Pee Wee Ellis interview for FUNK: A Music Revolution
American saxophonist Alfred ‘Pee Wee’ Ellis, erstwhile bandleader for soul legend James Brown, is bringing a new show to Brighton Dome this February. Joined by singer China Moses, FUNK: A Music Revolution tells funk’s story through a legacy of disco, Afrobeat and hip hop. Rapper Lady Sanity, and saxophonist Camilla George are among the youngest performers on the lineup.
Pee Wee, born in 1941, started out as a young jazz musician across the water. Attending Manhattan School of Music, he had the great fortune of being taught saxophone by the colossus himself, Sonny Rollins. Tell me about that? “It was life-changing. I would go to lessons with him every morning.” Rollins was a stickler for practice and craft, getting the basics down, and Pee Wee put in the hours. He remembers the exact moment it all came together: “New York City, Riverside Drive, 152nd street. I practiced in a band shell near the Hudson River, a kind of layby. It’s a public space but it was also my personal space.” One afternoon “it all meshed into one motion. I left my body and watched myself play.”
Did anyone stop to listen? I am thinking of virtuoso buskers in the street. “Have you been to New York?” he laughs incredulously, “people are not in awe, they just walk round you.” His sentences are short, well earned, he digs into memories as we speak, finding them like loose change.
When he talks about the process of writing music he describes it as an act of allowing, not trying to control where the music is taking him, “that’s the liberating part of playing” he says. His stint with the James Brown Revue in the late 60s made funk happen. Lending his jazz sensibilities to Brown’s vocal swagger as bandleader.
Co-writing the hits Cold Sweat and Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud, how does he compose music, the saxophone can be quite poetic? “It’s very similar to the human voice. A lot of it comes from walking pace, I remember vividly, the rhythm”. I heard he composed Say it Loud in a ‘flash of genius at 3am’ what does that look like, is it phrasing or a feeling? “It’s divine intervention!” he laughs.
That may well be the case. Written in 1968 at a flashpoint in American history, recorded just four months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the song became an unofficial anthem for the Black Power movement. When Pee Wee talks about funk’s influence on popular culture, there is no greater example than this. Public Enemy’s Chuck D has praised the record for convincing him to “identify as black instead of negro” and showing him that black identity is something to celebrate not apologise for.
What are you most proud of? “I’m not done! The best is yet to come.” His backlist of collaborations is impressive enough – Van Morrison, Ginger Baker, George Benson “a friend and neighbour in the Bronx.”
What was it like to work with Van the Man? A lot of laughter, he coughs to clear a thought “Which day would you like me to go through? One Wednesday, we’d go into his studio – he has an idea and asks me to put the rhythm section. Horns, vocals, background vocals, he left all the music for me to finish, he trusted me to do that and I appreciated that.”
And Mr Brown? “They were both very demanding artists because they want things to be how they wanted it to be. I’m easy.”