Pee Wee Ellis – Saxophone
A versatile composer, arranger, saxophonist and keyboard player, a musician whose repertoire encompasses all manner of music from jazz through soul and funk to stadium rock, Alfred Pee Wee Ellis stands distinctive in any company.
Born in Bradenton, Florida in 1941, Pee Wee was raised in Lubbock, Texas where he played his first public show in 1954 while still in Junior High School. His family moved to Rochester, NY, the following year, where he continued to play professionally throughout High School. He also met Sonny Rollins at this time, and spent the summer of 1957 under his masterful tutelage – a pivotal experience. “A great sax player, he taught me a lot and I still listen to him”.
Returning to Florida after graduation he formed his own ensemble, Dynamics Incorporated. He also worked on the carny circuit at this time, laying the foundation of his career as a bandleader and musical director, writer and arranger, and by now multi-instrumentalist, with tenor saxophone as his principal musical voice. It was during this period that he first came to the notice of James Brown.
Back in New York, Pee Wee was working with The Sonny Payne Trio in 1965 when he got ‘the call’ from his close friend Wayman Reed to join the James Brown Revue, then the hottest, most sensational and successful head-buster on the R&B circuit, and fast becoming an international phenomenon. “I stood there in the wings and I thought, I should have bought a ticket. It was that much of a privilege to be so close to James Brown and that band” says Pee Wee now of his first exposure to the revue.
Playing alto sax and organ Pee Wee quickly became an integral element in James’ expanding vision, writing arrangements and horn charts, and he was instantly promoted to bandleader when Nat Jones quit in January 1967. That very same day Pee Wee arranged Brown’s R&B Top 5 Hit, “Let Yourself Go” (from which, ‘There Was A Time’ was born), and then turned the soul world on its head with Brown’s follow-up, “Cold Sweat.” This was a million selling Number 1 Hit in the autumn of 1967 and it redefined the parameters of popular music. Brown had been out on a musical limb since 1964, with unconventional hits such as “I Got You (I feel Good)” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” but Nat Jones’ arrangements had not taken him over the edge. Pee Wee’s “Cold Sweat” propelled James Brown into a new dimension musically, and founded a funk revolution that is still being copied and sampled the world over 30 years on. Pee Wee continued to be a mainspring in James Brown’s musical direction for the next two and a half years, co-writing and arranging the majority of the ‘Godfather’s’ single hits and album tracks during that period and also interjecting commercial success into the instrumental releases of the James Brown Band (‘In the Middle’, ‘Popcorn’, ‘Soul Pride’ and ‘The Chicken’.)
Pee Wee left the Revue in September of 1969, basing himself in New York and cutting a quick single for the Nashville label, Sound Stage 7, called “Moonwalk” backed with “That Thing”- this is now a sought after ‘rare groove.’ He moved to CTI’s Kudu label as musical director and arranger and worked with many of their roster including George Benson and Hank Crawford, and in particular, the exceptional Esther Philips, for whom he was musical director through a five year period. During the 70s Pee Wee continued as arranger and conductor for musicians like Sonny Stitt, and began to concentrate on his own projects such as an album called “Pass The Butter,” for Motown’s Natural Resources label.
This led in 1976, to Pee Wee’s first album, “Home in the Country” recorded for Savoy/Arista just before he located to California’s Bay Area. Here he formed a band with David Liebman in 1977. Mark Isham had played with Pee Wee on the road with Esther, and had been in the band with David, so when Van Morrison needed some horns on a song he was working on, called ‘Troubadours’, Mark recommended Pee Wee. And so began a long-term relationship that was to produce much significant music – ‘Into the Music’, ‘Live in Belfast’, ‘Beautiful Vision’, ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’, and ‘Common One’. “Van gave me the freedom to put the horn charts together. I liked that”, says a modest Pee Wee of his contribution to some of the finest music from the 80s.
Pee Wee resumed his solo recording career in 1992, with yet another formidable line-up of New York musicians on “Blues Mission,” which teamed him again with Clyde Stubblefield – the original ‘Funky Drummer’. Pee Wee’s next solo album was released the following year and was another departure – a jazz trio album recorded live in Koln, Germany with bassist Dwayne Dolphin and Bruce Cox on drums. Entitled “Twelve and More Blues,” this CD backtracks to Pee Wee’s musical roots and then moves straight ahead in a be-bop direction, tackling both jazz standards and his own original compositions with virtuosity and vitality. The album was chosen as one of the ten Best Jazz Albums of 1993 by the New York Times.
Sampling of his songs by Salt ‘n’ Pepa, KMC KRU and Dodge City Productions, and a sell-out week at Ronnie Scott’s in London in the summer of ’93, with an astonishing group of young British musicians, sketched out the footprint for Pee Wee’s movement from funk into jazz and beyond – ‘a modern version of jazz, a little north of funk and well south of fusion’ – as Musician Magazine put it.
This movement was soon consolidated with a quartet album “Sepia Tonality,” recorded in New York in early 1994 and featuring Pee Wee on tenor, with Rodney Jones on Guitar, Will Boulware on organ and Grady Tate on Drums. A second trio album from Koln was recorded live during a Pee Wee Ellis Assembly Trio tour of Europe in the spring of ’94. Called “Yellin’ Blue,” it attracted much critical acclaim in Europe.
Pee Wee’s path had crossed Van Morrison’s many times since the 1980s, particularly when Van called on the JB Horns to play with his band, so it was only natural that when Pee Wee relocated to the West Country in England he should rejoin Van on stage and in the studio. Pee Wee arranged the horns and played on Van’s 1995 return to critical and commercial success, “Days Like This.” He followed this up working with Van on his subsequent albums, the jazz-orientated, “How Long Has This Been Going On,” and the Mose Allison tribute, “Tell Me Something.”
Pee Wee, however, did not ignore his own career and in 1996 a new solo album on Minor Music hit the streets. Entitled, “A New Shift,” the CD was recorded in Germany . More studio work with Van Morrison followed later that year, and the resultant CD, “The Healing Game,” was released in 1997. Pee Wee’s arrangements and solos turned the album into an instant classic and gave Van some of his strongest material ever for his stage performances.
1997 also saw the release of Pee Wee’s “What You Like.” Recorded with the Assembly and the NDR Bigband, it also features Van Morrison and Fred Wesley. In the autumn Pee Wee became Van’s Musical Director, arranging and developing Van’s stage and studio sound, and also promoting “What You Like,” by touring in France and Germany with the Assembly.
Since the turn of the new century Pee Wee had released “Ridin’ Mighty High,” (2001) “Live and Funky,” (2002) and “Different Rooms,” in 2005. Most recently he has performed with, and arranged for, the Miami based Spam All Stars with whom he will be performing live in 2007. He also played several successful dates with Fred Wesley in the UK in 2006 and they played together again in London and Europe in 2007.
Pee Wee Ellis’ distinguished career has embraced some of the most important musical movements of recent decades, from jazz to funk, via the blues and a touch of rock. After almost forty years in the music business he is one of the most acclaimed saxophonists of his generation and one of the most sought-after arrangers and MD’s in the industry. His musical range and pursuit of excellence has gained him renown among his peers and the enduring respect of ensuing generations of musicians and fans.