Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, the songwriter, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist best known as the bandleader and arranger for the James Brown Orchestra during its most prolific and groundbreaking period, died on September 23. He was 80 years old.
“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.”
Ellis is considered one of the architects of funk, having co-written and arranged for Brown the landmark recordings “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
As Black Lives Matter protests swept the world last summer, nearly half a million people streamed the civil rights anthem “Say It Loud.”
“I’m deeply proud,” Ellis told The Independent, “to have played a part in creating a song that is inspiring young people today.”
Ellis was born in Bradenton, Florida on April 21, 1941. As a teen, he moved with his family to Rochester, NY, where he began playing professionally alongside fellow young musicians Chuck Mangione and Ron Carter; with his earnings he traveled to Manhattan and studied with jazz legend Sonny Rollins, establishing a lifelong friendship.
“I don’t know what possessed me to think it was OK to ask Sonny to teach me, but he was very forthcoming and generous,” Ellis shared in the same interview. Ellis then joined the James Brown entourage on the recommendation of trumpeter Waymon Reed.
Joining Brown’s band in early 1967, he instilled disciplined rehearsals and more sophisticated arrangements, leading to a string of unparalleled recordings and live performances.
“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…. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Ellis recalled to ABC News in 2015.
In addition to Brown’s hits, Ellis wrote and orchestrated a series of instrumental recordings featuring his saxophone, including “The Chicken,” originally issued on Brown’s album The Popcorn. Ellis’s composition has become a staple of jazz and funk bands after its now-legendary cover by bassist Jaco Pastorius. Ellis also fronted a Brown offshoot band, The Dapps. All of these recordings provided foundational beats for generations of hip-hop producers.
Following his departure from the Brown camp in 1969, Ellis joined a reconstituted Blues Magoos for their ABC Records album, Gulf Coast Bound. He soon became a sought-after arranger for hire, working with the jazz-funk label CTI Records, R&B legend Esther Phillips, David Liebman, and many others.
In 1972, he co-founded the jazz-rock funk band Gotham, whose Motown album, Pass the Butter, whose tracks were sampled by several hip-hop artists including Cru feat. Black Rob and Lords of the Underground. Following a solo album release for Savoy, Ellis began a long stint as bandleader and arranger for Van Morrison.
Ellis had since performed with several bands, including The J.B. Horns, a reunion with former bandmates Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley; his own Pee Wee Ellis Assembly; Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion; and with a series of African artists both live and on record.
A resident of the UK since his work with Van Morrison, he received a doctorate from Bath Spa University in 2014.
Following the news of Ellis’ passing, his peers and colleagues have shared their tributes to him including James Brown’s tour manager Alan Leeds.
“Pee Wee put James Brown’s ideas to music. If JB created funk, so did Pee Wee Ellis. The only thing richer than his tone on his horn was his love of life and sense of humor.”
The Roots’ MC, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, who played Ellis in the 2014 James Brown biopic Get On Up, also shared a statement on his passing.
“Mr. Ellis was a brilliant musician, composer, and arranger. A leader and an innovator who rarely receives full credit for his many contributions. I was very honored when I was given the opportunity to portray such an unsung legend. I met Mr. Ellis briefly. He was a sweet man and his presence will be missed but not forgotten.”