Celebrating Bobby Wellins on what would have been his 85th Birthday

Today would have been the 85th birthday of Glasgow-born saxophonist Bobby Wellins (writes Seb). His unique sound is still with us; his utterly engaging character will never be forgotten. When he passed away in 2016, we collected tributes to him, and we are re-publishing them today in his honour. Some were from musicians who had worked closely with him – including Sonny Rollins. Others were people whose lives took a different course because of him.  In fond memory of one of the very best in jazz. We miss you Bobby. 
Bobby Wellins Photo credit: Helena Dornellas
Tributes to Bobby Wellins from fellow musicians, and from people who either worked with him or were deeply affected by his playing, have been coming in over the past few days. They show the very high regard in which he was held, and how much his unique presence on the scene will be missed. In great sadness:  PETE CHURCHILL I always thought, when I listened to Bobby play, that he wasn’t just playing tunes, he was playing songs. This was my connection with Bobby – for he was the most amazing improviser to sing with… unapologetically ducking and diving around the lyric and making you work hard to hold your own. It was a great education. To hear Bobby on a ballad… to feel him hunker down for several choruses of endless invention with that unmistakeable ‘cry’ in his sound, this… this will stay with me forever. Anyone who spent any time with him knew they were catching a glimpse of another era – here was a more direct and, dare I say it, deeper connection to the source of this music we play. You were in the hands of a master – the real deal… I can’t believe he’s gone… ‘It never entered my mind’.
Bobby Wellins (foreground) with Andrew Cleyndert Herts Jazz 2015 Photo credit: Melody McLaren
ANDREW CLEYNDERT It’s too hard to believe Bobby has gone. So many, many wonderful memories of the most joyous music making. Cabin In The Sky springs to mind, his first tune of the day. One take. Breathtaking. An immense generosity of spirit; a true giant; a unique source of the music’s essence; a player of the blues like few others; an irrepressible, infectious love of the music; a musical inclusiveness extended to players, audience, in fact, anyone that stepped in his path; that searing sound, slicing straight to the heart. Always looking ahead. “…Think we nailed it!” he can’t help himself exclaiming, a broad, mischievous smile breaking, brimming with enjoyment after another typically outrageously swinging solo. Yes, Bobby, you nailed it.
ADRIAN ELLIS When I was 20, I spent six weeks in Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary with renal failure. I became obsessed with the theme music chosen for Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime, John Le Carré reading his own The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It was a gorgeous, out-of-time seven note riff played on a breathy tenor and repeated once, then fading tantalizing, just as the tune got going. I waited all day in my hospital bed just to hear that riff at the beginning and end of the 15-minute nightly instalment – an ear worm of the most tenacious and welcome sort. I asked friends I thought could identify it – nothing; I wrote to the BBC – no reply. About a decade later, I put on Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood and, wham, I was straight back in that hospital bed. It was of course the intro to Starless And Bible Black, one of the most beautiful, brooding, evocative tenor solos (and compositions) known to jazz, recorded in 1965 by a Scot in his late 20s, who went on to play another half century’s worth of beautiful music. I never managed to get him to Jazz at Lincoln Center on my watch, which was our loss. JACQUI HICKS For me Bobby Wellins was one of the greats. He played the most lyrical lines with the most beautiful tone you’ll ever hear coming from a saxophone. The way he created space and didn’t waste a single note was pure magic. Working with him was a wonderfully musical (and humbling) experience. He made a little dream come true when he played on my album A Child Is Born. I could hear his sound as I was writing the arrangements but what he did on the day was everything, and then some. Always encouraging and enthusiastic, he inspired everyone who heard him. A lovely, lovely man who had a gift for telling stories and an even bigger gift for playing jazz. A national treasure who’ll be sorely missed.
Tony Kofi and Bobby Wellins
TONY KOFI I’d like to pay tribute to a great man Bobby Wellins who came into my life age 17 years old and gave me such a boost that the vibrations are still felt within me today. Thank you Bobby for all your encouraging words of wisdom, I would have probably given up had you’d not come to that weekend jazz course as a visiting artist all those years ago. You’ll be sadly missed, it was such an honour to call you a friend and mentor. R.I.P. NIKKI ILES For me, Bobby had one of the most distinctive sounds I’ve ever heard. Thinking about him now I can easily hear him and conjure up the essence of him. I was fortunate to work in a quintet with Bobby in the north along with my great friends Jez Hall, Gary Culshaw and Tony Faulkner. Jez had been taught by Bobby in his late teens and the whole family were very supportive of Bobby at the time. So… a quintet was formed – me in my 20s – and we worked sporadically for about 10 years. I knew at the time we were in the presence of a master. It was in Bobby’s slightly wilder days and on the stand it was a REAL education. Uncompromising and burning playing from Bobby – stretching us on every gig. That look and the right leg twitching with the groove… unbelievable to play with. When I look back, the fact that he never eased us in and expected a high level of commitment to the music, instilled a real sense of determination in me that continues to this day. He would have that glint in his eye after about 50 choruses on Cherokee full of ideas and forward motion – and then… over to me! I still have a thing about that tune and enjoy that roller-coaster feeling, thinking of him every time. Recently I depped in Bobby’s quartet at the 606 for the great Liam Noble. I felt very moved to hear that sound again and it really hit home how much he had affected me in those early years and given me the courage to keep at it. Thank you Bobby… your music lives on. KEITH LOXAM  So many happy memories of working with Bobby Wellins. His personality matched his playing; lyrical, considered, joyful and evocative. Just a pleasure to be in your company, Bobby. DAVID MOSSMANN Bobby Wellins was a great supporter of the Vortex and loved its intimacy. It was a family affair when he played, often coming with his family. But he particularly brought fabulous music and made a point of working with young musicians. The consummate professional. He also often arranged for some of the greats to play at the Vortex with him. Nothing was too much trouble. And even though he obviously needed paying, the music came first. He had an amazing trademark tone – you knew if it was Bob immediately. LIAM NOBLE  Hearing Bobby Wellins is a great lesson. He tapped into the timeless tradition that looks forward and back at once. He was completely original and yet, if you listened hard enough, you could hear everybody in his sound. It was not about being original, but about being personal. I played him a track of Eugene Chadbourne once, an ostensibly comic and fiercely avant garde rendition of Stars Fell On Alabama. He fixed me with that glare we all knew so well and said “this guy’s a player”. Like Ellington, he saw music as happening or not happening, and so was up for a bit of rough and tumble on the bandstand. I never felt I knew him well as a person, but I have never felt so free as when he, I and Dave Wickins and Dave Whitford played to that 606 crowd, once a month (give or take) for almost 20 years. It was a feeling like no other. BRIAN NOTT Producing Bobby’s The Satin Album way back, was such a privilege. Smooth, quietly controlled, Bobby, along with Colin, Dave and Clark put together a magnificent few days of hard work to create the landmark album with all the sessions totally live, without any repairs, resulting in something so splendidly professional and rich. He was very, very special and will most certainly be missed by many. RIP Bobby and sincere condolences to Isobel and family. JULIA PAYNE It’s all Bobby Wellins’ fault… His quartet gig at Falmer Arts Centre at Sussex University back in 1990 was my first ever jazz gig. My reasons for going weren’t entirely honourable… It was Valentine’s Day, my partner in jazz crime was cute… You get the picture. But that gig sealed my fate. It was my ticket into a musical world that I’d never explored before, and I was hooked. Fast forward a few years and I landed a job at The Stables, the venue established by John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, and my jazz education – and love of the music – ramped up a gear. Moving onto the Barbican I worked with some of the biggest names in the business, and now – some 25 years after first seeing Bobby play – I’m lucky enough to be a board member at the National Youth Jazz Collective, persuading other young people to explore jazz. In all that time, I’ve never forgotten that first gig back at Falmer, and so today I’m just so sad. RIP Bobby, and thanks. I wouldn’t be here without you. SHONA PEW Bobby was an absolute sweetheart, and as a fellow Glaswegian, he always liked reminiscing about the old Glasgow and its music. It was a pleasure and a privilege to have worked with him many times in my BBC career. Your wonderful music will live on Bobby. Rest in peace. SONNY ROLLINS My good friend and colleague Bobby Wellins has graduated from this stressful life. A job well done, Bobby, and we’ll always remember Under Milk Wood. STEVE RUBIE Back in the late ’60s, when I was a keen schoolboy wind player, my brother came home with a record by a pianist I had never heard of (Stan Tracey) featuring a sax player who’s playing could best be described as magical. I was totally entranced by this music and pretty much wore a hole in the record. Little was I to know that more than 40 years on that sax player would be a close friend and a monthly regular at the 606 Club. I had the pleasure to listen for more than 15 years to those long, sinuous lines played with a sound and approach that was in every sense unique and unarguably creative. That wonder that I first heard all those years ago, even though I had heard Bobby play so many times since then, was undiminished and even the very last time I heard him I was still struck by how… magical… his playing was. A truly great player, Bobby Wellins’ presence on the international jazz scene will be sorely missed, but his spirit will undoubtedly live on. JULIAN SIEGEL Bobby was a true gent and a total world class musician, a real one off. I remember so many times listening to him play, absolutely spellbound. The few times I got to play with him were always a huge education, what a groove and sound he had, with ideas always flowing with some hip turn of phrase, really his own thing. Plus it all swung like the ‘clappers’! Going to miss hearing him play live and miss big time his beautiful and encouraging presence on the Jazz Scene. RIP the guvnor, Bobby Wellins. Sending condolences to his family and friends TOMMY SMITH
SIMON SPILLETT When I heard the news from Spike Wells, I immediately put on Starless and Bible Black, not quite believing we’ll never hear THAT sound again. Bobby was so special – not just as a musician but as a man too. A real example of total commitment to the music through a series of often horrendous ups and downs, he never stopped creating individual, sincere and personal music, right up until a stroke ended his playing days. There was nobody like Bobby; that tone, the rhythmic feel, the lyricism, the boundless harmonic ideas – he was totally unique. Thanks for your friendship Bobby. I will treasure the times we spent together both on an off the stand. Your warmth, humour and priceless anecdotes will be much missed. Rest in Peace.
Under Milk Wood, Herts Jazz Festival, 2012 L.-R. Stan Tracey, Bobby Wellins, Andrew Cleyndert, Clark Tracey, Ben Tracey Photo credit: Melody McLaren
CLARK TRACEY Bobby’s death has come as a shock to all of us. In the days since, I’ve been amazed at how widely he was respected not only as one of our finest musicians but also for his helpful nature and kind demeanour towards younger players. I remember Bobby from my earliest days – he and Stan were inseparable during the ’60s. I was very privileged to be able to work with him for so many years myself. His sound just blew me away and the thought that I won’t hear that on the stand again is a painful one. EMIL VIKLICKÝ Bobby was incredible musician. What an energy, creativity, emotions and spontaneity. Once in Porthcawl – at the soundcheck in an empty room – we played Cherokee in break neck tempo. Just duet, tenor sax and upright piano. It was an outburst of sheer energy, musicality, flow of fresh ideas. I could hardly follow, and will never forget an intensive feeling that I am playing with Sonny Rollins. Yes, no doubt. Bobby was in that category of world class players. It was our first encounter – and only much later I have learned that Bobby was in fact highly respected by Sonny. Indeed, Bobby was “musician’s musician”. DAVE WICKINS I have known Bobby for 40 years and played in the Bobby Wellins Quartet for the last 20. It has been a privilege to work with someone who ranks among the world’s greatest saxophone players, with a unique, sometimes mournful sound and a deeply expressive and personal language. To me Bobby Wellins was a dear friend who delighted me and my family with his humour, intelligence, compassion and great storytelling, not to mention his humility. I remember my late father, Norman Wickins, eulogising about Bobby’s performance on one of our gigs, saying “Bobby, how do you weave such wonderful lines?” to which Bobby replied “pure genius, Norman, pure genius”. Of course Bobby’s reply was tongue-in-cheek but I must say I agree with him. Late set at the 606, Bobby would play I’m Wishing or Cabin in the Sky. Accompanying him then – a sublime experience. I will miss him greatly. KATE WILLIAMS Bobby and I started working together regularly after we were invited to play a duo gig at St Lawrence Jewry Church one summer. This was the beginning of a musical partnership which continued for over 10 years. Bobby’s inspirational playing had total honesty and lack of pretension – his soulful tenor tone was beautiful, and his phrasing really danced. As a person, his mischievous wit was infectious. We would sometimes rehearse (after tea and cake) at his home in Bognor. Following one such occasion, we had a text exchange which went like this: KW: “I can’t find that version of Favela – will keep looking. Choc cake recipe to follow soon” BW: “Forget Favela, we’ll stick with choc cake!!!” And so it is with great sadness, but also many happy memories that I say: Farewell Bobby, your unique sound will stay with me always – I can still hear Dream Dancing right now.
Bobby Wellins at the Cinnamon Club in 2015 Photo credit: William Ellis
LINK: News item RIP Bobby Wellins

1 reply »

  1. Bobby was without doubt the most lyrical player this country has ever produced. Every solo was magical, which left you in awe of his wonderful musicianship.
    So sadly missed.

Leave a Reply