Big Tom: the shy farmer who was uneasy with his superstar status
FOR a man who was the Elvis of Irish country music, Big Tom McBride wore his status and celebrity with humility.
Such was his appeal in the glory days of his career, Monaghan’s favourite son could have packed out Croke Park.
Back in the early 1980s, this superstar of Irish music performed to more than 80,000 people in London’s Roundwood Park.
And in 1969, shortly after shooting to fame with his signature song ‘Gentle Mother’, police on horseback had to be drafted in to control the crowd that swarmed around the Gresham Ballroom on London’s Holloway Road, where he was appearing with The Mainliners.
Tom was a link to home for Irish immigrants, and his songs about the homeland and its people, places and loved ones broke hearts.
For a modern day comparison to the fanmania surrounding Big Tom and The Mainliners, think One Direction.
But while Tom embraced the success of the music and the band, the unlikely sex symbol admitted to being mortified by the personal attention that came his way.
He said he was taken aback when crowds started coming to his gigs in massive numbers.
“I was astonished… and a bit scared,” Tom told me a few years ago, when I spent a day in his company looking back over his career.
When The Mainliners first started, band member Ginger Morgan was considered the lead singer. Although Tom sang, he was mainly the group’s sax player.
‘Gentle Mother’, a song he had picked up from two Irish immigrant brothers in London, changed his life for ever. “The brothers only had half the song at the time, it was one verse with only 16 lines, and Tom pestered the two boys for the rest of it,” Henry McMahon of The Mainliners remembers.
“They said their sister in Ireland had it, so he kept at them until they wrote to her and got the full song.”
After Tom sang ‘Gentle Mother’ on an RTÉ television programme, ‘The Showband Show’, in 1966, it took off like wildfire.
“The song that people then started looking for at the shows was ‘Gentle Mother’. And that pushed me out front,” Tom recalled. “And I wasn’t that happy a man (being in the spotlight). It took me a long time to get used to that.”
Tom would have preferred to have remained anonymous away from the stage. But, like it or not – and he didn’t – he was now a celebrity. “It used to get to me,” he told me that day in his quiet, gentle tones.
“You’d be travelling and you’d go into a café for something to eat, and you’d hear people saying, ‘That’s Big Tom!’ That used to get to me, but I got used to it. When you look at it, if people didn’t know you, you wouldn’t be there. It was a small price to pay.”
Tom and The Mainliners went on to have a string of hits, including ‘A Bunch of Violets Blue’ and ‘The Sunset Years of Life’. Then, in April 1975, Tom left The Mainliners and went on to form a new group, The Travellers. They later reunited, and were performing together until recent times.
Big Tom had been inspired, he said, by American country legends like Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner, Stonewall Jackson and George Jones, whom he described as “probably the greatest country singer ever”.
It was in his days as a young footballer with his native Oram, outside Castleblayney, where he grew up, that he was given the moniker Big Tom.
“There was a footballer in Cavan called Big Tom O’Reilly and our football manager, John McCormack, thought it was a good name for me,” Tom told me.
“There was a lot of strategy in that. It’s an easy name to remember and people cling on to it.”
The name stuck, and it served Tom McBride well in showbusiness as he blazed a trail with a string of hits that also included ‘Four Country Roads’ and ‘Old Log Cabin For Sale’.
He put his longevity as a performer down to the fact that showbusiness didn’t totally define him. He was also a family man and a farmer.
“When I leave the stage, I leave Big Tom behind,” he told me. “I’ll go home and off out to the fields, or fishing.”
One of his passions was vintage tractors, and he had several on his farm. “I was born and raised with them,” he said. “The work that was done in the early days was with those small tractors,” he said. “I have a few of them around the farm and they all still work. I love them.”
Tom adored his wife, Rose, who died in January, and their four children and numerous grandchildren.
His two sons, Thomas and Dermot, followed him into music for a short period. “Thomas drummed with me for a while when I was with The Travellers. My other son, Dermot, played bass with me and he could sing, people liked him, but he just didn’t fancy it.”
Up to the end of last year, Big Tom was performing on stage and TV, and he said it was still one of the joys of his life, although he always preferred playing at dances rather than concerts.
“I did a couple of concert tours in England in the early days and I hated every moment of them,” the shy man told me.
“I was used to doing dances where people weren’t sitting there looking at you.”
As he sat in his dressing room waiting to go on stage that night, Tom sipped a glass of whiskey. He nodded at the whiskey in his large hand and winked at me. “It loosens up the vocal chords,” he explained.
I asked him how he felt about being labelled the ‘King of Country’ and ‘A Living Legend’.
Big Tom recalled Willie Nelson’s response to his status as a living legend. “It’s the ‘living’ bit I like,” Willie said.
Tom laughed. “That was a good answer. I couldn’t top that one.”
Sadly, Big Tom has left the stage for the last time, but the legend will live on through his music.
Eddie Rowley will be paying tribute to Big Tom in this weekend’s ‘Sunday World’
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