Born in Derry on March 23, 1917, McLaughlin is the son of a butcher and cattle dealer, and one of nine children. He starts singing in local churches in the Bogside at the age of seven, and as a teenager adds two years to his age to enlist in the Irish Guards, later serving abroad with the Palestine Police Force, before returning in the late 1930s to join the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Known as The Singing Bobby, McLaughlin becomes a local celebrity before starting to work the UK variety circuit, where he also plays summer seasons in English seaside resorts. The renowned Irish tenor John McCormack (1884–1945) advises him that his voice is better suited to a lighter repertoire than the operatic one he has in mind, and urges him to find an agent. He finds the noted impresario Jack Hylton (1892–1965) who books him, but is unable to fit his full name on the bill, thus Joseph McLaughlin becomes Josef Locke.
Locke makes an immediate impact when featured in “Starry Way,” a twenty-week summer show at the Opera House Theatre in Blackpool, Lancashire, England in 1946 and is rebooked for the following summer, then starring for three seasons at the Blackpool Hippodrome. He appears in ten Blackpool seasons from 1946 to 1969, not the nineteen seasons he later claims.
Locke makes his first radio broadcast in 1949, and subsequently appears on television programmes such as Rooftop Rendezvous, Top of the Town, All-star Bill and The Frankie Howerd Show. He is signed to the Columbia label in 1947, and his first releases are the two Italian songs “Santa Lucia” and “Come Back to Sorrento.”
In 1947, Locke releases “Hear My Song, Violetta,” which becomes forever associated with him. It is based on a 1936 tango “Hör’ mein Lied, Violetta” by Othmar Klose and Rudolf Lukesch. The song “Hör’ mein Lied, Violetta” is often covered, including by Peter Alexander and is itself based on Giuseppe Verdi‘s La traviata. His other songs are mostly a mixture of ballads associated with Ireland, excerpts from operettas, and familiar favourites.
In 1948, Locke appears in several films produced by Mancunian Films, usually as versions of himself. He plays himself in the film Holidays with Pay. He also appears as “Sergeant Locke” in the 1949 comedy What a Carry On!.
In 1958, after Locke has appeared in five Royal Variety Performance telecasts, and while he is still at the peak of his career, the British tax authorities begin to make substantial demands that he declines to meet. Eventually he flees the country for Ireland, where he lays low for several years. When his differences with the taxman are eventually settled, he relaunches his career in England with tours of the northern variety clubs and summer seasons at Blackpool’s Queen’s Theatre in 1968 and 1969, before retiring to County Kildare, emerging for the occasional concert in England. He later appears on British and Irish television, and in November 1984 is given a lengthy 90-minute tribute in honour of the award he is to receive at the Olympia theatre commentating his career in show business on Gay Byrne‘s The Late Late Show. He also makes many appearances on the BBC Television‘s long running variety show The Good Old Days.
In 1991, the Peter Chelsom film Hear My Song is released. It is a fantasy based on the notion of Locke returning from his Irish exile in the 1960s to complete an old love affair, and save a Liverpool-based Irish night-club from ruination. Locke is played by Ned Beatty, with the singing voice of Vernon Midgley. The film leads to a revival in Locke’s career. A compilation CD is released and he appears on This Is Your Life in March 1992. He performs in front of the Prince and Princess of Wales at the 1992 Royal Variety Show, singing “Goodbye,” the final song performed by his character in the film. He announces prior to the song that this will be his final public appearance.
Locke dies at the age of 82 in Clane, County Kildare on October 15, 1999, and is survived by his wife, Carmel, and a son.
On March 22, 2005, a bronze memorial to Locke is unveiled outside the City Hotel on Queen’s Quay in Derry by Phil Coulter and John Hume. The memorial is designed by Terry Quigley. It takes the form of a spiraling scroll divided by lines, representing a musical stave. The spiral suggests the flowing melody of a song, and is punctuated by images illustrating episodes in his life, including Locke in police uniform, Blackpool Tower, Carnegie Hall, and the musical notes of the opening lines of “Hear My Song.”
A biography of the singer, entitled Josef Locke: The People’s Tenor, by Nuala McAllister Hart is published in March 2017, the centenary of his birth. The book corrects many myths that the charismatic Locke circulated about his career.