Internationally renowned popular tenor
Josef Locke was born in Derry on March 23rd 1918, as one of nine children and the son of a butcher. Locke was born Joseph McLaughlin, a common name in Derry, and enjoyed an upbringing surrounded by music. From an early age he sang in a number of local choirs and churches around the Bogside and rapidly became an accomplished and sought after singer in the area.
However, music was not Locke’s driving passion at this time. At 16 he added two years to his age in order to enlist in the Irish Guards and begin a military career. By 17 and a half he was promoted to sergeant and, accustomed to forces life, went on to serve as a policeman in Palestine before returning to Northern Ireland in the late 1930’s to take up a post with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The lure of his homeland proving too strong to resist, Locke also saw Ireland as presenting an opportunity for him to pursue his love of music.
Soon Locke was established on the local singing circuit in Belfast as a much in demand performer at ’smoking concerts’ in the City. However, it was clear to him and his audiences that his talent deserved further recognition than this and ’The Singing Bobby’ as he became known in Belfast, went on to enter auditions across the city, eventually landing a £7 a week contract from the Empire Theatre.
From the Empire, Locke came to the attention of John McCormack, the internationally renowned Irish Tenor, who recognised his particular talent for popular song, as opposed to the more operatic numbers, and encouraged him to enter the UK variety shows. In 1944 Locke travelled to England as Joseph McLaughlin. The next time he would return to Derry it was to be as Joseph Locke. The story of the name change comes from his first big booking in London, at the Victoria Palace Theatre. Joseph McLaughlin was too long a name to fit onto the Billboard and was shortened to Josef Locke by the theatre manager. Despite Locke’s initial fury the name stuck and a legend was born.
Locke went down a storm at the Victoria Palace with his emotional renditions of music hall songs and light operatic numbers touching the hearts of his audiences. Despite his growing reputation it was to be two years before Locke was signed up to Columbia Records, having been recommended to them by one George Formby. Within five years over a million of Locke’s record’s had been sold in England alone.
It was in his first year with Columbia, 1947, that Locke released the song which was to become his trademark ’Hear My Song, Violetta’. This was to remain his anthem until his death, moving audiences to tears with its power.
In tandem with his singing, Locke also had a striking physical presence, standing over six feet tall and broad shouldered he was to star in a in number of films as singing lead man. At the same time he was to play a record breaking 19 consecutive seasons on Blackpool’s sea front, attracting huge crowds to every performance as one of Britain’s premier entertainers.
At the height of Locke’s fame, in 1958, he returned to live in Ireland, to County Kildare - disillusioned at the demands of the taxman in the UK. After a ten year break he was to return to the live circuit in England in 1968 before finally settling back in Kildare in 1971. At this time he also married Carmel and fathered two sons and three daughters, devoting himself to his new family life.
From this point Locke’s career was restricted to occasional performances and charity work as he chose to enjoy the fruits of his long years of work and remain close to his family.
It was in 1992 that Josef Locke was to once more find himself catapulted into the headlines through the film ’Hear My Song’ which is loosely based upon events from his life. The central plot of the film concerns Locke and ’Mr X’ a Locke impersonator who sprang to fame through the television programme ’Opportunity Knocks’. Mr X made his name when Locke was in tax exile from 1958 and provoked an ’is he or isn’t he’ response, even leading to his being questioned by tax officials whilst singing in Belfast.
’Hear My Song’ was a feel good non-stop adventure of a film and prompted a resurgence in sales of Locke’s records, reminding Derry and Ireland of the star that they had created in England. An appearance on This Is Your Life followed and Locke entered the Top Ten once more in the spring of 1992.
It was in 1999, at the age of 78 that Josef Locke died in his adopted County of Kildare though he was finally laid to rest in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery. Amongst friends and family (and an official representative of the Taoiseach) for one last time, Locke’s funeral was an emotional occasion but marked also by the humour which was such a characteristic of Locke’s personal and professional life. Friends alluded to the ups and downs of his climb to success and subsequent years at the top, but concluded that ’he liked it that way’.