British rock drummer Bobby Irwin died this past Friday (March 8, 2015) in England after a long illness. The much loved and admired Irwin spent most of his life there except for a stint in the Eighties when he lived in San Antonio, Texas after marrying a local girl.
Irwin’s career first took hold as a member of The Sinceros, a British pop band that released two moderately successful LPs riding the crest of the New Wave scene in 1979-80. The band developed after three of its members, including Irwin, served as the backing band for Stiff Records artist Lene Lovich. Listen to Bob’s solid beat on The Sinceros’ “Disappearing.”
His connection with the folks at Stiff would lead to his involvement with Nick Lowe with whom Irwin would play behind for most of his career. After the breakup of Rockpile, Irwin became Lowe’s number one choice as drummer in addition to the pair becoming close friends. Their work together included the combo Noise to Go (later renamed The Cowboy Outfit) that also included vocalist and keyboardist Paul Carrack, guitarist Martin Belmont and for a short period bassist James Eller. During this time, Irwin also toured with Nick’s former wife Carlene Carter as a member of her CC-Riders. Here is a live clip of Noise to Go with Bobby at his best.
Staying close to these British musical friends, he also worked with them on records for Carrack, John Hiatt, Dave Edmunds and on the final album of British pop band The Records. His outgoing personality, great sense of humor and versatile drumming, also found the well-connected Irwin playing on many other UK sessions (Tracy Ullman, Marilyn and many others) during his time there.
During his Eightie’s tenure in Texas, Irwin filled in the gaps of his work with Lowe performing with several local artists, notably San Antonio’s late blues-guitarist Chris Holzhaus (joined one night on stage by a visiting Nick Lowe) and Austin-based songwriter Bill Carter (who wrote several hits for Stevie Ray Vaughn) and his band, the Blame. During this period of loading his drum kit in the trunk of a big old Lincoln Continental for the long drive from San Antonio to Austin, Irwin befriended many Austin musicians including the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Irwin had a deep love for traditional country music and was as probably as much at home with a Webb Pierce record as he was with anything else. While in San Antonio, he regretfully had to decline an offer to tour with George Strait which he would have loved.
Due to undisclosed immigration troubles, Irwin took the name Robert Trehern for a short time period after his return to England. Lowe would later joke about this when introducing Irwin on stage after Bob reclaimed his original name. It was also during this time period that Nick had to share Irwin with another artist who also claimed him as his favorite drummer: Van Morrison, who Irwin would serve on several tours.
As a young boy, Irwin held a job as an office boy at the legendary London offices of The Beatles’ Apple Records and had the fortune of being atop the building for their famous rooftop final performance. On June 15, 1992, after returning to England, Bobby (along with Martin Belmont) got to back George Harrison and Carl Perkins at London’s Hard Rock Café. Bob said that George “thought he looked familiar.”
More recently, Irwin’s work in the UK included production and back-office work for a label he put together with some friends called Bluefive Productions. While the output was limited, it did include a live record by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (who had toured supporting Nick Lowe) and efforts from keyboardist Geraint Watkins with whom Irwin often worked with in his later years.
For a great taste of Irwin’s drumming in addition to a rare vocal alongside Nick Lowe, have a listen to their cover of the classic “Seven Nights to Rock.”
On a personal note, I was honored to call Bob a friend during the years we both lived in San Antonio. We met in 1983 at the Driskill Hotel bar in Austin after Noise to Go opened for Tom Petty in Austin. We had many great times and adventures together, and my wife is forever grateful that he taught her how to make a proper pot of tea. We lost touch after he moved back to the UK, but we happily reunited a few years ago at some Nick Lowe shows I travelled to. Here are two photos of us some 30 years apart.