Remembering Pee Wee Ellis

April 21, 1941 – September 23, 2021


A tribute to James Brown’s tenor-saxophonist

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Tenor-saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis passed away on Sept. 23, 2021 at the age of 80.

Alfred James Ellis was born Apr. 21, 1941 in Bradenton, Florida, taking up the saxophone as a young teenager and first playing publicly in 1954.

Ellis, who was nicknamed Pee Wee early in life, played professionally while in high school, had weekly lessons from Sonny Rollins, and attended the Manhattan School of Music.

After a few years of freelancing in Florida, he joined James Brown, staying during 1965-69 and becoming Brown’s musical director.

He co-wrote 26 songs with Brown including “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud,” helping to create the funk music that James Brown popularized.

Pee Wee Ellis had a diverse career after leaving Brown, working as an arranger and musical director for the CTI and Kudu labels (including for George Benson and Hank Crawford), co-leading a band in the late 1970s with David Liebman (his original “The Chicken” became a standard), working with Van Morrison during 1979-86 and 1996-99, teaming up with other James Brown alumni (trombonist Fred Wesley and altoist Maceo Parker) to form the JB Horns in the late 1980s, and becoming part of the Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion starting in 2012; he led at least 13 albums some of which are straight ahead jazz.

Here is Pee Wee Ellis heading a group in France in 2012 (with guitarist Tony Remy, keyboardist Peter Madsen, electric bassist Patrick Scales, and drummer Guido May), playing “The Chicken”

-Scott Yanow


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