Bobby Irwin was a long-time studio and touring drummer with the singer and songwriter Nick Lowe, but he was probably best-known in the music business as the man behind the drum kit for Van Morrison on albums and on stages around the globe. “Bob was my favourite drummer,” Van the Man said on hearing of Irwin’s death from cancer, while Lowe wrote: “Bon viveur, waterman, fabulous drummer, wise and beloved friend of 40 years. RIP my dear, darling fellow. What larks.”
Irwin also played on albums by Bryan Ferry (including Dylanesque and Frantic), Lene Lovich, Carlene Carter (Johnny Cash’s stepdaughter) and on How Do You Plead? (2011) by the duo My Darling Clementine. He co-produced several albums, including Nick Lowe’s 2011 The Old Magic, and co-wrote a number of songs, notably, along with Lowe, “I Trained her to Love Me”, which became part of Elvis Costello’s repertoire. Irwin can be seen on several Nick Lowe pop videos including “Half a Boy and Half a Man”, shot at Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)”, featuring Huey Lewis on harmonica.
Irwin often used the surname Trehern – his Cornish mother’s maiden name but usually misspelt on record sleeves as Treherne – after “a minor understanding” with US immigration. Once, leaving the US with a legal passport under the name Trehern, a music-fan immigration officer called after him: “Have a good flight, Mr Irwin!”
He was the polar opposite of the Keith Moon-style drummer who liked to steal the show, and it was no doubt for that reason that Morrison, not one to be outshone, picked him out. Inside the music business the Northern Irishman is known as much for his tantrums as his melodic genius, but Irwin was his perfect foil, both musically and personally. “Of all Van’s drummers over the years, I’ve lasted the longest. Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” he liked to say.
Until diagnosed with cancer, Irwin backed Morrison on records and on tour to every corner of the world, drumming on songs Morrison had written when Irwin when was a youth, including the still popular “Brown Eyed Girl”. He provided the beat on Morrison albums including Down the Road (2002). Irwin recalled backing Morrison during the Norwegian Wood Festival in Oslo on 10 June 2000 when a dove landed on one of the band’s keyboards, sat peacefully throughout the show then, as the band left the stage, keeled over on to the floor, dead.
Robert William Irwin was born in 1953 in the ancient parish of Hillingdon, Middlesex, on the western outskirts of London, to a Devonshire father, Kenneth Irwin, an air traffic controller, and a Cornish mother, Rosemary Trehern. He went to Lady Bankes infant school in Ruislip – and Vyners grammar school in nearby Ickenham, until his parents realised he wasn’t actually showing up there. After a spell at Uxbridge Technical College he taught himself drums and worked with Lowe from their early days in the 1970s at the breakthrough indie label Stiff Records in Ladbroke Grove, London.
He played drums for several New Wave groups including the two albums by the Sinceros, The Sound of Sunbathing (1979) and Pet Rock (1981). He drummed for the cajun/blues/rock band the Balham Alligators, including on their well-received 1996 album Gateway to the South. And he filled in for a while as drummer for the band Hillbilly Moon Explosion. A friend recalled that Irwin’s sister asked Lowe and his band to play at her wedding reception. His initial reaction? “I’m not working at my sister’s wedding. I want to get pissed.”
With Lowe or Morrison he toured the world from the Americas to Asia and Australia. He backed Lowe at the Royal Albert Hall, at Glastonbury and on the US late TV shows hosted by David Letterman, starting in 1983. During one tour of the US in the early 1980s he met a local girl, got married and settled down in San Antonio, Texas, playing the occasional gig. In a state bordering Mexico where Spanish is prevalent, he gained the nickname Juanmo Time.
His last album as a drummer was for his old pal Lowe on the 2013 Christmas album Quality Street. But he played on, for the fee of a couple of pints, along with his friend Geraint Watkins and the Mosquitos in the Wheatsheaf pub in Tooting Bec, south London, until his cancer worsened over recent months.
“Bob’s greatness as a drummer was that he was economical,” Lowe told The Independent. “He had a tremendous natural swing, getting into the rhythm and mood of a song. He was a songwriter’s drummer, a great interpreter of a song, which no doubt is why Van chose him. When asked about his style, Bob would smile and say, ‘My way is the way of the ama-TEUR,’ with the French stress on the latter syllable.”
His escape from the hurly-burly of music was to sail his 40ft motor cruiser Lady Lorne from its berth at the Hammerton’s Ferry jetty in Twickenham to France. Otherwise, he liked a quiet pint by the river in the White Swan, Twickenham, with his long-time love and partner, Stephanie de Salvo Hall.
Robert William Irwin, drummer and producer: born Hillingdon, Middlesex 23 March 1953; twice married (one daughter); died Twickenham, Middlesex 8 May 2015.