Legendary saxophonist, arranger, songwriter, and James Brown bandleader, Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, has passed away at 80.
“With great sadness, we have to announce that Pee Wee passed away last night following complications with his heart,” his family shared in a statement. “We are working on plans to celebrate his wonderful life and hope you will all take time to listen to his music and continue his legacy.”
Although he was trained as a jazz musician, Ellis is considered one of the architects of funk music, composing groundbreaking classics such as “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Born in Bradenton, Florida on April 21, 1941, he relocated with his family to Rochester, NY. While attending Madison High School, he began playing professionally alongside fellow young musicians Chuck Mangione and Ron Carter. He used his earnings from gigs to enroll at the Manhattan School of Music where he studied with jazz legend Sonny Rollins. By 1960, he was back in Florida working as a composer and arranger.
From 1965 to 1969, Ellis was musical director and bandleader of the James Brown Orchestra.
In an interview with ABC News, Ellis explained how became a part of James Brown’s band.
“Being a jazz head, I really wasn’t that aware of James Brown when I joined the band. But my first night in the wings watching the show (which all new band members had to do) took my breath away,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
Working alongside Brown, Ellis would transform R&B, soul, and pop with his funk arrangements and unmistakable grooves. He helped lay the groundwork for hip hop music and a plethora of artists would later sample his work.
After leaving the James Brown Orchestra in 1969, he returned to New York City. He worked as an arranger and musical director for CTI Records’ Kudu label, collaborating with artists like George Benson, Hank Crawford, and Esther Phillips.
From 1979 and 1986 he worked with Van Morrison’s band as an arranger and musical director and then again from 1995 through 1999. Also, during the 1980s, he linked up with two other alumni from James Brown’s band, the J.B.s, Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker to form JB Horns.
Since 1992, his group, The Pee Wee Ellis Assembly, has toured across the world.
In 2012, Ellis began touring with the Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion, a quartet consisting of Ellis, Cream drummer Ginger Baker, bassist Alec Dankworth, and percussionist Abass Dodoo.
He became a citizen of the UK when he began playing with Morrison and he received a doctorate from Bath Spa University in 2014.
Funk icon Bootsy Collins, took to Twitter to share the musical impact of Ellis, his friend and former bandmate.
“We just lost another bandmate & legend, Mr. Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis,” he tweeted. “He was a member of James Brown’s band in the 60s, recording many of Brown’s recordings “Cold Sweat”, “Say It Loud.” He also worked with Van Morrison. A silent genius & brilliant arrangements. Prayers to the Family!”
We at EBONY extend our condolences and prayers to the family and friends of Pee Wee Ellis.