An Exclusive Interview With Funk Pioneer Dr Alfred 'Pee Wee' Ellis
The Man Who Invented Funk
In 2014, I was lucky enough to interview Pee Wee Ellis for Neon Nettle Magazine. I had the honour of working with Pee Wee Ellis at Womad Festival in 2010 where not only was Pee Wee performing but he had also given his time to mentor young people who shared a passion for music.
Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis (born April 21, 1941) is instantly recognisable to those who meet him as a kind, patient and humble man who radiates love and positivity. When Pee Wee smiles his face lights up like a young boys and you cant help but smile with him; and when he plays saxophone; well the melodies, the feel and the groove say more than words could express. I am honoured that Pee Wee agreed to let me interview him for Neon Nettle. I had so many questions I wanted to ask my hero and I am blessed to share his words with you. For all his boyish cheeky smiles and humble demeanour, Pee Wee Ellis is a legend whose legacy stretches beyond music and into the heart of the civil rights struggle.
Pee Wee joined The James Brown Revue in 1965 and immediately began writing and arranging hits such as ‘Cold Sweat’. His arrangements and unique approach to phrasing that created a rhythmical dialogue with James’ vocals had a huge effect on music, directly influencing the likes of George Clinton and Sly Stone. Pee Wee joined The James Brown Revue in 1965 and immediately began writing and arranging hits such as ‘Cold Sweat’. His arrangements and unique approach to phrasing that created a rhythmical dialogue with James’ vocals had a huge effect on music, directly influencing the likes of George Clinton and Sly Stone.
Pee Wee Ellis’ work during this time defined what we think of as funk music to this day and thus earned him the title of ‘The man who invented funk’. In 1968, the year Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated, Ellis co-wrote ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud’ a song that reached out to black American society giving much needed hope, pride and self worth in a time of cultural despair. This year (2014) Ellis’ achievements and contributions to music and society were recognised when he was awarded the well deserved title of ‘Dr’ Pee Wee Ellis.
DW - I understand you were born in Florida in 1941 where you began learning piano and then your family moved to Texas where you started playing clarinet and saxophone in Junior High. How did music come to be such an important part of your life from such a young age? PW - In Bradenton Florida I took piano lessons, my first organised form of studying music. I must've been eight or nine years old. My aunt Mary used to ride me there on the handlebars of her bicycle. Let's say that was 1949 or '50... Just before moving to Lubbock Texas where I got more serious about music.
When I was 12, I tried out for the band at Dunbar Junior High School in the summer of 1953 on clarinet. I got in because I was familiar with the little plastic horns I always played with, that made perfect sense to me ...(tonnetts and ocarinas) so clarinet was a natural next step. Although I wanted to play the saxophone, a very wise band director, Roy Roberts, started me on clarinet. He was an alto sax player and really knew his stuff. After a short while I got very good on the clarinet and was given a tenor saxophone. I remember feeling like 'wow', this is home.
DW - Were you from a musical family? Were you encouraged with your music? PW - I wasn't from a musical family, although my stepfather did manage a local band and there were musicians around the house all the time. I guess I was quite impressionable and these guys seem to lead exciting lives.
One of them taught me "In My Solitude" on the piano... I was fascinated how he voiced the chords, not from the roots upwards, but in different configurations. I was hooked. I guess that's how music became such an important part of my life. As well as being shy and a bit of a loner too, I gravitated towards music as my best friend and something I could be a part of unconditionally, and was mine alone. That sounds a little selfish but it really wasn't because I always wanted to share it, just on my own terms I guess. DW - I was shocked and saddened when I heard you moved to Rochester in New York after your stepfather was murdered in a racial attack in 1950’s Texas. May I ask how did this affect you and your music?
PW - Well, I was doing fine in Lubbock with great support from the band director Mr. Roberts, my mother and stepfather. My stepfather, Ezell Ellis, managed local bands in the local bars for dancing and once in a while would roust me out of bed in the middle of the night to play piano because the piano player was drunk. It was in one of those bars where he was stabbed to death by an irate customer for dancing with a white lady that insisted that he did so. He died at the hospital in the hallway because he was black and they wouldn't take him in.
How did that that effect me? Well, I'm not sure if I'm not still working on that. It surely disrupted my life in a major way. That's when and why we relocated to Rochester New York. It was September 1955.
DW - So you were still only a teenager in 1955 when you moved to Rochester and began performing in clubs on the local scene. In the Summer of 1957 you began heading into the city for your weekly sax lesson with Sonny Rollins. How did that come about? What memories do you have of your time as Rollin’s student? PW - In 1957 I was walking down Broadway in NYC and had my saxophone fresh out the repair shop. There was someone walking towards me with a saxophone that turned out to be Sonny Rollins on his way to a practice room on 48th street. I asked him if he'd give me a lesson, being young and cheeky, he said yes and from that moment my life changed forever. I still lived in Rochester but every Wednesday I would fly to NYC and meet Sonny for a lesson.
It was time well spent. Sonny was a great teacher, focusing mostly on basics and what and how to practice. I was like a kid in a candy store... A sponge in deep water!! DW - In the mid sixties, you joined The James Brown Revue immediately getting involved in arranging and writing hits such as “Cold Sweat” which defined what we call ‘Funk’ to this day. Within six months of joining Brown, you became the band’s Musical Director. Tell me more about this time in your life...
PW - In 1965 I joined the James Brown Revue. I got a phone call from Waymon Reed, a trumpet player who had come to Rochester to go to Eastman School of Music a few years earlier and we'd become mates, playing together in the local clubs while I was still in high school. Anyway, Waymon had joined the JB show and they needed a saxophone player. I took the job and met the show in Washington DC at the Howard Theatre. The show was amazing; as I watched from the sideline I was blown away by the intricate movements and tight arrangements.
I mean my jaw was on the floor. There were moments when I wondered if I would ever be able to do that. But after about a week watching the show, I got my uniform and started rehearsing with the band. By the time we left Washington, I had a seat on the bus and almost knew the show. Six months later I was the bandleader. The first arrangement I did for the band was "Let Yourself Go". Mr Brown liked my work and we went forward from there and never looked back for four years... and 26 songs.
DW - I want to ask you about your input to the song “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”. What did you contribute to the writing of this song? What does this song mean to you? And what impact do you feel this song had on the young people who heard it and on the civil rights movement? PW - "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" was like a Black anthem as soon as it was released. We recorded it in Los Angeles, then went to NYC Apollo Theater where as soon as JB said Say It Loud, the whole audience yelled I'm Black and I'm Proud...
That brought goose bumps and made the hair on the back of your neck stand up... That was an incredible touching moment. Maybe the proudest, to know you'd touched so many people so quickly and so deeply was humbling and quite special. That song made an impact on the civil rights movement in a positive way. I think it helped move it forward. It boosted young people's confidence and sense of self. And it's serving the same purpose today in the same way.
DW - In 1970 you left James’ group to explore more musical opportunities both with your solo career and the likes of George Benson. Tell me about this time in your life: PW - In 1970 I left the JB Revue to expand my horizons and became closely involved with CTI KUDU records as arranger, conductor, contractor. I had the privilege to work with many wonderful artist like George Benson, Esther Phillips, Hank Crawford, to name a few.In 1977 I moved to San Francisco and started a band with David Liebman called the Ellis/Liebman Band. We both had recorded solo albums that year and played on each other's record. Mine was called "Home In The Country", and David's was called "Lighten Up Please" on Horizon records.