He may be well into his seventies now, but the British tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins shows no sign of slowing down. At least not if his latest CD – Time Gentlemen, Please (Trio Records) is anything to go by.
Wellins was born into a showbiz family living in the once- infamous Gorbals area of Glasgow. His mother, a singer whose stage name was Sally Lee, and alto saxophonist father worked in a show band which played in a local cinema before establishing their own double act which they took on the road around Scotland.
Wellins recalls: “They did sketches and she sang. My father played everything – musical saw, a bit of guitar, saxophone. My sister and I always went with them when they were working. As a matter of fact, they forgot about us one night – we were locked in the Argyle Cinema. When they got home they realised they’d left us there and they had to rush back in. The two of us were fast asleep in the front row seats.”
It wasn’t long after he returned from the war that Wellins’s father began to teach him the alto sax. Round about the same time, he bought the family a second-hand radiogramme which came with a jazz record collection which was almost a complete musical education.
That education continued with a couple of years at the RAF School of Music – where he switched to tenor sax – followed by stints with numerous big bands. “All the guys from the various bands who were married and wanted to have holidays would ask me to dep for them. It was a fantastic three years – the best foundation you could ever have.”
One highlight of Wellins’s own big band era was a trip to New York with Vic Lewis’s band and, in particular, a chance encounter with one of his heroes. Wellins recalls: “I ate just across the road from where we stayed because they did this cheap chilli dish which I loved – it was a bit like mince and totties – for $2. I suddenly saw this tall figure in a dirty raincoat and a pork-pie hat, standing outside the hotel looking awfully befuddled, and I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s Lester Young’. I couldn’t help myself, I just shot out across the road and shouted ‘Lester!’ I said I was with a British band and asked if I could buy him a drink.
“So we went in and sat down and of course as the guys were coming and going up and down in the elevator they were having a quick look in the lounge and they’d see me and I’d see this look on their face of disbelief and they’d come over and I’d introduce them. ‘Oh nice to meet you man’ [Wellins goes into female impersonator mode as he imitates Young’s squeaky voice]. We sat there for ages. We talked about everything, current affairs, New York – I told him I was too excited to take it all in . ‘Well, you’re only a baby, man,’ he said. He invited me along to a recording he was doing the following week, but we were flying back home so I couldn’t go.”
There’s something of Lester Young’s melancholy sound in Wellins’s own playing, as well as a yearning which critics often describe as a Scottish quality. Does he detect something quintessentially Scottish in his music? “Well, I do sometimes think to myself: ‘This is terribly Scottish-sounding.’ I once played a 6/8 or 12/8 piece entitled Dreams Are Free at Ronnie Scott’s when Dizzy Gillespie was there. When I came offstage, he said: ‘That piece you wrote, it was very African.’ I said: ‘No, it’s Scottish.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘sounds African to me.’ Dizzy was very mischievous, mind. I said: ‘No, it’s definitely Scottish.’ ‘Ah, okay then.’
“So about six months later, there was a phone call at about three in the morning. The voice said: ‘It’s John Birks Gillespie here.’ Of course, I thought: ‘who the hell is John Birks Gillespie?’. Then I realised it was Dizzy. He said: ‘I’ve just been to a Scottish pipe band parade on 42nd Street. You’re right. That composition of yours is Scottish.’ And that was it. He hung up!”
Ironically, the composition with which Wellins is most strongly associated is not one of his own. Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite, which was recorded in 1965 and is widely regarded as the best British jazz album of all time, was effectively the product of a musical partnership which began within the Tony Crombie band and blossomed at Ronnie Scott’s club.
Wellins says: “Ronnie was a professional gambler and there was a place across the road from his first club where a lot of heavy gambling used to go on. If Ronnie was on a roll then I’d be called in to dep for him, and that’s really where the quartet with Stan grew from.” Wellins twigged early on that he and Tracey had a unique intuition about each other’s playing. It shines through Under Milk Wood, which was recorded in just two days, and yet they never made a big deal about how much they enjoyed playing together.
“Stan and I never ever discussed what it was that we felt about each other but I do remember that it really struck hard when we were down at Ronnie’s one night and I said: ‘You know it’s a wonderful piece’ . And he said: ‘Well, I did write it with you in mind.’ That was quite a while after we had recorded it. But being the kind of people we were, we weren’t carried away with ourselves. I just felt it was such a wonderful vehicle for me. I felt it was just like me.”
In characteristically self-effacing style and with typical Glaswegian frankness, Wellins concludes: “Let’s face it, most people wouldnae know who I was if it hadn’t been for Under Milk Wood.”
* Time Gentlemen, Please (Trio Records) is out today.