Locke, Josef (1917–99), singer and entertainer, was born Joseph McLaughlin 23 March 1917 at 19 Creggan St., Derry city, one of ten children of Patrick McLaughlin, butcher and cattle dealer, and Annie McLaughlin (née Doherty). Educated by the Christian Brothers and awarded for his singing at local feiseanna, he performed at St Eugene's cathedral. Family business difficulties forced him to leave school at 14 and take casual jobs till enlisting underage (16) in the Irish Guards. Serving in Egypt, McLaughlin was the regiment's youngest sergeant at 18. He sang with the regimental band, whose BBC concerts were his earliest broadcasts. His vocal range was extraordinary and he continued singing throughout his short police career, initially in the Palestine police and latterly in the RUC, which he joined in 1938 on his return to Northern Ireland. ‘The singing bobby’ grew disillusioned with policing and availed himself of opportunities to advance his growing celebrity, including voice instruction in Italy.
As the second world war restricted foreign travel he successfully auditioned in Belfast about 1941 for the visiting Dublin entertainer and producer Jimmy O'Dea (qv). He played Gaylord in ‘Showboat’ at the Gaiety Theatre and sang at the Theatre Royal, both Dublin venues owned by Louis (qv) and Max Elliman (qv). The wartime absence of foreign artists placed Irish names in higher demand, but McLaughlin's income remained less than he was prepared to accept. Similarly, O'Dea's fit-up theatre circuit of rural Ireland in the early 1940s, alternating between performance and menial drudgery in unsatisfactory venues, frustrated his desire for stardom. McLaughlin's critically acclaimed work for the Dublin Grand Opera Society, first as Pinkerton in Puccini's ‘Madama Butterfly’ and as Enzo Grimaldi in Ponchielli's ‘La Gioconda’ at the Gaiety, encouraged his ambition. Advised by tenor Count John McCormack (qv) who was little impressed with his outings in grand opera, McLaughlin moved to a war-weary London in 1945. Beginning at the Victoria Palace, he established himself in variety with the legendary Jack Hylton and his band, but deliberately extended his repertoire to include religious and popular operatic selections, rousing anthems for which his clear, piercing voice was suited. Further advised, reputedly by Hylton, to shorten his name for billboard display, Joseph McLaughlin became ‘Josef Locke’ from about this time.
For a new star he had phenomenal popular appeal, unquestionably the product of his powerful voice and passionate delivery but also of his magnetic stage presence and physical energy. His deep eyes and military bearing, complete with turned moustache, gave him the appearance of a large and likeable rogue, which remained with him for life. His Derry accent was audible in performance as he earned fame and fortune in England, particularly the north, in the late 1940s. Nor did he abandon his roots in other ways, including his ‘Irish’ repertoire, which typically featured ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘I'll take you home again, Kathleen’.
Locke easily blended into his new surroundings. From 1946 he began a long annual engagement in Blackpool's Opera House holiday shows, living locally as proprietor of a garage and public house on the proceeds of his lucrative career. In 1947 he started in pantomime in Liverpool and toured Australia with Blackpool co-star George Formby. He had recently begun recording his lifelong standards, notably ‘The holy city’ and ‘Hear my song, Violetta’, which became one of his signature numbers (anglicised by Harry S. Pepper from a German original), generally known as ‘Hear my song’ with a tango rhythm both attractive and infuriatingly difficult to dispel. Similarly, ‘Goodbye’ and his most dramatic standard, ‘Blaze away’, remained in the ears of audiences long after the singer had left the stage. Few artists outside grand opera could claim such an entrancing effect on listeners, and Josef Locke compensated for his merely ‘popular’ status with an income whose size both surprised and drew the hostile attention of the Inland Revenue. His agents Leslie and Lew Grade, who had conducted him through his British career, later assisted in regularising his chaotic tax situation.
Locke's first broadcast since the Irish Guards' BBC concerts was on radio in 1949 in ‘The Happydrome’. Other engagements included television, then in its infancy. He appeared on screen in ‘Rooftop rendezvous’, in ‘Top of the town’, and in the Frankie Howerd show. Within a decade Locke was a star of every medium. His brief film career at the turn of the 1950s (Holidays with pay, Somewhere in politics, and What a carry on) was inauspicious but for his opportunity to earn lasting fame for the songs he included. Allegedly for being excluded from a special Royal Variety Performance held in Blackpool in 1955 (he had already played the London Palladium), he sold up and relocated to the US. Unhappy in America, Locke returned to Blackpool. By 1958 the UK revenue inspectors clearly suspected tax evasion, complicated by the inexact science of gambling on horses. Locke worked undaunted till tax notices turned into an arrest warrant. Going to ground, he eventually reappeared in Ireland as a farmer, publican, and racehorse owner. From this safe distance he settled his British tax liabilities.
Settling in Clane, Co. Kildare, Locke sought to recreate an international career, taking in Dublin's Olympia Theatre and other Irish venues. By 1970 he faced bankruptcy and was fined in the Dublin district court for removing company registration documents. Although his star faded, notwithstanding musical engagements and occasional record releases, a special 1984 RTÉ television tribute on Gay Byrne's ‘Late late show’ restored some of its lustre. In 1992 the unexpected success of Peter Chelsom's semi-biographical fantasy film Hear my song, starring Ned Beatty as Josef Locke, revived his career to include a place in Britain's top ten pop listing. Attending the film's London premiere, Locke famously received an ITV ‘This is your life’ tribute. Genuinely amazed at his renewed popularity, Josef Locke lived out his remaining seven years in Clane with his fourth wife, Carmel Dignam. By his previous marriages he had had six children. He died at a Clane nursing home 15 October 1999 and was cremated at Glasnevin cemetery. In 2005 a bronze memorial bust, designed by Terry Quigley and sculpted by Maurice Harron, was unveiled in Derry.