Bobby Wellins, who has died at the age of 80, was not only Scotland’s first great jazz tenor saxophonist but also an icon of British jazz whose influence would have lived on even if he had never played again after 1965, when he featured on the iconic album of Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite.
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His gorgeous and evocative solo on the track Starless and Bible Black has regularly been named as the single most memorable British jazz solo ever recorded – and his haunting, Celtic-tinged sound was undoubtedly a huge inspiration on generations of young musicians, among them fellow tenor saxophonist, composer and educator Tommy Smith who was responsible for bringing Wellins’s own Culloden Moor Suite, to life five years ago when the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and Wellins recorded it and performed it to considerable acclaim. Its concert performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland exactly five years ago was electrifying and Wellins, and the band, gave a tour-de-force performance which brought the house down.
Smith, who was just 13 years old when he first heard Wellins on record, says: “Bobby was a grandmaster of the saxophone, a composer of profound integrity and a beautiful guy who will be greatly missed.” Indeed, Wellins was one of the best-loved musicians on the scene; a huge talent who was extremely self-effacing and likable and still very much, as he put it, “a Glasgow boy” at heart.
Jill Rodger, the longstanding director of the Glasgow Jazz Festival which most recently booked Wellins in 2013, says: “Bobby was an absolute pleasure to work with and to know. He was a very humble person who made no demands – as some do – other than a packet of potato scones to take back to Bognor Regis after his Scottish gigs!”
Clark Tracey, the son of the late piano giant Stan, says: “Bobby was legendary, influencing goodness knows how many saxophonists and inspiring so many young musicians over the years with his generous nature. He had time for anyone. His sound was unique – a commodity sought by many but achieved by a few. His groove was innate and he had limitless invention.”
Robert Coull Wellins was born into a showbiz family living in the Gorbals; he later lived in Carnwadric and attended Shawlands Academy. His singer mother and alto saxophonist father – the son of a Russian Jew who had emigrated from Minsch – 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.
In an interview with me in 2011, Wellins explained: “They did sketches and she sang. My father played everything – musical saw, a bit of guitar, saxophone.”
It wasn’t long after he returned from the war that Wellins’s father began to teach him to play alto sax. “My dad taught me and my sister to read music, we had to be what they called consummate musicians before they let us play for their showbiz friends at one of their Sunday get-togethers.”
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 during his National Service – where Wellins switched to tenor sax – followed by stints with numerous big bands.
By the time he began gigging on the London jazz scene in his mid twenties, Wellins already had what Clark Tracey describes as “a highly personalised sound.” Wellins befriended saxophonist playing club owner Ronnie Scott and later credited him with helping to launch his career.
Wellins said: “Ronnie was a professional gambler and there was a place across the road from his club where a lot of heavy gambling went 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.”
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of that recording. Not only was it Tracey’s best-selling album, reissued five times after its initial release, but it put British jazz on the world map. It was, as Clark Tracey says, “something that stood up to an American release”. And that was significant during the period when British musicians were frustrated by the restrictions on them working in America and getting a chance to make their names there.
However, frustration and boredom for Wellins and Tracey partly led to drug habits which marred their lives for years. Clark Tracey says: “They were soon messed up pretty badly from the cheap, top quality, narcotics widely available in Soho.” Both eventually recovered, and Wellins, who moved to Bognor Regis with his family, worked with his own quartet of local musicians while recording a string of albums and writing prolifically during the 1980s and 1990s. He and Tracey always wanted to play together again, however, and they spent the last 15 years of Tracey’s life (he died in 2013) doing just that – on record and in concerts.
In 2011, Tommy Smith commissioned arranger Florian Ross to arrange Wellins’s Culloden Moor Suite, originally written back in 1964, for the SNJO. The resulting concerts and CD were a triumph and Wellins was thrilled with the whole experience. Smith says: “It meant a great deal to him – he couldn’t stop thanking me.”
Following a mild stroke a year ago, Wellins stopped playing to recoup. His death from leukaemia, however, was sudden and a shock to his family. He passed away in hospital in Bognor and is survived by his wife Isobel and daughters Fiona and Elizabeth.
* Bobby Wellins, jazz saxophonist and composer, born January 24, 1936; died October 27, 2016
* An edited version of this obituary was published in The Herald on Tuesday, November 1, 2016