By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN – Tributes have poured in following the death at the age of 82 of singer Joe Locke. He became a major superstar in the forties and fifties and for several years was the highest paid performer in British showbusiness.
Born Joseph McLaughlin in Derry’s Creggan, he was one of ten children of a butcher and cattle dealer. He had a chequered career after starting off singing as a nine year old in Bogside churches.
He added two years to his age to enlist in the British army at the age of 16 and later served with the Palestine police.
He briefly joined the RUC and was called the Singing Booby when his career started.
After he began to sing full-time, he became Josef Locke because his agent, the impresario Jack Hylton, said his own name was too big to fit on theatre posters.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Larger than life, Locke packed them in. He became the top star of the variety circuit and a swashbuckling sex symbol with a liking for white Cadillacs. Tall, dapper and with a roguish grin, his singing left women swooning and they queued up at stage doors after his performances. He made headlines as the first singer to earn £1,000 a week and then again, as his popularity soared, he broke through the £2,000 a week barrier. It was a huge salary at the time and reflected that fact that he packed theatres and variety houses for eight shows a week. He booked out a Blackpool holiday resort venue season after season and toured with support acts like Julie Andrews and Peter Sellers.
He left Britain in the late 1950s to avoid arrest for alleged tax evasion involving the equivalent of about £500,000 in today’s money.
His runs-in with the British taxman was the stuff of folklore before he finally reached a settlement with them nine years later.
During his enforced absence from Britain, a man who was said to be a Christmas tree salesman had success in impersonating him. It all added to the Locke legend, particularly when someone else impersonated the doppelganger, and police and revenue officials apparently chased the copycats.
While he was forced to avoid Britain, he toured in America, Australia and South Africa but ended up being declared a bankrupt in 1967. He blamed it on a lack of business ability and went on to build his career again. He became famous for a series of comeback and, in turn, retirement concerts.
In 1992, he was played by U.S. actor Ned Beatty in a fictional biopic "Hear My Song", loosely based on his exploits. The film’s launch led to yet another brief comeback opportunity.
An album of his songs got into the top ten and, while he enjoyed the renewed limelight, he did not leave his retirement in County Kildare for long.