Joe Longthorne, who has died at the age of 64, was one of the biggest light-entertainment stars of his generation, admired within the industry for his powerful voice and professionalism and adored by a devoted fan base.
Born in Hull to performing parents from the travelling community, Longthorne showed an early gift for performing. He won his first talent contest at the age of five with an act showcasing his precocious skills as a singer and impressionist – talents that sustained a professional career over more than 40 years, saw him headlining the London Palladium and the Talk of the Town and acquiring three platinum discs for record sales.
After finding early television fame in the late 1960s with regular appearances on ITV’s children’s talent show, Junior Showtime, he served his apprenticeship on stage on the still thriving club circuit at home and abroad in the early years of the 1970s.
Although possessed of a fine voice of his own, Longthorne’s early act drew attention for his uncanny impersonations of an impressive array of singing stars from the Rat Pack and Elvis Presley to Mick Jagger and Des O’Connor and no less impeccable impressions of Dorothy Squires, Shirley Bassey and Judy Garland. Appearing at the London brasserie Quaglino’s in 1978, The Stage took notice of his “genuine star quality”.
His adult break came with another television talent show, Search for a Star, in 1981. Although narrowly beaten in the final, Longthorne’s newly raised profile saw him return to the club circuit on the cusp of stardom. The following year he headlined his first season at the Talk of the Town.
Recognition of his arrival as “the most outstanding young club and cabaret artist for several years” came with a Club Mirror award as specialist act of the year in 1983 and the Variety Club’s most promising artist accolade in 1984.
Those trophies opened the door to the United States, Longthorne spending the next 18 months there including a lengthy and much admired residency in Chicago. He crossed he Atlantic often in the following years, reaching Las Vegas before the end of the decade.
When he returned to the UK, it was with a more polished and sophisticated act that earned him regular guest appearances on television variety programmes, most notably The Les Dennis Laughter Show.
Longthorne hosted his own eponymous show from 1988-91 and sang the theme song for Johnny Speight’s Eric Sykes-starring The Nineteenth Hole in 1989, when he also made his debut appearance in the Royal Variety Performance, a second following in 1995.
At the peak of his popularity in the first half of the 1990s, Longthorne was declared entertainer of the year by the Club Mirror in 1990, filled the 3,000-plus Royal Albert Hall in 1992, and set a solo artist record with his 19-week season at the Blackpool Opera House in 1993, which set box office tills ringing to the tune of £1.8 million.
Diagnosed with cancer in 1989, he continued to perform, although the illness, combined with what Longthorne described as “bad management advice”, led to mounting financial difficulties and his eventual filing for bankruptcy in 2000.
The same stoicism sustained him through an often debilitating treatment for leukaemia, his season at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre in 2001 demonstrating his still substantial pulling power with ticket receipts of more than £1 million.
When complications set in after a bone marrow transplant in 2005, Longthorne spent a month sedated on an hospital ventilator and, a devout Catholic, was given the last rites by a priest. Just five months later, however, he was back on stage in Blackpool with a nationwide tour quickly following.
He survived a further blow when diagnosed with mouth cancer in 2014, touring shortly afterwards to mark his 60th birthday the following year.
His international appeal stretched from residencies in Las Vegas to headlining the Sydney Opera House and in-demand appearances throughout Europe and in Canada and Cyprus.
From the Variety Club, he received a lifetime achievement award in 2007 and a Silver Heart award in 2010 in recognition of his career-long support for charities, for which he was made an MBE in 2012.
He published an autobiography, Sugar in the Morning (co-written with Chris Berry), in 2015.
Joseph Patrick Longthorne was born on May 31, 1955 and died on August 3. He is survived by his husband and manager, James Moran.