Sunday 23 July 2017

Hear Josef Locke's song on tribute night

George Hamilton

Being synonymous with a single song, and earning an obituary in the New York Times would indicate a fair degree of celebrity. By those yardsticks, Josef Locke had it all.

Hear My Song was the singer's showstopper, and became the title of a 1991 biopic.

And when Josef Locke passed away in 1999, he warranted a headline in America, described as the "Irish tenor who inspired tears".

He was born Joseph McLaughlin, in Derry, in 1917, one of nine children of a local butcher, and sang the boy soprano solos in St Eugene's Cathedral.

When young Joe was just 16, he bluffed his way into the Irish Guards (18 was the minimum age for enlisting). From there, it was on to the police in Palestine, before he returned to the North and joined the RUC.

He still had a passion for singing, and his friends nicknamed him 'The Singing Policeman'. An audition at the Empire Theatre in Belfast led to his first professional engagement. He became a founder member of the Dublin Grand Opera Society.

The great Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli, encouraged him to go to Milan and into opera, but John McCormack -- the top Irish singer of the time -- reckoned Joe's voice was better suited to lighter material, and urged him to try his luck in England.

It was McCormack's advice he took. Joe McLaughlin became Josef Locke when his agent decided he needed something snappier at the top of his bill. Londoners wouldn't know how to pronounce McLaughlin, he said. Also, Joseph was one letter too long for the poster, so they changed the spelling.

It was rough at the start, but a season with George Formby led to interest from Columbia Records.

He was in at the start of TV, and became the highest-paid singer in Britain, but that also brought the interest of the tax man, and with a huge (and over-estimated) bill hanging over his head, he left the country. As he put it: "I took the Rolls and the Jag and any good-looking blonde I could get my hands on and went back to Dublin."

The debt was eventually settled, and Joe went on to reach happy retirement. He died in Clane in Kildare, and there's a bronze statue in his memory outside the City Hotel in Derry.

Sean Costello will appear as Josef Locke in a celebration of the great tenor's career in the National Concert Hall tomorrow at 8pm

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning ghamilton@independent.ie

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