Pee Wee Ellis performing with James Brown. (Source Unknown)
On the tour bus the next day, Ellis built a song around Brown's bass lick, the horn section inspired by Miles Davis's So What but stripped of melodic flourishes in accordance with Brown's directive that his band should 'play every instrument like it's a drum'. Ellis took the band to the studio, taught them their parts and awaited Brown's arrival.
After leaving Brown in 1969 Ellis joined Kudu, a CTI Records imprint, where he worked as an arranger for artists including George Benson and Esther Phillips. In 1972 he and his band recorded an album - Pass The Butter - on Motown's Natural Resources label, under the name Gotham. His first solo album, Home In The Country, was released in the mid-1970s and his solo career, which has spanned jazz, funk and gospel, continues to this day with a new album due in March 2011.
I met up with Pee Wee ahead of a gig at Ronnie Scott's, the legendary Soho jazz club. Sipping tall orange juices and surrounded by the swirling jazz soundtrack in the bar, we spoke for an hour and a half about his lengthy career. Although reticent at first, Pee Wee was soon laughing and joking about the glory days in Brown's band as we recalled excerpts from Fred Wesley's hilarious memoir, Hit Me Fred: Confessions of a Sideman.
During our interview we also spoke about Pee Wee's life and career both before and after his stint in the James Brown band; how he wound up studying under Sonny Rollins, the culture shock of being given so much creative freedom at Kudu, why he decided to flee New York when the city went up in smoke during riots over racism and police brutality, and how he fell in love with a fan at London's Jazz Café and left America to live in the British countryside.
Pee Wee was both a witness to and an important part of arguably the most important musical shift of the 20th century, rivalled only by the invention of rock & roll. It was a pleasure and a privilege to spend an evening chatting and laughing with Pee Wee after enjoying his music for so many years and a unique experience to have him transport me back to the era, sharing his first hand recollections of life on the road and in the studio with James Brown. A book from Pee Wee is long overdue but he tells me he's quietly writing his life story with a view to publishing it at some point. In the meantime, I look forward to sharing with you the recollections that Pee Wee shared with me.
My exclusive interview with Pee Wee Ellis will be published in the coming months.