Rochester saxophonist and collaborator of James Brown, Pee Wee Ellis has died

Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, the funk music pioneer and music director of James Brown who grew up in Rochester, died on September 23 at the age of 80.

Mr. Ellis, a saxophonist, co-wrote two of Brown’s iconic songs, “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud” (I’m Black and I’m Proud), among dozens of others. He also had a long collaboration with Van Morrison as well as a prolific career as a conductor playing jazz, soul and smooth funk, or “smunk” as he called it.

Mr. Ellis lived in Rochester from around 1955 to 1959 and played music at Madison High School. He was inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame in 2016.

The cause of death was heart problems, according to Mr Ellis’ Facebook page. He lived in England and performed until just a few weeks before his death.

Saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, who added funk and jazz to the soul of James Browns.

Mr. Ellis was born in Bradenton, Florida, and moved at the age of 9 to Lubbock, Texas, where he showed aptitude for several instruments early on, surprising his family, who had no musical pedigree. particular.

“It comes from a beautiful cloud in the sky,” he told the Time-Union in 1987. “It was just meant to be or something.… It seems like it’s been a part of my breathing for as long as I can remember.”

As a child, he got used to playing with adults – and not just local musicians, but tours from around the city, including Fats Domino. It was during these early sessions that Mr. Ellis, who was portly later in life, earned the nickname Pee Wee.

“My stepdad was a band manager,” he said in the 1987 interview. “He would get me out of bed in the middle of the night. The pianist was drunk, so I would sit and play the boogie. -woogie, blues changes. “


Tragedy brought the Ellis family to Rochester in 1955. A white woman asked her stepfather, Ezell Ellis, to dance at a club; a white man saw them together, took a knife from the kitchen and stabbed him to death.

Mr Ellis, his mother and two sisters moved soon after the murder to Rochester, where an aunt already lived. He attended James Madison High School and performed evenings and weekends at jazz venues around the city, including the Pythodd Club.

In Rochester, he performed with Chuck and Gap Mangione, Ron Carter and Steve Alaimo, all of whom went on to have long musical careers. It was with Alaimo’s high school jazz band in Brighton, the Redcoats, that Mr Ellis made in 1957 what is likely his first recording, playing saxophone on a song called Jelly.

Sax lessons with a jazz legend

While still living in Rochester, Mr Ellis traveled to New York to visit his family. There, he saw Sonny Rollins outside a repair shop and asked him for lessons. Incredibly, the saxophone legend agreed.

“I don’t know what got on with me thinking it was okay to ask Sonny to teach me, but he was very open and generous,” Ellis told The Independent in 2020. “Every Wednesday j ‘was going to the airport and flying to meet Sonny in New York, take a class and fly home. … I was making $ 90 a week at the Pythodd Club in Rochester and the flight was $ 55. It was worth it. “

Mr. Ellis left Rochester for good around 1959, moving to Miami to play music full time. In 1965, he heard from Waymon Reed, whom he had known in Rochester when Reed was studying at the Eastman School of Music. Reed was in James Brown’s band and told Mr. Ellis they needed a saxophonist.

Mr. Ellis, now 24, got the job. Six months later, Brown made him his musical director, writing arrangements and putting Brown’s ideas into musical notation.

Pee Wee Ellis in Rochester in 1987.

“I am a band leader,” Mr. Ellis told the Democrat and Chronicle in 1994. “I can listen and digest stuff. (Brown) was mumbling something and I was writing it down and doing something with it.”

“Cold Sweat” is considered one of the first flagship songs of the nascent funk genre. “Say It Loud,” meanwhile, saw a resurgence in 2020 as the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Mr. Ellis left Brown’s band in 1969 and spent a decade creating his own records and working regularly as a sideman and producer. From 1979, he began a 20-year studio relationship with Van Morrison, arranging the brass for his albums.

He moved to England permanently around 1990, but traveled regularly to the United States, notably to see the remaining family in Rochester. One of his last local performances was when he was inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame in 2016.

Mr. Ellis had a wife and a son; a full list of survivors was not available.

Contact editor Justin Murphy at [email protected]

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