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Def Leppard's Viv Campbell and me - my mega rock star cousin

Vivian Campbell may have toured the globe playing guitar for two of the world’s biggest rock bands, Whitesnake and Def Leppard, but when he’s home his family in Co Tyrone are his biggest fans. Emma Heatherington on what it’s like growing up with a famous relative.

The year was 1989 - a time when jeans were skin tight, rock bands were topping the charts and perming lotion was every hairdresser's best friend.

I was Emma Louise McCrory, a gawky 13-year-old girl who wrote songs on a keyboard in her bedroom, all the while being desperately torn between being a Brosette, Marti Pellow's future wife or Jon Bon Jovi's true love interest.

Let's just say I had varied taste.

But this was no ordinary day in 1989 and I knew it as I covered every surface in our tiny living room in Pledge and polished my heart out with MTV and the sounds of the Hoover whirring in the background. A few teenage boys in denim jackets holding electric guitars lingered outside our house in Donaghmore, Co Tyrone, fidgeting with excitement and impatience as they waited.

My mother, only a youngster herself, was like the director in a Hollywood movie as she issued chores to each of us children and tried to find time to fix her hair and make-up while my father tried to pretend he didn't really care for all the commotion when inside I knew he was bursting with pride.

"He's here," one of the lads from outside shouted in through the front door, his eyes like bullets and his hands shaking as he held his guitar and then ran to the kerbside.

We gasped from behind the net curtains as a gleaming red Ferrari glided up outside and parked between modest vehicles in the built-up grey housing estate.

Neighbours craned their necks from kitchen windows, we turned MTV down and my sister and I swooned as out of the shiny sports car came a real live rock star with big curly dark hair, a black leather jacket and he was signing autographs outside our house.

Our very own rock star. Our very own cousin Vivian had come to visit us and the excitement was turned up to eleven.

Vivian Patrick Campbell was born in 1962 to Mary (nee McCrory) and Vivian Snr who were both from Co Tyrone. They raised their four children in Lisburn and as a very young child, I only ever heard of my cousin from my grandmother who proudly told us of "young Vivian", who was a great guitar player and who had gone to America to play with the rock band Dio.

Vivian's mother Mary was a former beauty queen and the eldest of 10 children, who were reared in a tiny two-bedroom house on the outskirts of Dungannon. My dad Hugh was number nine of the 10 and when we were tiny, he would go to visit Mary and her children and come back with great tales of his young nephew's American adventures and how he had shown a real flair from music having first picked up a guitar at the age of 12.

There was no Google, of course, and no internet to stalk celebrities like we do now, so we followed Viv's career from snippets in rock magazines and from hearing wide-eyed tales from the local heavy metal gang in our village who spoke highly of him as a real guitar hero. He had played with Belfast band Sweet Savage and apparently Dio were hot stuff if you were into heavy rock ... but I was more into Jason and Kylie back then if truth be told.

It was only when Vivian moved to the more commercially known Whitesnake that my young ears pricked up as hits like Here I Go Again, and Is This Love? were played on MTV. There he was, playing famous guitar solos to huge crowds on our TV screens and the reality of his success began to sink in. I started to buy their albums and even dedicated a space on my bedroom door for all things Whitesnake, squeezing their posters in between Marti, Matt and the lads.

I'm sure David Coverdale would have been delighted. It was during the Whitesnake days that we got a phone call from our granny to say that Vivian was home and would be paying us a visit.

My mother was absolutely frantic.

She loved music and knew every word of their songs as much as I did and she told some local boys who were big fans to bring their guitars to our house to have them signed. The words soon got out and by the time Vivian arrived at our door, he had a mini fan club waiting outside and another one waiting inside where we had polished and cleaned to within an inch of our lives and mummy had brought out the fancy cups and saucers. 

Vivian came into our living room and fixed his curly hair in the mirror above the fire place and we gulped and swooned as he chatted with our parents about his rise to rock star fame. 

“Do you know Jon Bon Jovi?” my sister asked him and we both almost melted when he said he did. 

“Jon’s a nice guy,” he told us. I felt faint. Wow. 

We were allowed to listen in to his tales of LA where he lived and places that we had never even heard of and then were politely asked to put the kettle on for more tea when the conversation arose as to how Whitesnake got their name … I never was told the real story behind that one.

He stayed and talked and drank his tea as we drank in his every word, in total awe of our very own cousin who was truly living the dream. 

“Will you tell Jon Bon Jovi we said hello?” my sister asked him as he was leaving, with a full McCrory escort (back then there were five of us kids — another one came a year later) and he gave us a wink and said he would. 

We screamed. 

It was truly a day to remember and even the boys with their guitars still talk about it to this day and hold my mum in high regard for being “so cool” and letting them come in to meet him. 

Life has changed for all of us of course since that day in 1989. 

Vivian’s career soared and in 1992 he joined one of the biggest rock bands of our time — Def Leppard (or Death Leppert as my Granny called them) and we huddled around the TV watching him make his debut at the Freddie Mercury Concert For Life sharing the stage with Queen legend Brian May.

It was the year after we lost our precious mummy suddenly, aged only 36 and Vivian sent a wreath for her grave and a sympathy card from his world travels apologising for not making the funeral. 

Vivian lost his own parents in more recent years and like all long distant cousins, family funerals were when we would often catch up. 

For the past 23 years, every time Def Leppard come to Belfast, we go en force to see them play and as we watched a sell-out crowd at the SSE on Monday night, my dad and I beamed with pride as Vivian got a huge Irish welcome with Joe Elliott declaring it the biggest crowd they have ever played to in the city. 

We caught up with Vivian and his wife Caitlin before the gig, then sang along to favourites such as Hysteria, Pour Some Sugar on Me and my dad’s favourite, Let’s Get Rocked.

Vivian and I keep in touch now by email, as he travels the world and he is a friendly, down-to-earth person who never forgets his roots. He is from good old Tyrone stock after all. He has helped plug my books to his masses of fans and he always makes sure we have a good night out when the Leppards come to town — last week he even arranged for my brother to see them in Sydney. 

It’s always a talking point to tell people that Vivian Campbell is my cousin and I am immensely proud of his success and how far he has come from that day in 1989. 

I never did find out if he told Jon Bon Jovi we said hello back then, but I think I’ll hold on that one for now. 

Def Leppard are way better anyhow. At least their guitarist is way better. Not that I’m biased or anything … 

  • Emma Heatherington is a novelist, songwriter and scriptwriter from Donaghmore, Co Tyrone. She still loves Jon Bon Jovi and Marti Pellow, but that’s a secret

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