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Pee Wee Ellis

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Pee Wee Ellis
Ellis in Milan, 2007.
Ellis in Milan, 2007.
Background information
Birth nameAlfred James Rogers
Also known asPee Wee Ellis
Born(1941-04-21)April 21, 1941
Bradenton, Florida, United States
DiedSeptember 23, 2021(2021-09-23) (aged 80)
Somerset, England, United Kingdom[1]
GenresFunk, soul, jazz
Occupation(s)Saxophonist, composer, arranger
Instrument(s)tenor, soprano, alto and baritone saxophones, keyboards and flute[2]
Years active1954–2021
LabelsSkip Records, Minor Music, Gramavision
Formerly ofJames Brown, Van Morrison, Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion, The Dapps
Pee Wee Ellis 2012
Pee Wee Ellis, 1996 in Paris (Jazz Club: New Morning) with his band Assembly

Alfred James Rogers (April 21, 1941 – September 23, 2021), known as Pee Wee Ellis due to his diminutive stature, was an American saxophonist, composer, and arranger.[3] With a background in jazz, he was a member of James Brown's band in the 1960s, appearing on many of Brown's recordings and co-writing hits like "Cold Sweat" and "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud". He also worked with Van Morrison.

In the 2014 biographical movie Get on Up about James Brown, Ellis is played by Tariq Trotter.

Ellis resided in England for the last 30 years of his life.[4][5]

Early life[edit]

Ellis was born on April 21, 1941, in Bradenton, Florida, to his mother Elizabeth and his father Garfield Devoe Rogers, Jr.[6] His father left when he was a young boy, and In 1949, his mother married Ezell Ellis, an organizer of musicians for local dance bands.[3] The family settled in Lubbock, Texas, "a highly segregated town", according to Ellis who gained his nickname "Pee Wee" from musicians staying at the family home. In 1955, a white woman insisted on dancing with his step-father, but interracial mixing enraged a man watching who stabbed him. Ezell Ellis, an African American, died because a hospital refused to treat him based on the colour of his skin.[7] The remaining members of the family moved to Rochester, New York.[8]

Ellis gave his first public performance in 1954 at Dunbar Junior High School. While attending Madison High School he played professionally with jazz musicians including Ron Carter and Chuck Mangione. In 1957, while visiting a saxophone repair shop on Broadway, he met Sonny Rollins and asked him for saxophone lessons. Sonny agreed to teach him weekly, having to fly to New York City from Rochester to do so.[7] The round fare for the flight was 55 dollars, and he was earning 90 dollars a week from playing in a local club called the Pythodd Room,[9] so decided it was worth the investment.[3] He went on to attend Manhattan School of Music, where he honed his skills in Jazz.[3][8] In 1960 he moved back to Florida working as a bandleader, musical director and writer.

Association with James Brown[edit]

At the invitation of a friend, trumpeter Waymon Reed, Ellis joined the James Brown Revue in 1965. He worked with Brown until 1969, co-writing 26 songs with him.[10] He joined as an alto saxophonist, later switching to tenor and became Brown's music director within two years.[4] Ellis said in 2015 that his "jazz influence" merged with Brown's R&B background to create funk.[11] The songs they wrote together included the hits "Cold Sweat" (1967) and "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" (1968); Ellis arranged both.[7] "Say It Loud" was intended as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King.[8] It became a new anthem for African Americans.[5] This song gained a new lease of life after the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, with a 15,740 percent jump in the streaming of the song in one week.[3]

Ellis told Martin Chilton, writing for the London Independent in 2020, about the response to the song: "In two weeks, it was like it had swept across the country. We were doing three shows a day at The Apollo and people queued around the block every day for every show. "[7] Credited as a pioneer of funk, Ellis told an interviewer from Jazzwise magazine in the same year" "it was a music that heralded a new attitude; a new and distinctive black culture, of street culture finding confidence and popularity outside and alongside the establishment."[12]

Later career[edit]

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,[13] with whom he recorded "The Chicken", that was to become a favourite of Jaco Pastorius.

The trumpeter Mark Isham asked Ellis to perform on a track for Van Morrison. He wrote a funky arrangement of "You Make Me Feel So Free" for Morrison leading to his involvement in creating all of the tracks on Into the Music (1979). An association between the two musicians endured.[7] He toured with Morrison many times and recorded another dozen albums with him over the next 20 years.[5] Until 1986, he worked with 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.[14]

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 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 continued to work consistently from 1992, and Ellis was always busy guesting with multi various 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 guests in the project included Vusi Mahlasela, Maceo Parker, Cheikh Lo, Mahotella Queens and Ghanaian rapper Ty.

From 2012, Ellis toured 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 continued to support local music as patron (and a principal performer) of the Bristol International Blues and Jazz Festival. He died on September 23, 2021, at the age of 80.[15]


Solo recordings[edit]

  • 1977 Home in the Country (Savoy)
  • 1992 Blues Mission (Gramavision)
  • 1993 Twelve and More Blues (Minor Music)
  • 1994 Sepia Tonality (Minor Music)
  • 1995 Yellin Blue
  • 1996 A New Shift (Minor Music)
  • 1997 What You Like (Minor Music)
  • 2000 Ridin Mighty High (Skip Records)
  • 2001 Live and Funky (Skip Records)
  • 2005 Different Rooms (Skip Records)
  • 2011 Tenoration (Art of Groove, MIG-Music)
  • 2013 The Spirit of Christmas (Minor Music GmbH)
  • 2015 The Cologne Concerts (Minor Music GmbH)

With James Brown[edit]

With Van Morrison[edit]

With The JB Horns[edit]

  • 1990 Finally Getting Paid (Minor Music)
  • 1991 Pee Wee, Fred and Maceo (Gramavision)
  • 1993 Funky Good Time - Live (Gramavision)
  • 1994 I Like It Like That

With Maceo Parker[edit]

Other contributions[edit]

With Ginger Baker

  • Why? (Motema Music, 2014)

With Brass Fever

With George Benson

With Hank Crawford

With Dave Liebman

With Jack McDuff

With the Rebirth Brass Band, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and Lenny Kravitz

With Shirley Scott

With Sonny Stitt

With Leon Thomas

With Ali Farka Touré

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Michael J. West (29 September 2021). "Pee Wee Ellis 1941–2021". JazzTimes. Retrieved 18 April 2023.
  2. ^ "Pee Wee Ellis credits". allmusic.com. Retrieved 22 July 2009.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Pee Wee Ellis obituary". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 4 November 2021.
  4. ^ a b Schudel, Matt (25 September 2021). "Pee Wee Ellis, who helped put the funk in James Brown's music, dies at 80". The Washington Post. Retrieved 28 September 2021.
  5. ^ a b c Williams, Richard (30 September 2021). "Pee Wee Ellis obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 September 2021.
  6. ^ McBride, James (2016). Kill 'Em and Leave. New York: Spiegel & Grau. p. 139. ISBN 9780812993509.
  7. ^ a b c d e Chilton, Martin (17 June 2020). "Pee Wee Ellis: 'America was built on slavery and exploitation – but change is coming'". The Independent. Archived from the original on 25 May 2022. Retrieved 28 September 2021.
  8. ^ a b c Pareles, Jon (27 September 2021). "Pee Wee Ellis, James Brown's Partner in Funk, Dies at 80". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 September 2021.
  9. ^ "Chasin' the Past Pt. 4- Lost Jazz Clubs of Rochester". Local History ROCs!. 28 June 2019. Retrieved 30 May 2022.
  10. ^ Burland, Michaerl (July–August 2020). "Pee Wee Ellis". The American. Retrieved 30 September 2021.
  11. ^ Rothman, Michael (19 January 2015). "Pee Wee Ellis Opens Up About His Time Playing with James Brown". ABC News. Retrieved 28 September 2021.
  12. ^ Whitlock, Kevin (14 February 2020). "Pee Wee Ellis Interview: Feeling the Funk on UK Tour". Jazzwise. Retrieved 28 September 2021.
  13. ^ "Pee Wee Ellis biography". peewee-ellis.com. Archived from the original on 11 February 2009. Retrieved 22 July 2009.
  14. ^ "Van Morrison song database". ivan.vanomatic.de. Retrieved 22 July 2009.
  15. ^ "Pee Wee Ellis, Legendary Saxophonist for James Brown, Van Morrison, Dead at 80". Rolling Stone. 25 September 2021. Retrieved 25 September 2021.

External links[edit]