After decades in the music business, the man who has it down to a Big T
Back with a daily show on Downtown Country, Northern Ireland’s first digital-only station, Big T tells Laurence White how grief at the death of wife Lynda Jayne plunged him into a battle with the bottle and how he finally turned his life around after finding love again
Downtown DJ Trevor Campbell — known to his legion of fans as Big T — freely admits that his life story reads in parts like the most depressing country song ever.
Divorce, tragedy, alcoholism, drunken driving and court appearances all featured in the past, but the man who was one of the first voices heard on the radio station 39 years ago now says he is as happy as can be.
A big part of the reason is his partner of several years Vi, who he describes as a very understanding woman.
He recalls how last week, on the anniversary of his late wife’s death, Vi had gone out and bought flowers for the grave. “I was very busy that day,” he says, “and Vi decided to help me out. That is typical of her”.
Trevor, who was the first presenter on the new Downtown Country digital radio station which was launched on April 15, freely admits life was a struggle in the past, but now has an entirely new attitude.
Aged 69 and having spent four days in hospital with pneumonia last year, he has started to prioritise his concerns.
“I now constantly remind myself that today is the day that I have got and that I should enjoy it. I remember writing a poem about happiness when I was at school and it dealt with how people look back to happy times or look forward to events which they think will make them happy. But if you just accept each day as it comes and live it to the full then you will be happy.”
He certainly knows the reverse of that coin. On April 20, 2000, his wife Lynda Jayne, also a presenter on Downtown Radio, died suddenly from a suspected heart attack in their home in the village of Moneyrea on the outskirts of Belfast.
Looking back he says perhaps she should have been screened for possible heart problems. "Her father had his first heart attack at 39, but it was something that you associated more with men than women. With hindsight perhaps we should have taken more care or identified that she was at possible risk," he says.
Obviously her death was a devastating blow to Trevor. "I remember talking to a friend that night and saying to him 'Why can't they bury me with Lynda Jane on Monday?' When nothing else matters to you it is difficult to talk yourself out of your grief. People might say to you that you are just killing yourself behaving in that manner, but in your mind that is the whole idea."
The couple lived in a huge 17th century manse in the village - "our heating bill was higher than some people's mortgage" - and Lynda Jayne is buried nearby. For a long time, Trevor could hardly bear to visit her grave. "I just couldn't cope with the idea that she was lying there all alone", he once said.
As well as being distressing, the visits also had another unfortunate consequence.
"Every time I went to the grave I would then go to the pub or go home and have a drink," he admits.
It took him a long time to recognise that he was an alcoholic. The drink nearly cost him his career. He had two drink-driving convictions and also appeared in court accused of assaulting a former girlfriend, Scottish singer Ann Williamson.
He was eventually cleared of the charges, but during those dark days he was suspended for a period by the radio station.
Now he no longer drinks or smokes.
And he has found the strength to visit Lynda Jayne's grave more often. "I suppose part of the reason was that I didn't want people to think I didn't care. Of course, I did, it was just that I found it a painful experience.
"But I must also pay tribute to the people in the village. They were very fond of Lynda Jayne and were a tremendous support to me afterwards and when things got really bad. I will always remember that kindness," he says.
Trevor has since moved out of the manse to a small property in the village, but says that occasionally when he drives past it, some pleasant memory of life there will pop into his head. "The other day when I went to the churchyard I couldn't resist having a peek over the wall just to see the old home and how it was looking," he says.
It could be said that Trevor was born to be a leading voice of country music in Northern Ireland. Born at Everton Drive at the top of the Cregagh Road in Belfast, he recalls how there was always music in his home. An uncle owned a television, radio and record shop, so there was always a steady supply of new material to listen to.
His older sister Norma also helped develop his musical tastes. "She introduced me to songs that would have been in advance of what my peers and I were listening to and that proved invaluable when I began DJ-ing in later years.
"I used to listen to artists like Jim Reeves without realising that it was country music. Nobody ever called it that then and many country artists made the pop charts in those days, in the early 1960s."
Trevor's musical aspirations were also sparked by the pirate radio stations, particularly Radio Caroline North, when a DJ called Don Allan played country music. He and Trevor were later to become good friends.
Trevor also tried this route into the industry, boarding Radio North Sea off the coast of Holland.
"But it didn't last long. Force 9 gales left me seasick and I was also homesick, so I came back to Northern Ireland and my job in the civil service, where I worked for 10 years - and hated every minute of it.
"I used to live for Wednesday nights when I would run a little disco at the tennis club in Stranmillis. It wasn't a paid job, just something I loved doing."
But it was to lead to bigger things. Another former pupil at Trevor's old school - Royal Belfast Academical Institution where he gained A-levels in Latin, French and English - came up to him one night with a proposition.
"He ran discos in a number of hotels around the province. That was a big thing in those days. Dance halls were not licensed, but hotels were, and for the first time people could get a drink at a dance. That guy was a real entrepreneur and I heard later than he had moved to England, got into supplying slot machines and was a millionaire."
Although he has been with Downtown Radio since it was launched, Trevor could have been poached by the BBC on a couple of occasions.
He remembers being offered a half hour slot on Saturday nights - at that time Radio Ulster had not yet been launched and there was relatively little music on BBC locally. Then in 1985, he was offered work with Radio 2 but it would have meant relocating to London, something he was very reluctant to do.
By that stage his first marriage had broken up with his then wife Georgie complaining that he "was married to Downtown Radio". He adds: "I knew if I went to London it would be bad for my marriage to Lynda Jayne. We first got together in 1980 and married three years later, but I believed that living away from home would have caused problems," he says.
Even he admits that he is astonished by the popularity of country music in Northern Ireland. "Practically from the start in Downtown my country shows have attracted huge numbers of listeners. So much so that we went from two shows a week to presenting five nights a week. Now we have a dedicated country radio station - the province's first digital only station - and I have no doubt that it will prove extremely popular."
There is certainly an audience for this genre. Some 302,000 adults in Northern Ireland specifically choose to listen to country music and a total of 210,000 people attended a country concert last year.
It is perhaps a sign of his now sunnier outlook that our conversation is peppered with jokey asides. Vi wanted him to clean out the garden shed during the recent sunny spell, but he was considering getting a pal to ring him from work to get him out of that job. "But she is pretty insistent," he adds. "Maybe I will just have to do it."
He also recalls how his father, Tommy, a boilermaker and metal worker, was very dismissive of school exams and their 60% pass mark. "He used to say, 'if 40% of my boilers leaked I would be out of business very quickly. I have to get things 100% right'. It was unanswerable logic. He also told me that if I spent less time listening to the radio, I might make something of myself."
Occasionally, thoughts of his own mortality creep into the conversation. Just recently on the same day he learned of the deaths of two friends. "It suddenly makes you think," he says. "When I began working out their ages, I realised that one of them was not much older than me.
"I suppose that is just part of life. You start off going to funerals with your dad, then you go to your dad's funeral and then you start going to the funeral of your friends."
One such friend was country singer George Hamilton IV. The singer phoned Trevor from the US the day that Lynda Jayne died to offer his condolences and also say that he would be willing to host a tribute show to her.
"He died late last year. He was the nicest person in the world. He would often pick me up from the airport when I went to Nashville, the home of country music, and he would give me his own private tour of the homes of the stars.
"We sometimes admire the big houses in the wealthier parts of Northern Ireland, but those country stars have properties that are huge mansions. When you fly into Nashville the number of swimming pools that you can see is unreal. There is certainly money in country music, at least for the stars."
Big T presents the Country Legends show on Downtown Country, Monday-Friday, from 12-1pm
Legends on Big T’s playlist
- Dolly Parton - she is small, just 4ft 10ins and with that small waist you feel that you could just reach out with your finger and thumb and lift her up. But she is as sharp as a tack and some performer
- Tammy Wynette - I met her many times at Wembley country festival and she was always the same, a really nice person
- Bill Anderson - not as well known as the others but has been writing hit songs for decades. He must have a house just to receive all his royalty cheques
- Charley Pride - I was at his recent concert in Belfast. He is in his mid-70s and he never sat down once during his performance. I remember the late Jim Aiken saying that if he could bring Charlie on a tour of Ireland every year he would be very happy. That is the sort of appeal that he has, even though he has not had a hit song for decades
- Johnny Cash - a very down to earth man, very ordinary
- Willie Nelson - very quiet
- Waylon Jennings - had a drink with him in the Europa Hotel. Another nice man