Monday, September 27, 2021

Celebrated Sax Man, Pioneering Funk Veteran Pee Wee Ellis Dead at 80

Acclaimed jazz saxophonist, composer and arranger Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis died on Thursday, September 23, "following complications with his heart," said a statement shared on his Facebook page. He was 80.

Ellis was a pivotal figure in funk music and made major contributions to the genre’s early development through his work with James Brown. He joined Brown’s horn section in 1965 as an alto saxophonist but later switched to tenor saxophone, his preferred instrument. Within two years of joining the band, he was promoted to Brown’s musical director. Ellis co-wrote and arranged groundbreaking funk classics such as “Cold Sweat,” “Mother Popcorn (You Gotta Have a Mother For Me),“Licking Stick, Licking Stick,” and the iconic black pride anthem “Say it Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud.” And he contributed his formidable saxophone skills to these influential tracks. The melding of Ellis’s jazz-honed chops with Brown’s gritty rough-and-tumble R&B roots helped bring a dynamic new element to Brown’s nascent funk sound.

In autumn of 1969, Ellis left Brown’s band to explore new music opportunities; he began collaborating with various artists, including George Benson, Hank Crawford and Esther Phillips. And in 1972, Ellis co-founded the jazz-rock funk band Gotham. The members of Gotham were Ellis, Linc Chamberland (guitar), Schuylar "Sky" Ford (vocals, acoustic guitar), Chris Qualles (bass), Frank Vicari (alto and tenor saxophone), John Gatchell (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jimmy Strassburg (drums, congas) and John Eckert (trumpet, flugelhorn). The band recorded some amazing fusion grooves together. 

Between 1979 and 1986, Ellis served as musical director and arranger for Van Morrison’s band and then again from 1995 through 1999. Ellis played on highly praised Van Morrison albums such as Into The Music (1979) and Beautiful Vision (1982).  In 2012, Ellis joined Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion, a quartet comprising Ellis, legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker, bassist Alec Dankworth and percussionist Abass Dodoo. They toured in 2013 and 2014, thrilling appreciative music fans with their stellar musicianship.

In the late ‘80s, Ellis formed the J.B. Horns with former James Brown horn players Maceo Parker (saxophone) and Fred Wesley (trombone). This trio brought heaps of funk onstage and in the studio. They also frequently backed singer/performer Bobby Byrd, another James Brown alumnus, in concert. In the early ‘90s, Ellis formed his own band, the Pee Wee Ellis Funk Assembly. The band remained active, touring and recording, for years. 

Ellis had a tremendous impact on contemporary music, leaving a large footprint in funk, jazz, R&B and jazz-funk. His far-reaching legacy will not be forgotten.

"Cold Sweat," part 1 and 2

                                        "Ease My Mind" by Gotham

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