Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, a pioneering funk musician and bandleader for the James Brown band during its most popular period, died on Sept. 23 at age 80.
Ellis is also credited with cowriting and arranging multiple songs with Brown, including “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” both of which were No. 1 R&B hits.
Born in Bradenton, Fla., in 1941, Ellis he moved with his family to Rochester, N.Y., when he was a teenager and began playing professionally with jazz musicians including Ron Carter and Chuck Mangione. He moved to New York City in 1957, where he studied under the legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins before moving back to Florida in 1960. It was there he caught the attention of Brown.
“A friend of mine, Waymon Reed, who played trumpet in the band, called me up, because James Brown needed a saxophone player,” Ellis told ABC News in 2015. “James Brown had seen me playing with my own group in Florida a couple of years before, so he knew of me. The rest is history. …. Being a jazz-head, I really wasn’t that aware of James Brown when I joined the band, but my first night in the wings watching the show, which all new band members had to do, took my breath away. … I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
Listen to James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and Proud’
Ellis left the band and moved back to New York City in 1969, collaborating with various performers. In 1972, he cofounded the jazz-rock funk band Gotham and then went on to serve as Van Morrison’s arranger and musical director for several years. (Ellis subsequently moved to the U.K.)
In 2012, Ellis began touring with the Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion, a quartet consisting of Ellis, Cream drummer Ginger Baker, bassist Alec Dankworth and percussionist Abass Dodoo.
“He affected Funkateers all around the World with his silent genius and brilliant arrangements,” Bootsy Collins, who played with Ellis in Brown’s band, wrote on Facebook in tribute to Ellis. “R.I.P. our dear brother.”
In Memoriam: 2021 Deaths
Remembering the musicians, actors, producers and others who have died in 2021.