Born: May 31, 1955;

Died: August 3, 2019

Joe Longthorne, who has died aged 64, was a British singer who performed in the best traditions of the nation’s theatrical variety circuit and its heyday of televisual light entertainment. Although he served more than fifty years in the industry, it was in 1981 that his big break arrived through an appearance on London Weekend Television’s show Search for a Star. From there he was much in demand throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, particularly among older audiences who appreciated the nostalgic crooning style in which his own sound was so invested.

In fact, it wasn’t just that Longthorne was a singer of no mean ability; he was also a tremendous mimic. His stock-in-trade was the faithful impersonation of other singers who had gone before, and whose voices were instantly recognisable to the person on the street, but in a manner which respected rather than lampooned. For that television performance in 1981, in fact, he had earned the nation’s respect by making the extremely distinctive singing style of Shirley Bassey his own.

His other most famous impersonations were of a particular time and type, especially the smooth male Rat Pack sound of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin, all of whom were in his repertoire, as well as other crooner-derived singers including Tom Jones, Tony Bennett and Barry Manilow. For a bit of variety, he also did Barry White, John Lennon and Judy Garland, yet such was his skill and versatility with a song that he soon built a brand name all his own.

Longthorne became a fixture at the London Palladium, and sold albums, videos and even his own television show. If there was one year which can be called the very peak of his fame in the UK it was 1988, when his pre-Christmas album The Joe Longthorne Songbook became his only record to enter the top twenty in the UK Album Charts, while he also launched his own television show, The Joe Longthorne Show. This was an early hit for Nigel Lythgoe, the music and television impresario who later went on to produce Pop Idol and American Idol, but who was at this point the head of entertainment and comedy at London Weekend Television.

The show ran from ’88 until 1991, during which period (and the year he spent as a recurring guest on The Les Dennis Laughter Show immediately prior to it) Longthorne was a prime-time household name in Britain. In 1989 the album Especially for You just missed the top twenty and The Joe Longthorne Christmas Album – with an element of market saturation possibly creeping in – landed just outside the top forty.

Yet Longthorne recorded throughout his life and was listened to by his fans. Among their favourite albums are I Wish You Love (1993) and Live at the Royal Albert Hall (1994), while in 2018 he released the 50 Songs for 50 Years triple album collection, which features duets with Eastenders and Coronation Street stars Barbara Windsor and Liz Dawn, respectively. Sung with the latter, Passing Strangers was a top forty hit just before Christmas 1994, the same year Longthorne was granted a huge honour of the time, a surprise life and career profile on the show This is Your Life.

Continuing to work throughout the regular bouts of serious illness which afflicted him in later life, Longthorne also did a lot of work for charitable causes, and it was for this reason he was awarded an MBE in 2012, with the investiture ceremony being carried out by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace. In 2007 he was also a recipient of the Variety Club’s Lifetime Achievement Award, placing him in the same club as heroes of his including Sinatra, Davis Jr and Jones.

Joseph Patrick Daniel Longthorne was born in Hull in May 1955 to parents Teresa and Frederick, both of whom had family roots in the travelling community; from Yorkshire on his father’s side and Ireland on his mother’s. Yet he and his siblings – nine in total, although only four survived to adulthood – were raised in a house just off Hull’s Hessle Road, among other members of the travelling community who had been rehoused. His mother was a singer and his father a pianist, both of which skills he learned from them.

At four years old Longthorne won the local parks department’s singing contest with a version of Alma Cogan’s Sugar in the Morning (also the title of his 2010 autobiography), and before he had left primary school he was singing in pubs and fish and chip shops, and at funerals. At his father’s suggestion he applied for and appeared on Yorkshire Television’s Junior Showtime in the early 1970s (which also earned him a brief appearance on a star-filled television special named George Martin Presents), although when he turned sixteen he was back to building up a strong profile in the working men’s clubs of the north-east of England.

It was in these clubs that he made lifelong friends with the comedian Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, who indirectly introduced Longthorne to his future husband James Moran at a party in 1997. The couple – with Moran becoming Longthorne’s manager – settled in Blackpool and were married in 2014, the same year Longthorne discovered he had throat cancer. He had been diagnosed with lymphoma in 1989 and Leukaemia in 2005, for which he underwent a bone marrow transplant.

By his own admission Longthorne drank, smoke, took drugs, gambled and got into fights, and in his defence, he employed Frank Sinatra’s maxim: “You die your way, I’ll die mine.” His death came peacefully at home in Blackpool in August 2019, and he is survived by his son Ricky – who was born with Longthorne’s childhood sweetheart when Longthorne was 17, and from whom he was estranged until 2009 – and his grandchildren.