b. Mary O’Rourke, 1913, Helensburgh, Scotland, d. 1964, Glasgow, Scotland. Raised in Glasgow in a large family, O’Rourke began singing as a child and won a talent contest with one of her brothers. She went to London, England where her career took a very unexpected turn. This was a period when records by boy sopranos were very popular and a recording company executive, weary of the short singing life of these artists and the allied problems of starting off a new career for an unknown when the current favourite’s voice broke, hired her to masquerade as a boy. Thus, the young woman became Master Joe Petersen, was photographed in a suit and wearing an Eton collar, was referred to as a choirboy, and was billed as the Phenomenal Boy Singer. Accompanied by piano or sometimes Wurlitzer organ, Petersen made numerous 78s in London through the 30s. Among the most popular recordings were ‘A Portrait Of A Lady’, ‘It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today’, ‘Smilin’ Through’, ‘My Ain Folk’, ‘It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie’ and ‘Sweetheart Let’s Grow Old Together’. O’Rourke also recorded under the names Master Wilfred Eaton and Michael Dawney.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, O’Rourke’s private life was reported to be frequently in disarray. She had married concert violinist George Lethbridge when she learned that she was pregnant, but this developed into an unhappy union. Her career also suffered when the BBC, in those years a self-appointed arbiter of the nation’s musical morals, decided that a woman, now in her twenties, dressing up as a boy was improper. Never mind that this was radio and the offender could not be seen, a ban was imposed. Even without radio, Petersen’s singing career continued into the 50s with tours of variety theatres throughout the UK, and she remained especially popular in Scotland.