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Downtown Radio DJ Trevor 'Big T' Campbell: Meeting my partner Vi changed my life


Great team: Trevor Campbell
Great team: Trevor Campbell
Trevor with singer Charley Pride
Trevor with partner Vi
Trevor with Dolly Parton
Trevor with country star Nathan Carter
Rachel Dean

By Rachel Dean

In this week's interview Rachel Dean talks to Downtown Radio DJ Trevor 'Big T' Campbell (73) who lives in Moneyreagh, Co Down and has a partner called Violet (known as Vi).

Q. Tell us about your childhood.

A. I had a very happy, family-orientated childhood, growing up at the top of the Cregagh Road in Belfast.

I was lucky, you see, I'm the youngest of three - my sister Norma is seven years older and my brother Tom is 13 years older.

My father Tommy had his own business, a boiler-making, steel business. My mother Elizabeth, or Lily, was a stay-at-home mum. We were pretty comfortable. I don't remember getting up to a lot really, I must have been an awfully good child.

I had a 'lazy eye', so I wore a patch for a lot of the time. They put it over the good eye to make the lazy one work. I've worn glasses from I was about three years old and I went through the usual 'specky four eyes' teasing at school, but as you grow older kids don't care as much.

I cycled everywhere. I went to Belfast Inst and I cycled there in later years and back. I cycled to the school grounds to play tennis, then I later took up rowing.

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I loved music from I was no age. The music was so very different back then. There wasn't so much of it and a lot of it was very stiff. We always had a radiogram and there was always music about the house.

There were always records in the house and I was very into a lot of those records when I was young. With my sister Norma being seven years older than me, she would always have her radio on too.

When popular music came around it was on Radio Luxembourg in the 1950s and it only broadcasted at night - Norma usually had that on. Everyone listened to it. Music had changed and it had a flavour for the younger generation.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. I'm proud of my Country Music Association (CMA) award. It's one of the highest things you could be honoured with in the country music business. I never would have believed that the wee boy coming from Belfast could get one of these from Nashville.

I started going to Nashville in 1977, a year after Downtown started, and I received the award in 2004.

The actual title is 'International Country DJ of the Year for Outstanding Services to Country Music'. It was pretty nice to win an international award, which I never, ever expected.

Q. The one regret you wish you could amend?

A. It's hard to say that your one regret is that you got involved in drinking too much. It was part of the culture, a lifestyle, and it's easy to get caught up in it. Then when my wife Lynda Jayne died, that's when my drinking got out of control. I was using alcohol as coping mechanism.

Happy times: Trevor with late wife Lynda Jayne

I was reading about Michael Parkinson the other day and when his father died, he took off to the pub for a long time. I was quite surprised how long it lasted.

If I could go back, I wouldn't have drunk so much. I don't like to say that I wouldn't have started drinking, because a lot of my life wouldn't have existed if I hadn't been a drinker - there's a lot of places I wouldn't have been and a lot of people I wouldn't have met. I couldn't say I regretted every drink I took - I just regret the extra ones.

Q. Do you have any phobias?

A. Being buried alive. You hear about it happening to coal miners and that would be awful scary. I wouldn't like going into a cave or going down into places like that.

I'm not claustrophobic or anything, but I wouldn't be happy being too closed in.

When I see people who go potholing on television, I just can't understand how someone can justify doing that knowing that they are liable to getting stuck down there.

Q. The temptation that you cannot resist?

A. When we are on holiday in Fuengirola, Spain, there's an ice cream place that we go to. Vi thinks I only go to it with her at night, but I usually try and sneak off during the day to it as well!

It sells stracciatella, an Italian ice cream, and I just find it irresistible. I could have a large one and scrape the whole carton and honestly say I'd like another small one.

Q. Your number one prized possession?

A. My Irish Radio Broadcasting Hall of Fame award which I got a few years ago. Some of the names on the wall are quite daunting - real broadcasters, as I would call them!

Further along the wall from mine, there's a plaque for a guy called Ronan O'Rahilly, who brought pirate radio to the British Isles in 1964 in the form of a ship called Radio Caroline.

Trevor with Dolly Parton

At that time, the BBC would broadcast popular music at certain times during the day and pop was pretty strong - The Rolling Stones were about and The Beatles had arrived.

This guy Ronan thought there was a fair gap and I think the idea came from America. He bought old ships and anchored them off the Isle of Man and the coast of Essex. They broadcast pop music all day long. They were illegal because they didn't have radio broadcasting licences from the British government, but they lasted a few years and they were incredibly popular.

They made radio a way of life and everyone was listening to it.

I was so influenced by Radio Caroline. I had always wanted to be on the radio from I was no age, so to be on the wall alongside Ronan O'Rahilly, really is an awfully happy coincidence for me.

Q. The book that has most impacted your life?

A. I know everyone says the Bible, probably. You're introduced to the Bible in Northern Irish schools, whether you like it or not.

I was brought up in the church, I attended BB (Boys' Brigade) and my uncle was the BB captain.

I was taught from the Bible and it was the book that taught you the difference between right and wrong. It's bound to have influenced my life.

Q. If you had the power or the authority, what would you do?

A. You see and hear of so much hunger in the world. From you're a child, you're taught to finish your food and clean your plate up because there was hunger in the world. Here we are, 73 years later, and there's still hunger and famine in the world.

I remember when my late wife Lynda Jayne went to Africa - she went twice with the charity Concern, once to Ethiopia and once to Rwanda.

She came back a changed person, having seen starvation up close.

Real children that she had met, had died a week later through nothing other than lack of food.

Feeding the world would be a good thing to do and all the other good things that would come from it.

Q. What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A. People who don't put their car lights on, no matter how dark it gets.

They don't realise that if you're coming out of a side road and there's a car with no lights on and a car behind with lights on, it's the car behind you actually see and you don't see the one in front.

They don't realise they aren't being seen. Do they think that's clever or is this some macho thing and they think they can drive for longer in the dark than others? There are times you flash your lights at someone and they flash back, virtually giving you the fingers, as if to say, 'I'm not putting my lights on yet, I'm more macho than that!'

Q. Who has most influenced you in life?

A. My uncle Victor. My middle name is Victor, so I'm actually named after him.

When I was very small, he had a microphone in my granny's front room with whatever other equipment he had.

You were able to speak into that microphone and the sound came out through the radio in my granny's dining room. I used to pretend I was reading the news into that microphone, when I was about five or six, and I often wonder if that was my introduction to radio.

Q. Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive, and why?

A. I have had an unusual life, really, from I started in radio. There was a certain event called the Country Music Festival in London which happened every Easter and I went over there for Downtown to do interviews. I was lucky enough to meet, each year, some of the biggest names in country music.

Luckier still, a record company in the south had heard about me and they took me to Nashville in 1977. I actually got drunk with Kenny Rogers that year.

There was an interview arranged in the United Artists Record building on a Saturday afternoon. I was in a room with Billie Jo Spears, some other record people and Kenny. We were playing his songs and there was a courtesy bar, so everyone was just getting each other drinks, then we discovered we were locked in. Nobody could find the caretaker, so we had a few hours to kill...

I've been in Dolly Parton's house. I flew over to interview Dolly, you know, it was four nights in the Hilton and 20 minutes actually interviewing her, but we spent a lot of time in her house. It's kind of a musical house in Nashville - there's a small, personal chapel in it and she says she gets a lot of inspiration from going there.

Meeting people like Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette and Johnny Cash were all great moments too.

I've interviewed Charley Pride 13 or 14 times, and a lot of the times now when I meet him, we don't bother doing an interview. He usually ends up spending more time with Vi and they talk about grandchildren and family. It's like a big catch-up.

Trevor with singer Charley Pride

I had an interview with Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires, who were Elvis Presley's backing group, in October 1977 and Elvis had died that August. I was taken to Gordon's mansion in Nashville and he took me into what he called 'The Den' - it was an amazing room with Elvis memorabilia and gold discs, a lot of them belonging to him.

I sat down in this big leather chair and Gordon said to me, 'That's the chair that Elvis always sat in'.

He told me that even though he'd known Elvis for so many years, that he was a man with presence and made him quite nervous. We talked for a while about Elvis, with Gordon making sure the tape recorder wasn't on.

Something I've never really forgotten or repeated was Gordon saying to me, 'Elvis would have liked you. You probably would have walked out there with keys to a Cadillac'.

There have been so many amazing experiences. It became part of my life. I don't mean you don't appreciate it though, because now and again, I would still have to pinch myself.

With that being said, I would have to have Elvis Presley to dinner because I just missed out on meeting him.

Johnny Cash because he was very down-to-earth and easy to talk to. He didn't like to be introduced as the big star that he was - he felt uncomfortable. When he talked to you, he was very normal and he had great opinions about things.

Vi would have to be the third one because she fits into any conversation and everyone seems to love her.

Trevor with partner Vi

A lot of our local stars, like Nathan Carter and Derek Ryan, feel like family around Vi. She makes the tea or she irons Nathan's trousers in his dressing room. She's part of the team.

Q. What was the best piece of advice you have ever received?

A. Probably from my father. I still remember his influence. He would always have said, 'If you haven't got the money for it in your back pocket, you can't afford it'.

He said everybody was living off everybody else's money. I never really buy something I can't write a cheque for and I never really borrow money.

Q. The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A. I love classic cars. I've always been into cars from I was no age. If I could have any classic car, it would probably be an early 1950s Bentley.

Q. The poem that touches your heart?

A. Whenever Lynda died in 2000, George Hamilton IV, who was a big American country artist, found out and rang that night. He recited the poem Death is Nothing At All by Henry Scott-Holland over the phone. The line 'I have only slipped away into the next room' always stuck with me.

Q. The happiest moment of your life?

A. Probably the day that Don Anderson, the first programme controller at Downtown, said, 'You're hired'.

Q. And the saddest moment of your life?

A. It would have to be the afternoon that I found Lynda Jayne dead in bed.

That morning, she said she didn't feel well, and I said I wouldn't go out, but she said it was okay to go ahead. I was on my way home when she rang me, quite distressed, saying she felt very strange and asked me to hurry home.

When I came home, she was in a distressed state and that wouldn't have been like Lynda because she could cope with things well.

She had pins and needles in her arms, so I rang the doctor and he said she had a virus. I told him about the pins and needles, and three times he said to me, 'You're not ringing any alarm bells for me'. Three times. He told me to get her some paracetamol and let her rest.

Later that day, I went upstairs at about 4.50pm and she was dead.

At first, I thought she was sleeping and thought I should wake her to tell her I was going to work.

But I just knew there was something wrong by the colour of her lips - 30% of me knew she was dead and 70% of me didn't want to believe it. I just remember shouting, 'Oh please God, no'.

Q. The one event that made a difference in your life?

A. Meeting Vi has changed my life. She's a marvellous person. I had moved into the house across the road from her. I was sober and I had just started to make my way up again. Vi was a non-drinker as it happened, so the Lord was good there.

She was walking with her grandchildren when we met. I always tell people she purposely crossed over to my side of the road - but she denies that!

Trevor with country star Nathan Carter

Q. What's the one ambition that keeps driving you onwards?

A. At the age of 73, it's just to live longer and keep on doing the job I love doing.

Q. What's the philosophy you live by?

A. That changes as you get older. I love making people happy and I love making people laugh. I always did, sometimes to my detriment, at school.

Q. How do you want to be remembered?

A. I'd like to be remembered as a person that people spoke well of.

Big T will be compering the first ever Trib Fest Country this Saturday at The Slieve Donard Hotel, Newcastle. This show features seven hours of country music from the UK and Ireland's leading tributes to Garth Brooks, Elvis, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Neil Diamond. Big T will also host the bingo on the night

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