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Belfast Reflections: Iconic figures we’re proud to call our own

From singing sensations to child stars, we have much to celebrate, says Eddie McIlwaine

By Eddie McIlwaine

The 110th birthdate of James Johnston, the Singing Butcher of Sandy Row who took Covent Garden by storm one day and the next was back behind his counter serving prime steak to Belfast housewives, comes up this summer.

Which is appropriate in the city of which he was so proud and which he put on the musical map with his unique voice. Johnston’s time and genius will be celebrated at the same time as Belfast which produced him.

He was born on August 17 1903, the son of a butcher, and seemed destined for a career as his father’s assistant until one Sunday |Tyrone Guthrie of Sadler’s Wells Opera happened to be in Belfast and heard the young tenor Jimmy singing in his church choir and offered him a leading role in his |celebrated company.

Although his family frowned on the idea of their son becoming a professional singer Jimmy, who had already won many competitions across Ireland even though he had no formal training, accepted the offer in 1945.

And he became the UK’s leading tenor until 1958 when Jimmy retired from the stage and returned home to his shop after more than 850 performances in 24 leading roles with Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden.

He and leading soprano of the day Maria Callas didn’t get on and he once asked for her to to be removed as his leading lady.

Back in Sandy Row Jimmy was content to sing once again in his church choir and on special occasions raise his magnificent voice at concerts in the Ulster Hall. He died in October 1991 and there is an Ulster History Circle Blue Plaque in his memory at Knock Road in the city.

Johnston is just one of the iconic figures Belfast can claim as its own including Billy Neely, in his day the most famous boy |soprano in the world.

The young Belfast boy became a child star almost overnight when he made his first broadcast on BBC radio in 1948 on Children's Hour.

He went on to appear regularly on top-rated programmes in Belfast and London, like Henry Hall's Guest Night — the equivalent on the wireless of the later television Sunday Night At The London Palladium.

He eventually settled in France where he ran an antique shop until his death two years ago at 76. A CD of his boy soprano tracks is now in the shops.

Then there was the Singing Policeman Josef Locke, a legendary tenor with a great voice whose career was made into a film.

I once wrote a story in the Telegraph telling how Locke couldn’t come home to Belfast or indeed turn up anywhere in the UK because he owed the Inland Revenue £20,000 and the taxman was waiting to pounce. Next morning he came on the phone from somewhere in the Republic and said: |“McIlwaine you got it wrong — the sum is £40,000!”

Eventually Josef, who used to patrol the streets of Belfast as an RUC constable — under his real name of Joe McLaughlin — before being discovered, settled his money problems and did come home to grace the |Ulster Hall and the Opera House stages once again.

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