Pee Wee Ellis – Assembly

Pee Wee Ellis

Pee Wee Ellis’s remarkable story spans six decades, starting in the 50s when he took himself and his sax off to New York City to find his heroes Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and the great Sonny Rollins (who became his teacher and mentor.) A promising career leading jazz bands in Florida took an unexpected turn in 1965 when he joined James Brown’s sensational Revue, playing alto. Within six months he was bandleader and musical director and was co-writing with James Brown. ‘Cold Sweat’, widely acknowledged as the first true funk record, and many of JB’s hits for the next four years, including ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black, and I’m Proud’ were the fruit of this collaboration.

By 1970 Pee Wee moved on to CTI in New York and was producing and directing for the likes of Brother Jack McDuff, Esther Phillips, and George Benson. In 1979 in California, he caught the ear of Van Morrison and began five years as Van’s MD/bandleader arranging the horns on albums such as Into the Music, and Common One.

During the 1990’s Pee Wee moved to Europe and pursued a burgeoning solo career, releasing jazz albums including the critically acclaimed ‘12 and More Blues’. He also formed the JB Horns with ex-James Brown alumni Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, who toured widely to great acclaim.

Pee Wee rejoined Van Morrison as bandleader and arranger for five more highly successful years around this time. Meanwhile, his worldwide reputation had become apparent as musical stars from Africa and Cuba (including Oumou Sangaré, Cheikh Lô, Ali Farka Touré and Buena Vista Social Club stars Orlando ‘Cachaíto’ López and Miguel Angá Díaz) sought his distinctive sound for their recordings. Most recently he has arranged for and recorded with Boy George, Joss Stone, George Clinton, and Paul Carrack.

Having led the spectacular ‘Still Black, Still Proud’ an African Tribute to James Brown in the early 2000s and being a founder member of drumming legend Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion in 2015/16, currently Pee Wee is focusing on his projects: his band The Pee Wee Ellis Assembly still tour worldwide, recently opening the Blue Note in Shanghai; he is working on his autobiography and an Anthology from his 50-year recording career.

Sonny Rollins about Pee Wee Ellis

A message from Pee Wee’s mentor and dear friend Sonny Rollins. (Nov. 10, 2021)

The great Pee Wee Ellis has gone to a better place. I will miss him enormously. He and his lovely wife always visited with me when they came to the States. He always referred to himself as my student, and I felt great hearing him say that because he was one of our best players. “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” came from Pee Wee, as he led James Brown’s band into their ultra-baaad music. See you later, man.Sonny

George Benson about Pee Wee Ellis

Source: Mr. George Benson’s Facebook Post from October 2, 2021.

The name Pee Wee suggests small, but there was nothing small about Pee Wee Ellis. His talent was immense. For example, he co-wrote and arranged James Brown‘s “Papa’s Gotta Brand New Bag.” From there, every thought and rhythm arrangement was his idea. In 1973 we recorded and wrote the song “Dance” for my BODY TALK record. I learned some lessons from him that are still with me today. His powerhouse approach to music will continue to energize the music industry forevermore. We remained good friends from the beginning of his days with James Brown until his passing. He will be missed.

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