Josef Locke - Irish Tenor
Created | Updated May 28, 2013
Hughie Green's voice says, 'And now, ladies and gentlemen, Opportunity Knocks1 for Mr X'.
A man wearing a mask stands before the camera. He opens his mouth and begins to sing.
'Mr X, my a**e!' said Grandad. 'That's bloody Josef Locke!'
'Ernie! Little ones have ears!' said Nana.
One of nine children, Joseph McLaughlin was born on 23 March, 1917, in his family home in Creggan Terrace, Derry, Northern Ireland. As a youngster he appears to have developed his love of singing when, as a seven-year-old, he started to sing in one of the local churches in Bogside. Soon his voice gained him a reputation which had choir masters asking him to sing in their choirs.
Joseph had a deeper passion than his singing. At the age of 16 years he lied by adding an extra two years to his age so he could join the Irish Guards. The life suited him well and he became a sergeant before he reached his 18th birthday! He was serving in Palestine when his time in the Irish Guards finished. Being used to the life in the forces, Joseph went on to serve as a policeman in Palestine until his return to Ireland in the late 1930s, where he then joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
The Singing Bobby
Joseph must have cut a striking figure in uniform and on stage - at over 6 feet (1.8 metres) tall and with his broad shoulders, this handsome Irishman sang popular ballads of the day. Throughout Belfast he became known as the 'Singing Bobby' as he was drawn to the clubs and theatres, auditioning across the city until he was successful in obtaining a £7 per week contract at the Empire Theatre.
After watching one of his performances at the Empire, it was the internationally renowned Irish tenor John McCormack who encouraged Joseph to take his talents across the Irish Sea and try his luck on the English variety shows.
Arriving in England in 1944, Joseph began his training in the variety theatres around the country, wooing the audiences with his mix of popular songs and his emotional renditions of the old music hall songs. Eventually his lucky break came when he met Harry Hylton, who became his manager.
Hylton succeeded in getting Joseph the top spot at the Palace Theatre, London. Excited, Joseph went along to 'see his name in lights' only to find someone called Josef Locke was topping the bill. Disappointed, he contacted Hylton to find out what had happened.
Harry Hylton explained that the name Joseph McLaughlin was too long for the billboard. Hylton was also to say that there would be less than 10,000 people in England that would be able to pronounce the surname correctly. As for Josef, it was thought it would look more even on the billboard. Eventually satisfied with this reasoning and relieved to find he still had the top of the bill at the Palace Theatre, Joseph McLaughlin became Josef Locke in 1945, a name he was to keep for the rest of his life.
It took a further two years for Josef Locke to get his very first record contract. He signed to Colombia Records in 1947 after he was recommended to them by George Formby. Later that year his first record Santa Lucia was released quickly followed by Come Back To Sorrento. Then came the powerful song that was to become his anthem throughout his career, Hear My Song, Violetta. At about that same time, Lew and Leslie Grade began to manage his career with great success. It was in 1949 that Locke began moving away from the stage and into radio and television where his popularity as a guest star soared. During the height of his career, Locke appeared on the Royal Variety Show five times. Unfortunately, Locke also became noticed by the Inland Revenue, who began making demands for large payments of unpaid taxes.
It was during the summer of 1958, as Josef Locke was performing the last of his record-breaking 19 consecutive seasons at the holiday resort of Blackpool, that plans were being prepared to assist Locke to leave the country to avoid paying the crippling tax bill. One night, Fred Holloway, a forecourt attendant at the Ocean Garage, Blackpool, was told to take the firm's Morris van to his employer's home in St Anne's. Once there, he recognised Josef Locke who had a young woman and a small baby with him. Holloway loaded the van with their suitcases and was instructed to drive them to the Liverpool docks.
Near the outskirts of the docks, I was instructed to stop the van. Josef Locke said they would take a taxi to the ship. As we said our farewells, he (Josef Locke) gave me a five pound note, one of those big white tissue ones. When I returned to Blackpool, my boss told me how Locke had to leave and that he had to return to Ireland as soon as possible.
- Fred Holloway, taken from an interview at his New Zealand home.
Josef Locke spent the next ten years living in semi-retirement in County Kildare. In 1968, he returned to the live shows in England after his popularity resumed with the furore over 'Mr X'. Records sales began to soar again, and soon the tax debts were cleared.
Returning to his beloved Ireland in 1971, Locke and his wife Carmel devoted themselves to raising their family of two sons and three daughters. During this time, Josef Locke performed for charity shows and made other select appearances; he spent the rest of his time quietly with his family.
His Life On Film
All was quiet until 1992, when the Peter Chelsom film Hear My Song was released. Again, record sales surged.
The film is a fantasy based on the idea of Locke returning from exile, resuming an old love affair and saving a Liverpool-Irish club from ruin. Locke was flown to London for the premiere before Diana, Princess of Wales. In the same year, Josef Locke also became a victim of that famous red book, when he appeared in his very own This Is Your Life.
Josef Locke, late of the Irish Guards, constable of the RUC and International Tenor, died on 14 October, 1999, at the age of 82 years. His chosen final resting place is in Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery.
Just before what would have been Josef Locke's 88th birthday, a sculpture celebrating the life of one of Derry's most famous sons was unveiled on 22 March, 2005. The sculpture can be found in the grounds of the City Hotel.
Hughie Green devised this talent show with its famous 'Clapometer' and his catchphrases.
The show created a number of stars including:
- Les Dawson
- Tom O'Connor
- Su Pollard - she was beaten by a singing dog!
- Lena Zavaroni
- Freddie Starr
- Frank Carson
'Mr X' became a guessing game. Who was the man behind the half-mask? Actually, it was a brilliant impersonator called Eric Ellison. He managed to make a very lucrative career out of his act, as well as unwittingly helping to revive the career of Josef Locke. He was so convincing that, more than once, the police and Inland Revenue knocked on his dressing room door, as they believed Josef Locke had re-entered the country.
Ellison's anthem was Goodbye, which is more likely to be remembered these days than Hear My Song, Violetta.
Did they ever meet?
Yes, at the Queen's Theatre in Blackpool, when Josef wittily remarked:
Carry on son, you'll make it one day!
Was Nana Right?
Yes, Grandad. Little ones do have ears. They have very long memories too!