Pee Wee Ellis Opens Up About His Time Playing with James Brown

The late icon's former band leader opens up about their time together.

ByMichael Rothman
January 19, 2015, 2:48 AM

— -- Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis is a music icon.

The 73-year-old saxophonist and composer has been active in the industry for more than five decades, five years of which he played with and led the James Brown Revue alongside the late icon. So he knows the funk legend more than most.

Ellis told ABC News he got the opportunity to lead Brown's band from 1965 to 1969 after he had previous experience at the helm of an ensemble.

"Later when I was in the James Brown Revue, that experience stood me in good stead when Mr. Brown appointed me band leader after Nat Jones left the band," he said.

In that time with Brown, who died in 2006 at the age of 73, Ellis learned a few things about the "Get on Up" singer. He also started working with Brown at just 24 years old.

"A friend of mine, Waymon Reed, who played trumpet in the band, called me up, because James Brown needed a saxophone player. 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," he said. "James Brown was born and went straight to crazy ....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."

PHOTO: Pee Wee Ellis performs during the Festival Jazz A La Villette 2011 at Grande Halle de La Villette, Sept. 10, 2011, in Paris.
Pee Wee Ellis performs during the Festival Jazz A La Villette 2011 at Grande Halle de La Villette, Sept. 10, 2011, in Paris.
Samuel Dietz/Redferns/Getty Images

Brown started to evolve in the late 60's and Ellis said his "jazz influence melded with [Brown's R&B] roots and funk was born." Some of Brown's first official funk songs included "Cold Sweat" in 1967 [which Ellis co-wrote] and "I Got the Feelin'" the next year.

Even though the two didn't stay close over the years, Ellis has fond memories of being on tour with the icon, especially when food was involved.

"He loved fried chicken and he would bring a bucket into the studio and onto his private jet," he said. "At home he would make hot dogs and pork and beans. [Also,] in a crowd he always had the floor and he told a good joke."

Ellis spoke to ABC as part of his work in Miami with "The Art of the Party" this past Saturday for a show at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. The proceeds from Saturday's event featuring Ellis, a Florida native, fund the museum’s education program.

When Ellis was very young, he spent much of his time with older jazz musicians who gave him the name "Pee Wee." He said his stepfather Ezell Ellis "was the guy who would get me out of bed in the middle of the night to play piano at the local dance hall when the piano player was too drunk to," so music came natural to him growing up.

In last years' biopic about Brown "Get on Up," Ellis was portrayed by Tariq Trotter from the Roots and said he thought the movie was "fine."

"But it doesn't do justice to the band or the truth," he added. "I didn't like the way I was portrayed," he said, adding that he would have liked to have been consulted before filming. "It's at least courteous to approach someone when you're going to portray an important part of their life on a movie screen," he said.

In the years since Ellis toured with Brown, he's recorded a slew of solo albums like 1992's "Blues Mission" and "Tenoration" in 2011. He's also worked with Van Morrison for more than four decades.

Ellis now lives in the UK and stays busy "playing, writing, arranging, teaching, recording and leading my own band The Pee Wee Ellis Assembly," he said. "I am writing my autobiography and have a new project in development chronicling the history and impact of funk on popular music and culture. Plus the phone is always ringing with something new for me to do."

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