Josef Locke – ‘Three times the size of life’
By Charlie Mcbride
THE COLOURFUL life and remarkable career of singer Josef Locke is celebrated in a new show, Blaze Away!, which comes to the Town Hall this Saturday at 8pm.
Born in Derry, Locke was a hugely popular entertainer from the 1940s through to the 1960s, with hits like ‘Hear My Song, Violetta’, ‘Come Back to Sorrento’, ‘Cara Mia’, and ‘Blaze Away’. His careers also had plenty of offstage drama with numerous love affairs and a headline-making run-in with the taxman that forced him to flee Britain.
Both the songs and the scandals are woven into Blaze Away! which is devised and directed by Cathal McCabe, formerly head of music at RTÉ. McCabe is singularly well-qualified to put together a show about Locke as not only is he a fellow-Derryman but he knew Locke personally and frequently shared a stage with him.
“I was born maybe 300 yards from where Joe was born in Derry,” he tells me over an afternoon phone call. “His father was a butcher and I can remember his butcher shop very well. I met Joe a couple of times when I was young. He was friendly with my father, but I really got to know him later in life because I played for him quite a bit - I had a band and we did quite a lot of work with him. I’d also have had him on shows while I was in RTÉ.”
What sort of a man was Locke in the flesh?
“He was not just larger than life, he was three times the size of life,” McCabe declares. “He was a very outgoing man. A lot of people used to say he was a terrible man for the drink but I saw no evidence of that. He’d always have a pint on the stage as part of his act but apart from having another pint after the show I don’t remember seeing him drink very much at all.”
Locke’s birthname was Joseph McLaughlin and, somewhat unusually for a Northern Catholic, as a young man he enlisted in the RUC. McCabe explains how it came about.
“When Joe left school his father put him to work plucking chickens which he did not like one bit so he volunteered for the Irish Guards to get away from it,” he says. “They took him to Palestine where he became a sergeant. After his tour of duty he joined the police force there, then returned to Derry and joined the RUC as a PE instructor. In his first singing engagements he couldn’t afford a dinner jacket so he decided to go onstage in his police uniform, which was a great gimmick, and he became known as ‘The Singing Bobby’.”
McCabe goes on to describe how Blaze Away! packages the Locke story.
“We’ve done a rather unusual thing in that we have Josef Locke in the show,” he says. “It starts off as if it is a tribute to Locke, with Kevin Hough doing the narration and Frank Ryan singing the songs. Before the show gets going Josef Locke, played by Joe O’Gorman, appears and he’s not too pleased that they’re doing this tribute because he doesn’t want all the old stories about his womanising and so on to come out. So Kevin might tell a story and Locke will comment ‘Nonsense, that isn’t how it happened!’”
Amid the triumphs and the scandals, the show also touches on the tragedy within Locke’s life, as McCabe reveals.
“Joe’s second wife was called Doreen and they lived in Lytham St Anne’s outside Blackpool,” he says. “They had a little girl called Maura and she was found dead in her cot when she was three years old. Less than a year later they had another baby who was born prematurely and only lived for three days. That had a big effect on their marriage and they subsequently split up. We set out to tell the whole truth about Joe’s life so there are darker things in the show but it’s also quite funny.”
While several decades have passed since Locke’s heyday, audience responses to Blaze Away! has been hugely enthusiastic, testifying to his enduring popularity.
“There’s still a strong interest in Locke,” McCabe observes. “I’ve never come across a show that I’ve done where the people sing along so much.”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie