Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis (born April 21, 1941) is an American saxophonist, composer and arranger. With a background in jazz, he was an important member of James Brown’s band in the 1960s, appearing on many of Brown’s most notable recordings and co-writing hits like “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”. He also worked closely with Van Morrison.
In the 2014 biographical movie Get on Up about James Brown, Ellis is played by Tariq Trotter (Black Thought, MC from the Roots).
In later years, he became a resident of England, living in the town of Frome in the county of Somerset.
Ellis was born Alfred Bryant on April 21, 1941 in Bradenton, Florida to his mother Elizabeth and his father Garfield Devoe Rogers, Jr. In 1949 his mother married Ezell Ellis, and the family moved to Lubbock, Texas where Ellis was given his nickname “Pee Wee”. He gave his first public performance in 1954 at Dunbar Junior High School. After Ezell Ellis was killed in 1955, the remaining members of the family moved to Rochester, New York. While attending Madison High School he played professionally with jazz musicians including Ron Carter and Chuck Mangione. In 1957 he moved to New York City, where he attended Manhattan School of Music and had regular lessons with Sonny Rollins. In 1960 he moved back to Florida working as a bandleader, musical director and writer.
Ellis played with the James Brown Revue from 1965 to 1969. While with Brown he arranged and co-wrote hits like “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”. 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. In the late 1970s he moved to San Francisco and formed a band with former Miles Davis sideman David Liebman, with whom he recorded “The Chicken”, that was to become a favourite of Jaco Pastorius.
Between 1979 and 1986 he worked with Van Morrison’s band as an arranger and musical director and then again from 1995 through 1999. He also gave occasional performances in 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2006 as guest appearances.
In the late 1980s Ellis regrouped with some musicians he worked with during his time with James Brown to form the JB Horns. With Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker he recorded a number of albums that defined a version of jazz-funk. The group also toured in Europe. In 1992 he resumed his solo recording career. Ellis also appeared alongside Bobby Byrd in the J.B All Stars.
In 1995, showing the diversity of his musical interests and talents, Ellis played tenor sax and arranged the horns for the album Worotan, by Mali’s Oumou Sangare, the so-called “Songbird of Wassoulou” and worked with many other artists on the World Circuit label including Ali Farka Toure, Cheikh Lo, Anga Diaz and renowned Cuban bassist Cachao.
His own group The Pee Wee Ellis Assembly have continued to work consistently since 1992, and Ellis is always busy guesting with multivarious artists, arranging and recording both his own albums and as a respected session player and teaching.
Between 2009 and 2011 Ellis toured an African tribute to James Brown, “Still Black Still Proud”, to much acclaim in both USA and Europe. Special guest in the project included Vusi Mahlasela, Maceo Parker, Cheikh Lo, Mahotella Queens and Ghanaian rapper Ty.
Since 2012 Ellis has been touring with the Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion, a quartet comprising Ellis, drummer Ginger Baker, bassist Alec Dankworth and percussionist Abass Dodoo.
In July 2014 Pee Wee Ellis was honored with a doctorate by Bath Spa University, and he continues to support local music as patron (and a principal performer) of the Bristol International Blues and Jazz Festival (by wikipedia)
Leading the German NDR Big Band, saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis turns in a competent, occasionally stilted collection of soul-jazz and classic funk. The production and the playing is a bit too mannered for the music to actually catch fire, but there are moments — such as Fred Wesley’s cameo on “Tune with a View” or Van Morrison’s vocal spotlight on “I Will Be There” — that make the disc a worthwhile listen. (by Stephen Thomas Erlewine)
Pee Wee Ellis is a versatile cat. He claims that he doesn’t like pigeonholes, and yet he’s mastered all of them. Ellis’ stylistic diversity can be heard on What You Like (Minor Music), an album he recorded in ’97 that is finally hitting the streets. It’s Ellis’ first in a big-band setting since taking over the ensemble behind James Brown in 1967 at age 26, which came after he studied with Sonny Rollins and established solid jazz credentials. Then later it was on to Brother Jack McDuff and arranging for George Benson, Hank Crawford and Sonny Stitt.
All the above influences can be heard on What You Like, from the boogaloo of “The Prophet” to the down-home groove of “Far From Home.” Jenni Evans contributes three fine vocals, but Van Morrison’s guest shot could have been phoned in. Ellis shows his balladic purity on “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and shows off a screaming flat five to end “2 Dock C” (based on Rollins’ “Doxy”). Add to that the excellent backing of the Hamburg-based NDR Big Band, the keyboard work of Steve Hamilton, the guitaristry of Tony Remy, the drumming of Michael Mondesir and the arrangements of Jorg Achim Keller and What You Like should please any demographic. (by Harvey Siders)
Pee Wee Ellis (saxophone)
The NDR Big Band directed by Jörg Achim Keller:
Wolfgang Ahlers (trombone)
Lennart Axelsson (trumpet)
Detlef Beier (bass)
Peter Bolte (saxophone)
Lutz Büchner (saxophone)
Ingolf Burkhardt (trumpet)
Egon Christmann (trombone)
Fiete Felsch (reeds)
Joe Gallardo (trombone)
Edgar Herzog (reeds)
Mark Mondesir (drums)
Michael Mondesir (bass)
Tony Remy (guitar)
Lucas Schmid (trombone)
Steffen Schorn (reeds)
Claus Stötter (trumpet)
Jon Welch (trombone on 05., 08. + 11)
Reiner Winterschladen (trumpet)
Jenni Evans (vocals on 02., 07. + 10.)
Van Morrison (vocals on 04.)
Fred Wesley (trombone on 09.)
01. The Prophet (Ellis) 5.00
02. Take Me To The River (Green) 5.24
03. Soul Pride (Ellis/Brown) 4.56
04. I Will Be There (Morroson) 2.45
05. I Get Along Without You Very Well (Carmichael) 5.12
06. Dock “C” (Ellis/Rollins) 6.02
07. (Your Love Is) So Doggone Good (Ervine/Love)
08. Far From Home (Ellis/Payne) 6.52
09. Tune With A View (Ellis) 6.12
10. Step (Ellis/Roper) 3.48
11. What You Like (Ellis/Brown) 6.05