Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, a funk pioneer and conductor of the James Brown band during his most popular period, died on September 23 at the age of 80.
Ellis is also credited with co-writing and arranging several songs with Brown, including “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”, both of which were No. 1 R&B hits.
Born in Bradenton, Florida, in 1941, Ellis moved with his family to Rochester, NY when he was a teenager and began playing professionally with jazz musicians including Ron Carter and Chuck Mangione. He moved to New York in 1957, where he studied with legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins before returning to Florida in 1960. It was there that he caught Brown’s attention.
“A friend of mine, Waymon Reed, who played the trumpet in the band, called me, because James Brown needed a saxophonist,” Ellis told ABC News in 2015. “James Brown had me. seen playing with my own band in Florida a few years ago, so he knew me. The rest is history …. Being a jazz head, I wasn’t really aware of James Brown when I was joined the band, but my first night backstage watching the show, which all new band members had to do, took my breath away. … I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. “
Listen to “Say It Loud – I’m Black and Proud” by James Brown
Ellis left the group and returned to New York in 1969, collaborating with various artists. In 1972, he co-founded the jazz-rock funk group Gotham, then became Van Morrison’s arranger and musical director for several years. (Ellis then moved to the UK)
In 2012, Ellis began touring with the Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion, a quartet comprised of Ellis, Cream drummer Ginger Baker, bassist Alec Dankworth and percussionist Abass Dodoo.
“He touched Funkateers around the world with his silent genius and brilliant arrangements,” Bootsy Collins, who performed with Ellis in Brown’s band, wrote on Facebook in tribute to Ellis. “RIP our dear brother.”
In Memoriam: 2021 deaths
Remember the musicians, actors, producers and others who passed away in 2021.