundred and fifty. Three months later, then, up to seven hundred and fifty.’ 

In 1947, George Formby heard Joe sing at Blackpool and introduced him to Columbia Records. ‘I became a microphone discovery,’ he wrote in the Daily Mirror. ‘And in the short space of a couple of years, over a million of my records were sold in [England] alone.’ 

His first releases were 'Santa Lucia', 'Come Back To Sorrento' and the song he would make his own forever, 'Hear My Song, Violetta'. He also appeared on TV programmes such as Rooftop Rendezvous, Top of the Town, All-Star Bill and The Frankie Howerd Show. And he won parts in a number of films, including the comedy What a Carry-On. His popularity as a live draw became such that, on the advice of his manager Lew Grade, he stopped taking wages from promoters and instead demanded a percentage of the takings. 

His secret, as he acknowledged later in an RTÉ interview, was that he was always ‘involved’ in his songs: ‘Anyone who’s mechanical is never a success. If you haven’t any emotion in you, you have no right being on the stage, trying to perform to the public. You couldn’t have any colour in your work if you were a static fella. You must be emotional.’ 

Joe could be stubborn with people who crossed him. Val Parnell, the impresario at the London Palladium, attempted to stop him from singing 'Galway Bay', as he didn’t think it was suitable for his cultured audiences. ‘He was a big bully who hated the Irish. I told him, “If I’m not singing it, you’d better have a damn good voice yourself, because I’m not going on. I didn’t ask to come to your theatre . . .” I reminded him that I’d sold more records of 'Galway Bay' in England and Ireland than Bing Crosby had. And I then told the pianist to collect the books and headed off to the dressing room.’ 

Parnell, of course, was forced to capitulate. ‘He came into the dressing room and had to sup porridge to get me to change my mind. I went on that night and sang 'Galway Bay' and stopped the show with it. Parnell says to me afterwards, “Well, I can’t always be right.”’ 

Joe could also show a steely edge if someone crossed him. The Glenroe actor Joe Lynch recounted how the singer nearly got them shot when he lost his temper with a New York policeman. The pair were being driven to their hotel across Central Park when their driver and friend, Joe Rizzo, was stopped for ignoring a ‘Stop, Horses Crossing’ sign. 

Rizzo handed the officer $10 by way of an apology. But when Joe, a former policeman, saw this, he erupted. ‘He made a rush at the copper,’ laughed Lynch. ‘“You take bribes?” he shouted. “I was a copper and I never did.”’ It cost Rizzo a further 200 dollars to extract them from the mess, and even after that, Joe got out of the car to have another go at the officer. 

But despite his occasional mood swings, Joe always had the grace to laugh at himself. One night, shortly after he’d been in a fight that had been reported in the tabloids, he arrived in late to a Hal Roach show. Roach spotted his old friend immediately and welcomed him publicly from the stage. ‘Come on in, Joe,’ he said. ‘Make yourself at home – hit somebody.’ Joe loved it and lapped up the laughs.

He also had a reputation for being careful with money. Hal Roach told of how, when he offered Joe £150 per night to sing at his new club, Biddy Mulligan’s, Joe told him to ‘piss off’ – that he spent that much on taxis. 

‘But here’s the goodness of the guy,’ Roach added. ‘He really had a huge heart. He then started coming down to Biddy Mulligan’s three nights a week and, of course, I couldn’t keep him off. He got up and did a full hour, on the house, for nothing, every time.’ 

Generous or not, Joe wasn’t prepared to meet a massive tax demand from the British Inland Revenue. So in 1958, he left England and his beloved Blackpool for good and returned to Ireland. 

He told the Late Late Show: ‘I think they wanted twenty-seven thousand pounds. But Lew Grade, my manager, said all my taxes had been paid. We weren’t doing so well at that stage, as new acts like Tommy Steele were starting to come through. So I told Grade I’d had enough. So I took the Rolls and the Jaguar and any good-looking blonde I could lay my hands on and went back to Dublin.’ 

Back home, Joe went into the property business, buying up buildings around Ireland. He was a regular on Donegal golf courses – though he could never, publicly, go into the North. At different stages, he also owned the Mountainy Farmer Bar in Burnfoot in County Donegal and the Ha’penny Bridge Inn in Dublin. The authorities continued to pursue him with a vengeance. Indeed, Joe Lynch recalled a live performance of Finian’s Rainbow being interrupted when a process server got onto the stage and attempted to present Jimmy O’Dea with a summons to ‘one of Joe’s tax trials’. 

In 1968, however, he returned to Blackpool and settled his account with the Inland Revenue for just £11,000. Typically, they had massively over-estimated his debt to them – and Joe hadn’t known enough about tax law to challenge them. 

Joe retired from the full-time circuit in the 1970s but made occasional comebacks – and would often sing at charity events. He performed at a number of benefits for the Bloody Sunday families, along with Derry soprano Maureen Hegarty. In later years, he would get a stagehand to bring him up a pint of Guinness (which he often referred to as ‘holy water’) to lubricate his throat while he sang. 

In 1992, Joe found fame among a new generation of music-lovers with the release of the film 'Hear My Song', which was based loosely on his life. At the London première, Joe serenaded Princess Diana. And afterwards, he was stopped in his tracks when he became the celebrity victim on This Is Your Life. An album of his songs was subsequently re-issued and charted in the UK Top 10. 

Joe died in hospital in Clane, County Kildare, on 15 October 1999. In the months that followed, the music-lover Michael Sheerin started a campaign to have a memorial to the singer erected in Derry. And in March 2005, a permanent tribute to the city’s first superstar was erected outside the City Hotel. The bronze monument was unveiled by John Hume and Phil Coulter at a ceremony attended by Joe’s widow Carmel, his daughter Yvette and sister Anne. 

Addressing the assembled crowd, Coulter declared: ‘Of all of the talent we have produced in the city, nobody ever got the profile of Josef Locke; nobody succeeded in such a spectacular way as Josef.’ 

This chapter from the book City of Music: Derry's Music Heritage, is reproduced with the kind permission of the author and Guildhall Press.

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