In the summer of 1968, when black America was set ablaze following the assassination of Martin Luther King, singer James Brown summoned his musical director, saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis. Together they created a song called Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).
As usual, the burden of the task of composing music had fallen on Ellis’ shoulders. When they came to record the song at a Los Angeles studio in August, he recruited 30 students from a school in Watts to shout the chorus. Within weeks, Brown’s audiences in the United States had found a new anthem.
“Say it out loud!” He cried. “I am black and I am proud! they responded.
Ellis, who died at the age of 80, was able to take the snippets of inspiration distributed by Brown and turn them into finished works that would change the way popular music was created, heard and used. A year earlier, after a performance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Brown had called Ellis into his dressing room, growled a rhythmic bassline, and told him to make a song out of it. That night, traveling on the band’s bus for their next gig, Ellis played with Brown’s idea and mixed it with his memories of Miles Davis’ So What, a 1959 modal jazz classic.
Soon he had a song called Cold Sweat, which they worked on this afternoon in the studio of a Cincinnati radio station, with Brown adding lyrical and rhythmic refinements to Ellis’ simplified harmonic scheme.
Released a month later as a six-minute single spread across both sides of a 45rpm record, and immediately notable for shouting exhortations from singer to drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, and tenor saxophonist, Maceo Parker. , it represented nothing less than the birth of the idiom that became known as funk, which in turn spawned disco, go-go music, and many subsequent variations.
Ellis left Brown in 1969, after four years in which he grew weary of the conductor’s peremptory behavior, including his insistence on fining musicians for minor on-stage infractions like missed tail or shoes. unpolished. He returned to jazz, his first love, becoming a respected arranger and conductor.
In 1979 he started a long association with Van Morrison. Playing first on an album titled Into the Music, then on a dozen others over the next two decades, he toured frequently with the Belfast-born singer.
In London he met an Englishwoman, Charlotte Crofton-Sleigh, with whom he moved permanently to Frome, Somerset, in 1992. He became an admired member of the community, finding room in his tour schedule for many. performances at local events, often supporting charities. He and Charlotte got married in 1994.
Alfred Ellis was born in Bradenton, Florida to student Elizabeth Bryant. His father, Garfield Rogers Jr, was a classmate and the son of a local minister. Elizabeth dropped out of college, raised her son on her own, and did the laundry to make ends meet, until, when the child was eight, she met and married Ezell Ellis, a former soldier turned promoter. of music. He moved the family to Lubbock, Texas, where the boy – nicknamed Pee Wee because of his short stature – began clarinet and saxophone lessons in college.
He grew closer to his adoptive father, “a happy man with a big heart,” but in 1955 Ezell was stabbed in one of his clubs by a white man who took offense at his attempt to help a woman. drunk white woman leaving the dance floor. Refused to be treated in a hospital reserved for whites, he died while lying on a cart. The killer has never been identified.
His mother moved her son and two younger sisters out of the isolated Southwest and to Rochester, New York.
Ellis started playing at local clubs, where he met students from the Eastman School of Music, including trumpeter Waymon Reed. Now he was growing into an imposing adult. “I was a skinny little boy,” he once said. “Looking at me now, you wouldn’t think I was ever little. “
He accepted a tenor saxophone job in a traveling circus, but he concentrated on jazz. While in Chicago, he pledged a ring to buy a ticket to see John Coltrane play at a local club. In an instrument store in New York, he approached Sonny Rollins, who agreed to teach him.
One day in 1965, Reed, who had joined Brown’s band, called Ellis from Washington to tell him that a saxophone chair was vacant. “My idea was to play with James Brown to earn enough money to play jazz,” Ellis told an interviewer. Over the next four years he helped Brown revolutionize popular music before handing over the role of music director to trombonist Fred Wesley.
In New York, he became a house arranger for the Kudu label, working with singer Esther Phillips and saxophonist Hank Crawford, before moving to San Francisco and forming a band with fellow saxophonist Dave Liebman.
Following a call from trumpeter Mark Isham, he left his mark in Van Morrison’s world through memorable solos in songs such as Haunts of Ancient Peace (from the Common One album) and a version of Tupelo Honey filmed in the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1980.
Ellis, who played soprano, alto and baritone saxophones as well as tenor, went on to lead his own group, the Pee Wee Ellis Assembly, appeared alongside former colleagues Wesley and Parker in the JB Horns and JB All Stars, taught a workshop called Funk 101 at the Bristol Jazz Festival, and performed with musicians from Africa, including Ali Farka Touré and Oumou Sangaré, and from the UK, from Ginger Baker to Clare Teal.
When an interviewer pointed out that in Brown, Morrison and Baker he seemed to have gotten into the habit of working for notoriously unstable employers, he replied, “And don’t forget Esther Phillips.” He was, he observed, “a good mediator”.
In 2018, he returned to the Apollo for a concert to mark the 50th anniversary of Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud). Two years later, as the Black Lives Matter movement grew in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the song has become an anthem for a new generation.
He is survived by Charlotte, who was also his manager after moving to Britain. His first wife was Barbara Tringali, whom he married in the 1960s; they later divorced. A son from this marriage, Alfred Jr, died in 2019.