It was in the late 1980s, and Greg Townson was playing guitar in one of the most successful bands on the Rochester scene at the time, The Essentials. A rock band with some brass, which gives it a funk and R&B side.
And if you go down that road, there’s James Brown right in front of you.
So naturally, Townson knew all about Pee Wee Ellis. Ellis had been the musical director of Brown’s group. He even wrote some of the music. “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” were two familiar James Brown songs that Ellis had helped write. And now, Townson heard, Ellis was living in Rochester.
So, to create an excuse to meet Ellis, Townson used the old fake reporter ploy (it worked for me for years). He got Ellis’ phone number and called, requesting an in-person interview.
“I went to his mom’s and he came down in his robe and we sat in his kitchen,” says Townson, who was in his mid-twenties at the time. “And looking back, that was really kind and naive of me. I just wanted to meet the guy.
“Would you like to sit down with our group?” Townson recalled asking Ellis. “And he said, ‘Yeah. “”
And so began a two to three year period in which the acclaimed saxophonist and arranger “blew up the roof” – as Townson repeatedly puts it – of Rochester clubs such as Idols and Jazzberry’s. Clubs that are gone now, just like Ellis. He had lived in England for three decades when he died on September 23 at the age of 80 from heart disease.
Ellis was inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame in 2016. But his association with Rochester grew out of tragedy. He was just a child, living with his family in Lubbock, Texas, when his stepfather was stabbed to death in a dance hall. Ezell Ellis was black, his dance partner was white. Integration did not go well in 1950s America.
So Ellis’ mother moved him with his two sisters to Rochester to live with his aunt. Ellis’ saxophone followed him here as well. He divided his time playing at the legendary Pythodd Club in Corn Hill and flew to New York for saxophone lessons with Sonny Rollins, whom he had met during a chance encounter at an instrument repair shop in New York. York.
Ellis began working with Brown in 1965, a relationship that lasted four years. He wrote and arranged for other musicians over the next decade. Then he began a long association with Van Morrison.
Brown and Morrison were notoriously difficult personalities to work with. But Ellis, Townson says, never said bad things about either man. In fact, Ellis rarely had anything bad to say about anyone. He was an optimist. And yet, despite having worked with some of the biggest names in music, when Townson met him, he was there. Live in his mother’s house.
“He was really trying to figure out what to do with his career,” Townson says, “and he chose Rochester to come back and use it as the basis for figuring things out on his own. That says a lot about how he felt about it. Rochester.
And then Townson, the fake reporter, had the nerve to ask Ellis if he wanted to play a few shows with The Essentials. An unknown club group beyond Rochester.
“And the good thing is I picked it up and brought it to rehearsal,” Townson recalls. “Which was, you know, here’s a guy who used to rehearse in a rehearsal room, real rehearsal rooms. We rehearse in the basement of a house on Priem Street. It’s like a flophouse, three or four of the band members live there, you know, it was just a flophouse. And he came in, no problem. He went down to the basement by the furnace and things, you can’t stand on your feet. And he loved the group.
Ellis said he wanted to introduce the guys to a new song he had just written.
“After he showed us the song and we played it once, he said, ‘Now do you have any ideas for that?’ Townson says. “It just blew me away. Here is this guy asking we if we Do you have any ideas ? “
“He didn’t come in there like, ‘I’m the boss, I know everything,'” Townson says of Ellis. “He treated us with respect. It was mutual, it was a two-way street.
Townson was studying Ellis, listening to everything he could find. Like Van Morrison’s 1980’s “Common One” album. Townson slipped it into the cassette player while bringing Ellis home after a rehearsal.
“I haven’t listened to this since we did,” Ellis said.
“It was a 10-minute drive, maybe less, from his mother’s house,” Townson says. “I thought we would listen to a song. But we set down in front of his mother’s house, set there in silence, listening to this record together. And it was a great moment.
Like it was when The Essentials hit the road, at least up to Monroe Avenue, with Ellis.
“The first time we performed with Saved Pee Wee was at Jazzberry’s on Monroe Avenue,” Townson says. “And Pee Wee blew up the roof of the place with the first song. Literally, the people were on their feet. We did a song called ‘The Pop Corn’, which was a James Brown song that he wrote for James Brown. James Brown put his name on it, but it was the creation of Pee Wee.
The Essentials didn’t need to straddle Ellis’ tails. It was Richard Kaza, owner of local club Idols, who came up with the idea of getting the band to support rock icon Bo Diddley. Which they did several times in the late 80s and early 90s.
“So when Bo Diddley came over, Pee Wee asked me, ‘Can I sit, can I sit? “” Towson recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to ask him.’ And Bo was not at all in the idea. He didn’t want anyone to eclipse him. Now Pee Wee wasn’t that kind of guy, he wouldn’t be like that. But Bo didn’t know it. And I didn’t know Bo, I was just working with him for the first time. But I had to ask, because Pee Wee had been so great to us. And finally Bo gave in and he invited him on stage for two songs.
“It was Bo Diddley and Pee Wee Ellis on the same stage at a sold-out show in Rochester,” Townson says with a laugh. “You talk about a good night in Rochester.”
There were a lot of concerts at the Idols. The Essentials opened for the eclectic NRBQ, which was labeled The Greatest Bar Band of All Time. “We wanted to be NRBQ,” Townson says.
But that night, The Essentials had Ellis. “It was the secret weapon we had,” Townson said.
Townson remembers seeing NRBQ walk into the club on The Essentials’ last song. “They all stopped and they were just looking at us, and I knew they were in awe,” Townson says. “I knew they were thinking, Whoa, these guys are pretty good. “
Then The Essentials left the scene. “There was the NRBQ there,” Townson says. “There’s that awkward moment of, you know, they’re our heroes. And then Pee Wee and his girlfriend came down right after us, right after us. And in the silence of that awkward moment, she said, “AND THE WALLS FALL IN!” Because we had just blown up the roof of the place.
With Ellis, more walls would fall. “He was totally open to that and he just had fun at these shows,” Townson said. “He loved the group and he loved connecting with the Rochester community through us. It was a way to make himself known locally, and it was a new audience for him.
Townson had not been in contact with Ellis for a few years and was out of town when his former mentor was inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. By then, the Essentials were finished. Townson had moved on to a great garage-rock trio, The Hi-Risers. He was releasing records solo. He joined masked surfers Los Straitjackets, who will tour the southern United States with Nick Lowe next month. “All COVID hot spots,” Townson says warily.
As for Ellis, he then met former James Brown horn players Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker to become The JB Horns. And there was a glorious one-session collaboration in 1988. Wesley and Ellis were joined in Rochester by Hank Ballard, Bootsy Collins, Vicki Anderson, Clyde Stubblefield, Bill Doggett and guitarist Alphonso “Country” Kellum – another Rochesterian. who contributed to Brown’s legacy – to record a funk and soulful album under the name King All Stars. Townson says Ellis told him that Bobby Byrd, another former member of Brown’s group, was nervously asking, “Now James isn’t here, is he?” Because he thought he was being tricked into doing something with James.
The Essentials was basically a white rock band. The JB Horns were a Black funk and R&B group. “Pee Wee had his feet in both worlds,” Townson says.
He remembers an otherworldly show at the old BK Lounge on W. Main Street. At Ben Keaton’s. The Essentials opened for the JB Horns. It was Ellis’ birthday, but it was way past midnight now. Twenty minutes past two in the morning, and Keaton was ready to close BK’s Lounge for the night. The band was still playing, so Keaton turned on the lights.
“And they wouldn’t stop,” Townson said. “And that’s something I’ll remember all my life. I looked at Ben, who was that big guy, I watched him go and unplug the organ that Larry Goldings was playing, to make them stop. And
Larry Goldings, all of a sudden – I saw him – like he was playing and all of a sudden he realized that there was no sound coming out. What is happening? And he looked and he saw that the organ was unplugged. He got off the stage and came back and plugged it in and went back on stage. They never stopped.
And Ben just put his hands up and said, ‘That’s it, there’s nothing to stop these guys,’ Towson said. ‘Everyone was up. They were on fire. that night; it was the best show I have ever seen in my life. Talk about good music in Rochester. This was all happening in Rochester. That’s what Pee Wee brought to this town. These years he was here, he just increased the quality of musical life here. “
Jeff Spevak is the Arts & Life editor of WXXI. He can be contacted at [email protected]