ROBERT COULL "BOBBY" WELLINS Chapter Four - MUSKET FIRE

Last time, we left our hero on the brink of reviving his suite “The battle of Culloden Moor”.

In fact, during the summer of 1979, he was off for a holiday in Portugal - a trip very popular with his wife Isabel and they made it most years. On his return, he would always bring back a supply of Portuguese cigarettes. I can’t remember the brand name (SG??) but they were right little squibs. “They’ve got a good pull on them”, he would explain, referring to the hit at the back of the throat. A sort of continental Woodbine.

By the end of October arrangements were in place for our first Jazz Services (or whatever it was in those days) funded tour. So this was to be a very different experience from our previous visit to Scotland and the North which was more like an Enid Blytonesque “The fearless four set off in a dodgy Sherpa van, eventually returning none the worse for their adventure to eat a very hearty tea”.

Now we had the luxury of a small coach and a driver to worry about destinations and times. So the band could switch off and entertain each other. No sooner had we taken our seats for the first trip - a gig in Coventry - than the cry went up of “Stick five” (Rizla cigarette papers that is) and someone would start to build a large enough joint to go round the six of us.

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Yes, six. For the new presentation of The battle of Culloden Moor” , Bobby augmented the basic quartet with the addition of two real characters: Lol Coxhill - the colourful, maverick soprano saxophonist with a shaved head (by no means common in those days) and a line in non-stop repartee - was to provide a melodic counterpoint to Bobby’s tenor. And Bryan Spring, the explosive and virtuoso drummer was hired to show off his considerable military technique by playing a deep Scottish side drum to conjure up the march to battle.

Lol Coxhill, complete with shaved head

Lol Coxhill, complete with shaved head

The suite was divided into 4 parts - the morning of the battle/the march/the battle/the aftermath and took up the second half of the concerts. The first half would be a set by the basic quartet and usually included a solo to showcase pianist Pete Jacobsen’s brilliant improvisation.

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After Coventry, we played on consecutive nights Leeds, Sheffield, Farnham, Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, Nottingham, Birmingham, Cambridge, Basildon and Norwich. A punishing schedule, not only in terms of mileage but also (as was then the fashion) in the toll taken by constant indulgence (I don’t like the censorious word “abuse”) in resin and alcohol.

The atmosphere on the bus, on the stand and in the hotels was great throughout but it would be fair to say that the music got a bit less organised as the tour progressed. Sitting alongside the amazing Bryan Spring on stage, and feeling relatively inadequate in terms of power and technique, I sensed his understandable frustration at being confined to the role of military side-drummer. “I can’t wait to get back on the kit” he confessed to Don Weller on the phone towards the end of the tour. After the first few gigs, his arsenal was extended to include a huge cowbell and an Army bass drum, both of which he attacked with enthusiasm. In the end, Bobby was turning round and asking “What part of the battle are we in?”

Those two weeks were a fantastic experience. I wish I could complement this “musing” on the “music” page with examples of the suite (which I have on tape) but the running times are too long for MP3 files to be uploaded to the site (it’ll only take tracks of up to about 14 minutes). What I have done is added, from the first sets of the concerts, numbers by the quartet and solo piano.

When we next return to saga of my years with Bobby Wellins, we’ll fast forward to his next big project where we hear the sweet tones of birdsong instead of the roar of the cannon………………………………..





Spike Wells