Early last May Roamer’s page opened with the words of a well-known song - “We’ll make a bonfire of our troubles and we’ll watch them blaze away.”
Northern Ireland’s legendary tenor Josef Locke often ended his shows with his stirring anthem - Blaze Away - to rapturous applause and standing ovations.
The raffish, immaculately tailored, tax-evading singer who particularly charmed his female fans in packed music-halls wasn’t forecasting the R.H.I controversy!
Blaze Away was both his rousing signature tune and typically optimistic autograph.
“…as the bonfire keeps on burning,
Happy days will be returning,
While the band keeps playing
We’ll let our troubles blaze away.”
My reference to Locke in May announced the arrival in Belfast’s Linen Hall Library of a travelling exhibition based on his (larger than) life.
It had come from the city where Josef performed so many summer seasons he was known as Mr Blackpool.
The exhibition was on a ‘celebration tour’ highlighting the centenary of Locke’s birth in Londonderry on March 23, 1917.
(Born Joseph McLaughlin, his surname was shortened to Locke to fit the billboards when stardom burgeoned.)
Dr Nuala McAllister Hart, author of the singer’s biography - Josef Locke, The People’s Tenor - launched the exhibition and it has just been announced that her book has won the prestigious ‘McCrea Literary Award’ for 2016-2017.
This special accolade is awarded by Ulster University every two years to its graduates, staff, students and associates for a literary work of outstanding merit.
Nuala holds a PhD from Ulster University, where she taught history in the early 2000s.
Her winning book, the first ever biography of Locke, involved intensive research throughout England and Ireland, particularly in Blackpool, Dublin and, of course, in Londonderry.
The McLaughlin/Locke family contributed their memories to the book, a journalistic exclusive for Nuala, and a ‘first’ in terms of input from Josef’s family.
Nuala is delighted to win the award.
“It is a great accolade for a writer, and a major encouragement to keep on writing,” she said, adding “but it’s also important for the legacy of Josef Locke, who had a phenomenal career throughout Great Britain and Ireland from the early 1940s onwards. Proof - if proof is needed - that Josef’s reputation as a singer was well-deserved and worth recording in print.”
She has just returned from a literary tour, signing copies of her book in Letterkenny, Sligo, Galway, Tuam and Limerick.
“I heard some great anecdotes about Joe there,” she told Roamer “including an old dear who said - ‘that man needed a saucepan of cold porridge poured over him.’ I didn’t need to wonder why. No prizes for guessing!”
While Locke may have revelled in the company of various adoring lady friends, Dr Hart has discovered a previously untold acquaintance.
“It seems he kept a pet mynah bird when he lived in Blackpool,” Nuala can reveal to the News Letter today “and it could curse ‘like a trooper’. Joe was often to be found out looking for the bird when it escaped.”
Nuala is particularly pleased that her biography is now available in Tralee, where Josef was a popular figure in the later 1950s.
Not only did he sing frequently in ballrooms in County Kerry, but Josef also owned a hotel in Listowel and ran horses at the town’s annual Race Meeting.
There too, he was a good friend of playwright and local publican, J B Keane.
And he appeared in variety shows with the top names in the business - George Formby, Julie Andrews, Morecambe and Wise, Shirley Bassey and Tommy Trinder, mentioning but a few.
Between 1945 and 1955 Josef topped the bill for an impressive total of eight full Blackpool summer-seasons, an extensive and lucrative limelight that dimmed considerably when he absconded to Ireland from his enormous, unpaid tax-bill.
In later years he claimed that he owed £40,000 - a fortune in those days.
The bill was in fact a little over £17,000, though that was still an awesome debt in the late 1950s.
Contrasting reports about his arrears are amongst the many myths un-Locked in Nuala’s book about the larger-than-life superstar with a larger-than-life voice.
When he died aged 82 in 1999 - 18 years ago last Sunday - a newspaper obituary recalled - “though his career was certainly rags to riches, it was also as fraught with trouble and controversy as the most compelling soap opera.”
He was singer, soldier, father, policeman, farmer, family man, accomplished horseman as well as local, national and international celebrity.
He was publican, hotelier, gambler, drinker, race-horse owner and friend of writer Brendan Behan and politician Charlie Haughey
He sang to Princess Diana. He appeared in This is Your Life.
He virtually monopolised two Royal Command performances.
He was the first entertainer in Britain to earn £1,000 a week in the later 1940s, a fortune which (it is said!) he managed to dispose of just as quickly.
His records outsold Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby in the UK in the 1950s and with retirement on the horizon he held lucrative farewell concerts - regularly!
Londonderry Central Library has agreed to run an enlarged Josef Locke Exhibition throughout October 2019 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his death.
“By that time,” says Nuala, “we might even have a street or square named after him in his hometown.”
l Full information Nuala McAllister Hart’s award-winning book is at Josef Locke The People’s Tenor on Facebook.