Bobby Wellins

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Bobby Wellins is 70 this year and to celebrate the occasion Peter Vacher chews the fat with Bobby, hearing the great tenor player’s tales of early days back in Glasgow, high jinks with Buddy Featherstonehaugh, great music with Stan Tracey and the highs and lows of drug addiction and what has often been a tough life playing jazz Milestones are meant to be marked, and a seventieth birthday comes but once. Three score years and ten, good going for a jazz musician, you could say. Anyway, that’s the reason tenor-saxophonist Bobby Wellins and I are sitting in his front room in Bognor on a bright Sunday morning. Looking remarkably spry considering he’d returned home from a gig at London’s 606 Club just hours before we met, Bobby registers a faint air of amusement at all the fuss, as he sips his coffee. After all, it’s just another birthday, isn’t it? Yes, but this is one to be cherished for there was a time when Bobby was in a parlous state, down on his uppers, not caring much about anniversaries or anything else.
Happily, that is all behind him so we agree that this is a good moment to take stock and reflect on past episodes and present-day plans. There are 70th birthday celebrations to be organised, new recordings to be considered and Bobby is anxious to talk about a new project that’s dear to his heart. With the aid of master orchestrator Peter Churchill, he has written a series of linked pieces (with lyrics) inspired by author James Barke’s five-novel sequence ‘Immortal Memory’, devoted to the life of Robert Burns. The Wellins-Churchill collaboration, entitled ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ involves Bobby’s quartet (with Liam Noble, Dave Wickford, and Dave Wickins) plus a chorus and string orchestra. It runs for an hour and there is every hope that it will take centre stage at this year’s Glasgow Jazz Festival. A case if ever there was one of the prodigal returning for Scotland’s premier city was both birthplace and home to Wellins until he ventured down to London in the 1950s.
Bobby’s Glasgow origins were far from ordinary. "My father was born into a Jewish family who’d emigrated from Minsk in Russia in 1812. He went into the upholstery trade but by this time, he was becoming self-taught on the saxophone. He taught me the greatest basic of all: ‘You’ll never know everything so keep trying to be enlightened by everyone you work with’. That still applies today. He knew far more than I ever did about music – he transcribed Coleman Hawkins’s ‘Body and Soul’ from the record. Absolutely accurately. Dad ended up in the saxophone section of the big band in the Argyle Cinema in Glasgow, playing before the movie. When my mother was 14, she was asked to go on the road with this group of dancers and singers so she took her elder sister’s identity card so that she could go on the stage and she ended up in the big band as the singer. My parents then went on the boards in the Empires (theatre group) as a double act and they were on the way to London when war broke out. That was the end of that."