A robust performer with a Derry air

 

It took him from plucking the plumage from chickens to drawing tears from grown men. The voice of tenor Josef Locke, who died yesterday aged 82, has been described as "magnificent" and "beautiful" while others have commented that, had he been trained, "he would have been one of the greatest tenors in the world".

A man capable of creating a swash-buckling, uplifting, even sexually-charged presence, he played to packed houses - through the war years in particular - throughout Britain and Ireland. His larger-than-life voice and his robustly charming presence were adored, especially by women, at such venues as Dublin's Olympia and Queen's theatres and the London Palladium. A movie - Hear My Song - based on his life, was made in 1992, and though his career was certainly rags to riches, it was also as fraught with trouble and controversy as the most compelling soap opera.

Born Joe McLaughlin in Derry in 1917, he quickly established himself as something of an enfant terrible in the world of song. At a young age the sweet-voiced Joseph was thrown out of the choir at Derry Cathedral, for, by his own admission, spitting on some balding heads under the gallery.

He held a job as a chicken plucker at a yard owned by an uncle of SDLP-founder John Hume, before joining the Irish Guards and later the RUC. At over six feet tall he was ideal police-officer material, but he had his eyes on the stage. One day during the 1930s he went to the Belfast Hippodrome, an overcoat covering his uniform, where he auditioned for variety star, Jimmy O'Dea.

He got the job and performed in his first concert with O'Dea, in Carlow Town Hall. Maureen Potter, a child at the time and also touring with O'Dea said: "He sang You Are My Heart's Delight and The Lord's Prayer. I'll never forget it."

His career saw its greatest progression through the 1940s, when the big international stars were prevented from travelling to Dublin. Where the capital's theatres had hosted the likes of Gracie Fields, George Formby and Laurel and Hardy up to the second World War, soon Irish stars were topping the bill. Among them, the by-then-named Josef Locke.

Though he insisted on his love of opera, and commented in 1984, "I still love singing opera best," it was for variety that he became renowned and one of the highest-paid entertainers of his generation.

He found immediate success in Britain where he said he was earning £2,000 a week for a decade from the late 1940s. He left Britain in 1958, partly because popular musical taste was leaning towards rock 'n' roll and partly because he was being hounded for unpaid taxes - to the tune of some £30,000, or almost £500,000 in today's terms. It took him nine years to clear up that small matter.

In the intervening years he was in and out of controversy here, while also touring in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the South Seas.

He acquired property in Dublin and Kerry, including the White Horse Inn pub in Listowel which he bought in 1962 for £25,000. It was a happier purchase than another in 1967 which saw him end up in court. He received a four-month prison sentence at Dublin District Court for the larceny of documents connected with his purchase of the Cornmarket Buildings in Dublin - later the headquarters of the Irish Press. He successfully appealed the sentence.

Having resolved his arguments with the British tax-man, he returned to England, remaining a popular entertainer through the 1970s. His signature was the pint which was always brought to him on stage and numerous songs that became almost his own, including Blaze Away, We'll Make a Bonfire Of Our Troubles and The Town I Loved So Well.

He performed a number of "come-back" concerts through the 1980s - mainly he said, because he needed the money - though he lived a largely quiet life with his wife Carmel (nee Dignam), in Edenderry, Co Offaly. In 1984, he was presented with an award from the Variety Artists Trusts while The Late Late Show devoted a programme to him. He is survived by his wife and five of his six children. He once commented that theatre was at its best during the 1940s, when he drew tears of adoration from men and women with his poignantly prophetic serenade:

When I'm gone, You won't see my hills for the dust I'll be missed Like the girls I've kissed.

Josef Locke: born 1917; died October, 1999