ROBERT COULL "BOBBY" WELLINS CHAPTER TWO
THE GLORY YEARS 1965-1967
Chapter One saw Bobby and Stan Tracey coming together in drummer Tony Crombie’s “Jazz Inc” group. They then experimented with jazz-and-poetry in the New Departures venture and made the New Departures Quartet lp recording in June 1964.
We now reach the point at which the musical chemistry between Stan and Bobby matures into perfection.
As Stan himself put it:
The thing Bobby and I had together I’ve never experienced before or since. Whatever I did or whatever he did , I knew that we’d both more or less think it at the same time. He had a unique way of playing anything and his sound was so beautiful. We had a repertoire to start from, but every night it would be a different story. It would be a joy to hear how he would do it. (Clark Tracey “The Godfather of British Jazz” p.81)
I stumbled on this magical combination by chance one night when, as a 19-year old student, I clambered down the iron staircase, paid my 6/6d at the entrance booth and took my seat in Ronnie Scott’s in Gerrard St. (now Chinatown) to hear Johnny Griffin with the Stan Tracey trio. As was customary, the first warm-up set was played by the trio before the guest star came on.
On this occasion however, as the trio took to the stage, up clambered a slight figure, taking his tenor out of its case. I was seated near enough to overhear the initial exchange:
“What do you want to do, Bob?” “Och, let’s do a blues.” “In B- flat?”
And so they eased into this most basic and comfortable of jazz forms.. I could not believe the beauty and originality of the tenor player or how perfectly he melded with the accompanying piano. The evening had peaked very early for me – I hardly remember Griffin’s later pyrotechnics………….
Within a few months, my dream came true when Bobby visited Oxford to play with Brian Priestley and me.
But that was in October 1965, after Stan and Bobby had recorded (in March at Lansdowne studio for Columbia) one of the greatest British jazz records of all time: Stan’s “Under milk wood” suite, inspired by Dylan Thomas’s poetic drama. Jeff Clyne was on bass and Jackie Dougan on drums. It was a stunning achievement by the perfect partnership of Stan’s writing and Bobby’s interpretation.
Less than a fortnight later, the suite was also recorded by Nord Deutsche Rundfunk in Hamburg with Kenny Wheeler added to the quartet.
When the Columbia lp was released in November, it was a critically acclaimed sensation. The call went out for Stan to come up with another literature-to-jazz adaptation and he found suitable source material (Lewis Carroll’s Alice in wonderland) for a big band score entitled “Alice in Jazzland”.
This was recorded at EMI, Abbey Road (of Beatles fame) in March 1966 and was an excellent follow up to the quartet’s Milk Wood. Bobby is of course prominently featured, playing ethereal solos on Teatime Gavotte and a track with the memorable title of Afro Charlie meets the White Rabbit.
Apart from the audio delights of the lp (I am reminded of what a fabulous big-band drummer Ronnie Stephenson was), there happily exists a documentary film about the recording session from ITV’s Tempo series which has been released on DVD by Network.
Bobby and Stan recorded one more quartet album together in 1967 (with Dave Green replacing Jeff Clyne on bass) entitled “With love from jazz”. No literary inspiration this time but a vaguely erotic theme to the tune titles (all originals). This is another wonderful lp and there is a particularly haunting ballad called Sweet used to be.
We chose this track to play as a tribute at Bobby’s funeral in 2016. The crematorium staff were unable to get their sound system to play this properly in stereo with the macabre result that the tenor solo was heard only faintly on the missing channel and sounded for all the world as if it was coming from inside the coffin……….
By 1968, both Stan and Bobby were suffering the effects of heroin addiction and their magical, unique musical partnership was inevitably affected. As Bobby admitted: We were shot to hell at that time, in absolute chaos because of drugs. I was often walking the streets. It was a dreadful time but we were still attempting to play. Then I let Stan down a couple of times and things started to come apart.(Clark Tracey: The Godfather of British Jazz p.81)
I wonder what heights they would have gone on to achieve together at that relatively early point in their careers if they could have stayed clean and kept it together. But it was not to be.
In fact Bobby’s wife Isabel had to drag him away from the destructive dangers of the London scene and down to the rather empty peace and quiet of Bognor Regis where her family resided.
The early 70s were Bobby’s lost years in the wilderness while he bravely and painfully kicked the habit. There is no doubt that Isabel saved him and enabled him to gain a second wind and resume his career. He resurfaced triumphantly in 1977 and that is where our story will resume……………………………………