RIP Bobby Wellins (1936-2016)

Bobby Wellins' timeless reading of 'Starless and Bible Black' from Stan Tracey's Under Milk Wood jazz suite [1965] is often cited as the single most memorable British jazz solo, possessing the kind of ethereal beauty that prompted his fellow saxophonist Dave Gelly to declare that Bobby possessed "one of the most beautiful tenor saxophone sounds in the history of the instrument." It helped to make Bobby a true icon of British jazz.

Robert Coull Wellins was born in Glasgow in 1936 into a showbusiness family and his father tutored him on the alto saxophone from the age of 12. After local gigs, Bobby played on in the RAF after which he took a path familiar to many jazzmen of his generation, concentrating on tenor-saxophone and moving from one dance band to another via a stint with the colourful race driver-saxophonist Buddy Featherstonehaugh's Quintet alongside Kenny Wheeler.

After still more travelling orchestras, Bobby began to forge a reputation as a modern jazz improviser with Tony Crombie and Tommy Whittle, linking up with Tracey in the 1960s and cementing a relationship that continued off and on until the pianist's death in 2013. He also acquired a series of destructive personal habits that side-lined him for a decade or more. Once sorted, for which he unfailingly thanked his wife Isobel, Bobby made up for lost time, recording extensively, most notably for Jazzizit and Trio, teaching in Chichester, performing his well-received Culloden Suite and traversing the country endlessly to play clubs and festivals. A featured soloist with Charlie Watts' Big Band in the mid-1980s he went on to front his own quartet, appearing often at London's 606 Club.

Warm, witty, and utterly incapable of playing a sour or inelegant note, Bobby Wellins died on 27 October 2016 aged 80 after a long illness. RIP, Bobby.

– Peter Vacher

– Photo by Garry Corbett

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