Joseph Locke

Joseph Locke

It was in Bundoran in 1967 that James renewed his friendship with “Big Joe”. Brendan O’Dowda was doing a summer season and had secured the services of James and Frank Carson for his show when Joe arrived in town on a holiday break and the four got together to play a few rounds of golf. Twice a day James teamed up with Locke and O’Dowda played with Carson, who was then only a novice. Both Locke and O’Dowda were fiercely competitive. During one of these four-balls Joe was invited to judge the talent competition which was a popular part of O’Dowda’s show that year. Interestingly, a fine young tenor from Derry was awarded first prize. Frankie Mooney, like so many tenors of the time, was greatly influenced in his style by Big Joe, so it was a special honour to receive the award from his hero. Locke was persuaded to sing - and brought the house down. When James heard how well he was singing he advised Joe that he should be back singing on the professional stage in England.

Joe had been an exile from Britain for some years as he owed a substantial amount of money to the tax man, so he felt chary about returning to the scene of his greatest triumphs. He was, nonetheless, attracted by the idea; after all, he was not yet fifty, and James was genuinely enthusiastic about his voice. Tentative overtures were made to Her Majesty’s Inspector of Taxes and a deal was struck whereby if he returned to England he would be permitted to pay off his arrears in instalments. Joe Locke made his professional return to the stage for the 1968 season in his beloved Blackpool. It gives some indication of his earnings that in the 68 and 69 seasons Joe paid off all his outstanding tax obligations - which ran to tens of thousands of pounds - and still finished the decade in a very comfortable position financially. By the end of the 68 season Joe had extracted a promise from James that he would accompany him in 69.

The Blackpool season is a long one, running all the way from early summer until the end of The Illuminations in early November, about five months in total. James joined Joe at The Queen’s Theatre shortly after rehearsals had finished but couldn’t stay till the very end of the run because of his classes and other prior commitments. Joe was top of the bill in what was considered to be one of the strongest shows on The Golden Mile : The Dallas Boys, Jimmy Clitheroe, Bobby Bennett and Alan Randal were supported by a female soloist, The Tiller Girls, The Queen’s Singers, a group of acrobats and the resident orchestra.

There were two shows each evening for which Joe received £1,000 a week. James was on £50. On Sundays when the theatre was closed they flew to the Isle of Man where Joe did a show or two as well. He appeared regularly at late night cabarets in Blackpool, and on television he could be seen and heard advertising a brown ale. To the tune of Oh! Susanna he sang “If you want to get your whistle wet then go for a Bull’s Eye Brown.”  Each week a dozen crates of the stuff were left for him in the corridor outside his dressing room door. While he seldom drank ale the rest of the cast didn’t dare touch it. He disposed of it courtesy of a local publican with whom he had an understanding.

“Mr Blackpool,” a title which he gained with his run of nineteen seasons, was back ! And he was given a terrific reception by his delighted fans who packed The Queen’s. Every evening he rewarded them with a vintage programme that had them calling for more. They happily sang along at his invitation, allowing him to coast now and then. All the old favourites were there :Violetta, La Reve Passe, I’ll Take you Home Again, Kathleen . After “The Holy City” he would call for a drop of the holy water, and a glass of Bull’s Eye Brown would be brought on stage to him, which segued neatly into “The Drinking Song.” All the while James was onstage accompanying at the grand piano along with the orchestra. Joe would then introduce him and they would sing ”The Bold Gendarmes” duet by Offenbach. “How Small We Are,” Joe’s latest record was sung with a delightful accompaniment by James which earned him much applause from the audience and, which pleased him more, much praise from the professional musicians in the pit. Joe next introduced them - Sir Thomas Beecham and all his little pills - to much laughter.  The spot always ended with “Goodbye”. The band would vamp while he worked the audience. “Oompah! Oompah!” which elicited the desired response “Stick It Up Your Jumper.” And so it would go on till Joe had them just where he wanted them - in the palm of his hand. And he would finish with his customary flourish, hitting a top C with ease.

That was an eventful summer. On the20th July Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. To commemorate the historic occasion Alan Randall, who was a George Formby tribute act, penned a song. The chorus went “Chocolate, chocolate. The cover of the moon was chocolate. Chocolate, chocolate. The cover of the moon was chocolate.”

Back in Derry trouble erupted after The Apprentice Boys’ march on the 12th August and The Battle of the Bogside raged. Each evening after the show they watched the television as the violence spread to Belfast and beyond. Many anxious phone calls home were made.

Thereafter, Joe gave freely of his time to do concerts in Derry to support The Bogside Citizens’ Association and other voluntary groups who assisted families whose lives had been affected by the troubles. His sole proviso was that James should play for him.