ROBERT COULL "BOBBY" WELLINS IN OUR HEARTS
Here is the Funeral address which I gave as part of the Service at Chichester Crematorium on 21/11/2016
One evening in early 1965, I made my way down the rickety iron steps to Ronnie Scott’s in Gerrard Street and paid my 12/6d at the booth to go and hear the “little giant” Johnny Griffin with the Stan Tracey trio.
As usual, the trio were to play a warm-up set before the visiting American star appeared.
But as Stan and Jackie Dougan took the stage (I can’t remember who the bass player was), they were joined by a diminutive figure with a tenor saxophone.
I was a jazz-crazy 19 year old university student and had made sure I got a seat as close as possible to the tiny stand.
I overheard Stan asking What do you want to do, Bob? Och, a blues – what key? B flat? suggested Stan with a wry grin.
And away they went. And there he was for all to hear – Bobby Wellins. They played for about 45 minutes, three or four tunes, and then he packed up and disappeared. The rest of the evening was a bit of a blur but, as I left the club about 2am, I was in no doubt, much as I admire Johnny Griffin, who the “little giant” was.
I just had to find a way to hear Bobby again as soon as possible.
So I asked the university jazz club to book him to play with our local rhythm section (for ten quid including his train fare).
It was a grotty first floor room above a pub with a reasonable upright piano played on this occasion by Brian Priestley.
Bobby turned up, unpacked his horn, and with hardly a word launched into 14 straight choruses of Exactly like you.
Summertime, Hip strut, Love with variations followed and the whole evening was sheer magic. If I’m allowed to say so in here, he played his ass off.
At the end of the sixties, Bobby had a few health problems, as they say in the business, and Isabel got him down to Bognor Regis, where her family were based, to sort himself out, which indeed he did, with a great effort of will.
But due to his necessary absence from London, our paths did not cross when I turned pro, although my thoughts kept returning to this man whose playing had made such an impression on me.
Then one day in 1977, bassist Adrian Kendon rang me for a gig at the Brighton jazz club. “We’ve got Bobby Wellins coming”, he added almost as an afterthought. Bobby WELLINS??!! YES!
And that turned out to be the start of his quartet with Pete Jacobson on piano and Adrian Kendon (later Kenny Baldock) on bass.
And that was the start of my lifelong association with Bobby, in a series of quartets, the final one being with Mark Edwards and Andy Cleyndert.
Bobby was my dearest friend and my soul mate. We spent countless hours together travelling on tours. Of course there are many hilarious anecdotes. One must suffice.
We were playing at the Nice jazz festival one year.
All the musicians were ferried to and fro from the hotel to the venue by bus.
On to the bus at the beginning of the evening there stepped magisterially a six foot six black Texan R&B tenor player called Sam “the Man” Taylor decked out in full cowboy rig including a ten-gallon hat.
At the end of the evening there stumbled back on to the bus a very dishevelled and worse-for-wear from over-celebrating Sam the Man, boot-lace tie and ten gallon hat nowhere to be seen, attended solicitously by a very sober and comparatively tiny Bobby whose reassuring voice could be heard down the coach: Come along and sit by me, old chap. Everything’s alright. We’ll soon get you home to yer wee bed.
I must end by trying to tackle the subject of Bobby’s artistry.
His poignant, keening sound was, as we all know, utterly original.
Oh you mean the slow vibrato? he would smile self-deprecatingly.
Yes of course that. But so much more than that.
In the 60s, the tone was slightly pinched and sardonic. Eyes wide open, challenging the listener: Take tha’ – if you can dig it.
In the 70s, his playing became even more probing and adventurous. From the 80s onwards, mellower and even rounded.
And at every point in his development, always incredibly hip, melodic surprise, inquisitiveness about chords, faultless time, relentless swing.
Maybe I’m getting carried away.
But the point is this. It is music like Bobby’s which gives us a glimpse of a world beyond, a glimpse, in spite of all the dross and ugliness, of joy and beauty in the nature of our existence. And a glimpse, for some of us, of a loving God to trust in.
So it is Bobby’s playing that brings me here as a priest to take the service as well as a drummer to pay my tribute.
Because I don’t think I would have become a believer in the first place if it wasn’t for the dimension of feeling and truth which I experience in hearing music like his.
And with faith of course – I’m putting my priest’s hat on now - comes the hope of resurrection, of the life to come.
Stan Tracey, Jeff Clyne, Jackie Dougan, Tony Crombie, Ken Wray, Alan Branscombe, Kenny Wheeler, Peter Jacobson, Kenny Baldock and many of Bobby’s other musical associates have gone before and Bobby has now joined them.
So will we sooner or later in our turn.
I cannot think of anything more fitting, therefore, than to invite you now to listen to Bobby’s great friend Don Weller playing We’ll be together again.