Is Joe Wilson the greatest-ever North East singer/songwriter? Raymond Crisp looks at the evidence – and previews the world premiere of a new play celebrating his life

THE word "arguably" is a proviso because there are the likes of Lindisfarne's Alan Hull and a host of other renowned wordsmiths from the area, like Sting, Chris Rea, Mark Knopfler and Alex Glasgow, but what can't be argued against is that Joe Wilson belongs in the same category as these internationally renowned names.

Wilson is to be celebrated at Darlington Hippodrome in September with the world premiere of a new play by Ed Waugh, whose co-writing credits include Dirty Dusting, Alf Ramsay Knew My Grandfather and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Durham.

The Great Joe Wilson will be performed to help celebrate the re-opening of the Darlington Hippodrome, which was previously known as the Darlington Civic Theatre.

The 1,000-seat number one venue has just undergone an 18-month restoration and The Great Joe Wilson is a co-production between Darlington Hippodrome and Wisecrack Productions, which has scored big national and regional success recently with Hadaway Harry and Mr Corvan's Music Hall.

"It's fitting that Joe Wilson's incredible life story and music will be the subject matter given the theatre started out in 1907 providing music hall entertainment, " said Lynda Winstanley, Darlington Hippodrome director. "We were originally called Darlington New Hippodrome and Palace Theatre of Varieties."

She continued: "Joe died in 1875 but during his brief life, he died aged 33, he played Darlington regularly at the Theatre Royal Music Hall in Northgate and is credited with bringing his type of singer/songwriter entertainment to Darlington."

Born in Newcastle in 1841, Wilson made his professional debut in a one-off gig at Pelton in December 1864 and a few weeks later he played Balmbras in Newcastle's Bigg Market, the region's most famous concert hall. He was an overnight sensation, aged only 23!

A three-month residency at Balmbra's followed and then, through word of mouth, he was in huge demand throughout the North East.

For the next seven years Wilson topped the bill wherever there were theatres and many held from 1,000 to 4,000 people.

Apart from Tyneside, his fame was recognised in Jarrow, South Shields, Sunderland, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton, Carlisle, Bishop Auckland, Spennymoor, Stanley and, of course, Darlington's Theatre Royal Music Hall, where The Era said: "The house has been crowded".

Among the venues he performed in were the Oxford Music Hall in Stockton, the Oxford Music Hall in Spennymoor and the Royal Music Hall in Bishop Auckland.

His popular tunes were sung in the street, concert halls, pubs and even schools.

Even in the modern era his songs are still recorded. The Unthanks recorded Gallowgate Lad in 2011 while Keep Your Feet Still, Geordie Hinny has been covered dozens of times over the past 100 years.

"Joe wrote and sang about working class life and his words still stand up today," says

Ed Waugh, who has used Dave Harker's new book about Joe Wilson, Gallowgate Lad. Joe Wilson's Life & Songs, as the basis of his play.

"Joe could write fantastic lyrics with a strong narrative and well defined characters. His songs range from comedy, like Geordie Haad The Bairn (in which he celebrated women) to lost love (Gallowgate Lad) and gossips (Keep't Dark).

"Joe also had a very serious edge," Waugh added, "he penned a number of songs in support of, and performed benefits for, the strikers at Armstrong's factory on the Tyne and engineers in Sunderland, in 1871, as they campaigned for a nine-hour working day.

"He also railed against domestic violence (Hannah's Black Eye) and alcohol abuse (Murder Throo Drink: The Gallows).

After a stint as theatre manager at the Cambridge Music Hall in Spennymoor in 1871, Joe moved to Carlisle to run the Princes Concert Hall. He even wrote a song called The Miseries o' Shiftin to commemorate the uprooting.

Returning to Tyneside, throughout 1872, he ran the Royal Adelaide Hotel, a pub (today sited next to Manors Metro station) where he was a prolific song writer. The experience of drunkenness and violence in the Adelaide turned him teetotal, which defined the last two years of his of his life, and his songwriting themes.

Joe was 32 when he contracted tuberculosis. His last-ever public performances were at the Oxford in Middlesbrough followed by the Royal Star Theatre of Varieties in Stockton in August 1874.

Living in poverty behind Newcastle Central Station, Wilson died of TB aged 33 in February 1875.

He is buried in Jesmond Old Cemetery in Newcastle and received a headstone in 1890, 15 years later.

"It's really sad to see his decline but it makes for tremendous drama," said Lynda Winstanley. "Like Ned Corvan and Geordie Ridley before Joe, they were also superstars who died in poverty. This is what makes Joe's life story such wonderful theatre.

"The great thing is Joe wrote around 360 songs and poems. His story is entertaining, funny, sad and, ultimately, uplifting because of the tremendous songs he left behind. Anyone with an interest in North East music, history and theatre should not miss this fantastic play."

An exhibition on the life of Joe Wilson will be installed at Darlington Hippodrome later this month.

The Great Joe Wilson will receive its world premiere at Darlington Hippodrome from Thursday, September 6 to Saturday, September 8 * and then tour the region:

Playhouse Whitley Bay: Tuesday, September 11 *

Sage Gateshead: Wednesday, September 12*

Alun Armstrong Theatre (formerly Stanley Civic Hall): Thursday, September 13

Westovian Theatre, South Shields: Friday, September 14 and Saturday, September 15*

* indicates matinees also on the day.