In this tribute, Denny Ilett (*) remembers his close colleague and friend Pee Wee Ellis, who passed away on 23 September 2021 at the age of 80.
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Alfred ‘Pee Wee’ Ellis has rightfully received a truly global outpouring of love and respect since his sad passing on September 23rd, with most tributes highlighting his pioneering work with James Brown that led to the moniker ‘the Inventor of Funk’ alongside his many years as musical director for Van Morrison. His composition, The Chicken (actually called Chicken Soup), is played by professional and amateur bands daily throughout the world and the magical trio of Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis is regularly called the greatest ever funk horn section.
If you worked for him, as I did over a period of about 15 years, you didn’t hear about this stuff. Sometimes you had to remind yourself just what a giant you were with on stage with because Pee Wee was a genuinely modest and humble man. A man of few words but a thousand thoughts. When he spoke, you listened because in that sentence or two you knew you were going to learn something. Being in his band was like being at school with Mr Ellis as headteacher. He never gave out much instruction apart from the tempo. He just played and we learned the way a little row of ducklings learn by simply following their mother. Sometimes he would come over to the rhythm section and play something to you he’d prefer to hear. “Keep it simple!” was his entire musical philosophy.
Once, on stage in Spain, I was happily comping away behind a Gareth Williams keyboard solo when he sauntered over to me, leant toward my ear and said “play something else!!” Don’t get me wrong, it was said with love and we belly-laughed about it later but, as he explained, funk only works when each component is a) simple and b) different to everything else going on.
He loved to laugh!! Yes, he was quiet and spoke little but he loved to hang around with the guys backstage or back at the hotel after hours and, when someone said something funny, he would explode into laughter and, for a moment, you would see the little kid that dwelled just under the surface. His one-liners were all gems and incredibly funny, although I can’t repeat most of them here but once, at a festival in Europe where he was booked as a soloist, I found him backstage to say hello and asked him what the band was like that they’d put him with. He looked at me with a withered expression and said “Well, I gotta get paid!” before bursting into laughter.
On the band bus he would always sit alone, at the front, and let the road lines hypnotise him whether the trip was ten minutes from hotel to gig or ten hours from Hamburg to Vienna. I often wondered what he thought about during those times and built up a picture of the man and his extraordinary life that was mine alone. I’m sure every musician that spent road time with him has their own ‘version’ of Pee Wee and, although all different, they’d all be true. As I said, he spoke little especially about his achievements and his past. Yes, he was humble and never felt he had to prove anything to anybody but I also wondered if it was sometimes painful for him to talk about certain things. Pee Wee was a very emotional man, you can hear that in his playing, and I regularly saw his eyes tear up when a memory came to him or if he heard some music that touched him.
As for his music there was never a night when he didn’t play something that went straight through you and buried itself in your heart and stomach. In every note he played you heard the entire lineage and history of the saxophone simply because he was an integral part of that history. Some of my most cherished memories of Pee Wee’s musicality come from those times when he found himself able to play straight-ahead jazz and ballads. I was honoured to write some big band charts for him and Fred Wesley for a show called ‘Back to Jazz’ where they selected tunes from their youth that had inspired them. Among Pee Wee’s choices was Nat Cole’s Mona Lisa. The way he played it sounded as though his saxophone was crying, it was stunning. Around the time I met Pee Wee I was working with the great New Orleans vocalist Lillian Boutté. I knew I had to get them together and Pee Wee came to a show we were doing at Ronnie Scott’s and sat in for the whole set! It was the first time I heard him play a slow blues and I’ll never forget how great that man could play the blues! By the time they’d finished Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans the whole place was in tears, including the band! That’s when I learned that Pee Wee was so much more that the funk pioneer he’s rightly famous for. He never played to impress; only to amplify his soul for that moment. And, when he did, he handed his music over like a gift and so many of us accepted it and will cherish it forever.
He was a very generous man with his time and energy. I invited him to be an honorary patron/artist-in-residence for Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival and he was proud to fulfil that role. He would come for the whole weekend, catch a little of every band that played and was always at the jam session every night. He had his own shows to do but would always want us to include a workshop in the programme that he took on happily. He loved to be around young musicians. He also loved to be around fellow titans. Whoever we brought to the festival be it Arturo Sandoval, Dr John, Bobby Shew, Maceo Parker or John Scofield I’d always find him hanging out with them. “Pee Wee, you know EVERYONE” I would say and he would look at me and say “You idiot, they’re my friends!”
In 2019 Pee Wee invited me to accompany him to Ronnie Scott’s to see George Benson. Between shows he said “Come on, let’s go say hello to George.” I followed him nervously into the little backroom and, as we entered, George’s face lit up and he stood and threw his arms around Pee Wee before turning to me and saying “That man is THE man!”
During the show George dedicated a song to Glenn Campbell who’d just passed before playing a beautiful instrumental rendition of Wichita Lineman. I looked over at Pee Wee and noticed he was crying. That really struck me because George had been flying all over the guitar up to that point and here he was playing a simple straight melody and THAT was the bit that got Pee Wee!
Since his passing I’ve thought a lot about all the musicians across the globe that have met and formed professional and personal relationships as a result of being around Pee Wee Ellis. I am grateful that Laurence Cottle, Gareth Williams, China Moses, Ian Shaw and so many others are in my life because of him and I know everyone will tell a similar story. This part of Pee Wee’s legacy, for me, is just as important as the moment when he turned So What into Cold Sweat.
(*) Denny Ilett is a Bristol-based guitarist and bandleader, and Artistic Director of the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival
Alfred James ‘Pee Wee’ Ellis. Born Bradenton Florida 21 April 1941, died Somerset 23 September 2021