Pee Wee Ellis is a legend, end of story. The man is one of the most influential musicians of the past 50 years and has worked alongside some of the greats, James Brown, Van Morrison and George Benson for starters.
He’s such a lovely man, he gave out to me for calling him ‘Mr. Ellis’. He tells me that ‘Mr. Ellis was my Daddy. My name is Pee Wee’ and when I protested he said ‘Ok, you called me that the first time, it’s Pee Wee from now on.’ Read my interview on Goldenplec.
Pee Wee Ellis and His Funk Assembly along with Grandmaster Flash play The Savoy for the Cork Jazz Festival on Saturday 29th 2011.
Update 2021: Originally published on Goldenplec.com 23/10/2011
RIP Mr Ellis.
Alfred ‘Pee Wee’ Ellis has had an immeasurable impact of the world of music. His work with James Brown and people like Van Morrison have changed music. Considered to be one of the founders of Funk, his influence has even worked its way into today’s hiphop and dance scene. Along with his band, The Funk Assembly, Pee Wee Ellis plays The Savoy Theatre in Cork on October 29th as part of Cork Jazz Festival. Vanessa Monaghan caught up with the funk and jazz legend and chatted about his fifty five year career.
As I say hello to Pee Wee Ellis for the first time, I address him as Mr. Ellis, he breaks the ice saying. ‘Mr Ellis was my Daddy, my name is Pee Wee’. I tell him I think it’s only right that a musician of his standing and influence should be addressed as ‘Mr.’. He replies with ‘Ok, you called me that the first time, it’s Pee Wee from now on’. It’s hard not to find him endearing.
I was trying to find a way to start the conversation with Pee Wee Ellis. While doing some research I found a old black & white photograph, Pee is a young man and it looks like it may have been taken in the early sixties. He’s wearing a peaked cap and has a huge broad smile and he’s hugging his saxophone.
‘Do you still love it that much?’
‘Yes, yes I do, maybe even more.’
What drives you to keep making music?
‘You know music is new every time you do it. Even the same song night after night after night, if you can find something different to put in it, it becomes exciting again’.
How have you done that? You have had an career that’s spanned over fifty five years. Were there ever times that you thought, ‘Oh I wish I could do that a little bit different’ or have you made your career varied enough for yourself to keep it interesting?
‘Yes I have, making it varied is enough to keep it interesting. I also take pride in the fact that I do have the tendency to make a considerable difference in most of the projects that I’ve been involved in. This is what’s important to me, to have the chance to be part of the fabric to make a real difference.’
If we start with the James Brown part of your career. The impact that has had on music is just so overwhelming.
‘Yeah it is, isn’t it?’
From where you went with James Brown, you became one of the forefathers of funk and in turn you’ve gone on to influence dance and hip hop..
‘Yeah it’s amazing, I’m surprised I’m not rich!’ (laughs)
Once you joined the James Brown Revue, it didn’t take you long to become a co writer, why was that?
‘Let’s see, that was because… I came to James Brown’s band being very studious and I had spent the summer with Sonny Rollins. I went down to Miami to inhale what I could learn from Sonny. I was a very stubborn jazz head. I was not interested in James Brown and what those people were at, at that point.
When I joined James Brown’s band (laughs), I saw an opportunity to be able to make enough money to be able to play jazz. It’s infectious and funk became, not just a way of life but a case for studying. It sounds so simple but it’s so intrigued, so many levels and so many layers to it. I’m amazed how many bands try to imitate that music and they take it for granted (chuckles) and they miss so much. It’s not a simple kind of music.’
When you were working with James Brown, it’s probably regarded as the most creative spell of his career. What made your partnership with him so special?
I respected him and he respected me. I questioned him and he was a fantastic innovator. He had the insight and the raw energy and imagination. He was such a determined, forceful character. He didn’t adhere to the basic rules of music at that time. His kinda something was, ‘If it feels good do it, if it sounds good, then it’s right.’ He was just a raw talent.
When the time came to move on, what urged you to get involved in other projects?
‘The downside of working with James Brown was that was all you were able to do. I wanted to do more, I wanted to do different things so I had to leave that organization to do different stuff. It was quite straightforward and very simple
You’ve played with other musicians who were involved with the James Brown Revue since then, how important did their friendship and their musical talent become to you?
‘It was very important, it was like we became like a fraternity. We were not just friends, we were a family. We had the same experiences and the same.. tutors, if you will, from James Brown. We considered that very special and we took that as being important. We were able to forge that into a different entity, which we called JB Horns. When we played together, it was like magic.’
That must be an amazing feeling. You have these people that you connect with so well and even though you don’t work with these people all the time, when you go back you always feel at home?
That’s right, like an old pair of slippers.
Of all the artists you’ve worked with, what or who has been the most fun?
‘I spent a lot of years with Van Morrison and my early years with Van was so much fun and so incredibly creative. The first album I did with him was called ‘Into The Music’, shortly after that we started touring together and he was a lot of fun! It was fun to go to work, I couldn’t wait to get back to work on the stage. Very slowly, that started to change it became more business than music. My first stint with him was eight years.’
It’s a long time to be working with someone.
Yeah, we took a break from each other of about two or three years. He moved back to Ireland and I moved back to New York and we were neighbours in California, in the San Francisco area.
At this point, I have to divulge my love for San Francisco Giants baseball team. And there actually was a baseball player called Alfred Ellis (Pee Wee’s full name) too!, you’re in good company!
I’m a 49ers fan actually. I haven’t been keeping up with any sports, I’m been so busy in Europe and a lot of the TVs don’t have English and when you do get a chance to see a baseball game it’s the middle of the night and I need my rest.
Your first solo full-length album was released in 1976. Why do you think it took you so long to get it out?
‘OOOhh I don’t know, I don’t think I was very forceful, maybe I didn’t think I was ready. I enjoyed what I was doing, being producer, arranger, playing with different people and I was still learning my craft. And when Arista forced me to do this record they promised me all kinds of good stuff and my first disappointment was the budget they gave me to do the record.
But I made a good record, that record’s called ‘Home In The Country’.I got some good players, who were all friends of mine. George Benson is on it, Gordon Edwards, the cream of the New York crop at the time, on this record. Clive Davis didn’t like the picture I used. (laughs) Something silly like that, you know I think they needed a tax write-off or something.’
Your latest album was released as a two-disc release, one funky and one more jazzy, why did you go with the double album rather than two single albums?
‘It’s my split personality! (laughs) I play a lot of funk music as you know but I also play a lot of jazz music.
There was a practical reason for this, Pee Wee’s assistant, Charlotte, tells me why:
‘Pee Wee’s band is called The Pee Wee Ellis Assembly and that’s because he assembles people where ever he goes. He basically had two bands’ worth of music and that’s what we wanted to reflect. You know at the end of a gig people always say ‘Well, is this band on the record?’ and half the time they weren’t so we tried to incorporate most of the guys who play with Pee Wee most of the time so that somebody would always be on the record.
You’re coming to the Cork Jazz Festival, you’re playing on October 29th in The Savoy Theatre with Ty, (UK Hip hop artist ), you’ve played with him before?
Yeah, Ty joins me on one of my projects, ‘Still Black, Still Proud – An African Tribute to James Brown’. We tour that project in Europe and in America and Ty has played with me and he’s very very very exciting. I like working with him!
I actually saw Ty last year as part of Arthur’s Day in the Village, in Dublin with Example and Tinie Tempah. I was really impressed.
He’s fantastic, so that’s why he’s going to be with me.
Pee Wee Ellis and His Funk Assembly play with Grandmaster Flash in The Savoy Theatre at the Cork Jazz Festival on October 29. Tickets are available from Ticketmaster.