Annenberg ‘Roots’ series pays tribute to James Brown

November 15, 2011

Pee Wee Ellis, along with Maceo Parker, Vusi Mahlasela and Cheikh Lo, will perform a tribute to James Brown at the Annenberg Center. — SUBMITTED PHOTO

Pee Wee Ellis, along with Maceo Parker, Vusi Mahlasela and Cheikh Lo, will perform a tribute to James Brown at the Annenberg Center. — SUBMITTED PHOTO

Written by for the Philadelphia Tribune

On Sunday, Nov. 20, the legendary Pee Wee Ellis and an ensemble of international music greats will kick of the 11/12 Annenberg Center African Roots series with “Still Black, Still Proud: An African Tribute to James Brown.”

Joining Ellis on stage to celebrate the points at which African and American music strike sparks off each other in a rhythm-fueled tribute to Afro-funk, will be Maceo Parker, Vusi Mahlasela and Cheikh Lo.

Known as “The Man Who Invented Funk,” Ellis first joined forced with James Brown in 1965, and has been touring with this tribute show since 2008, playing to sold-out audiences around the globe. Says Ellis of the show, “Since the beat came from Africa, we wanted to bring it back by way of combing funk with some African rhythms.”

And the audience keeps coming back to see the show, he adds, “because of the fact that it is a tribute to James Brown, an incredible artist. And they keep coming to see us play this tribute to the ‘Godfather of Soul.’ because it’s obvious we love what we’re doing.”

Ellis explains that he doesn’t do this tribute show constantly, but rather goes on small tours when he can. “We do about ten shows a year. This is a big project to put together and lots of details to sort out to make it all work. But being on stage with all these good people and seeing the appreciation on the faces of the audiences makes it a real blessing to be able to do it.”

As a young boy, Ellis began studying the piano in his hometown of Bradenton, Fla. After the family moved to Lubbock, Texas, he started playing clarinet and saxophone in junior high. By the time the family moved again, this time to Rochester, N.Y., Ellis was already a skilled musician.

“I first began playing music as a fun thing to do, something I just enjoyed doing. I also found out it was fascinating because the more you got into it, the more you wanted to put into it, and then, of course, the more you put in, the more you got out. When I finally realized you could make money doing it, I thought this might be a great way to make a living.”

Not only was Ellis able to make a living, but he was fortunate enough to join the James Brown band. “I joined the band after a friend of mine who was in the band called to say James needed a saxophone player. He asked me if I need a job and if I was interested,” Ellis remembers. “At the time, I barely knew who James Brown was, but I said sure. I thought I might be able to earn enough money to finally afford to play jazz.”

And so, joining the James Brown Revue, Ellis became an extremely important asset, beginning to arrange music with Brown almost immediately, becoming band leader within six months. He was soon co-writing with Brown, penning his first hit, “Cold Sweat,” in 1967, defining what we think of as Funk to this day, and followed by many other hits, including “Say It Loud,” “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Mother Popcorn,” “Lickin’ Stick” and others.

“James Brown had a lot to do with making these songs hits,” Ellis says. “As for me, I just wrote the songs. It’s always the guys in the band who make the music.”

But soon, Ellis longed to grow beyond the confines of James Brown and left the revue in 1969 to work as an arranger and musical director for CTI-Kudu records. He later wrote arrangements for Van Morrison and became Van’s musical director for a few years. He also worked with others to produce several albums and go on tour.

In fact, he says, “Even today I tour quite a bit. I have several bands of my own, like the Pee Wee Ellis Assembly, a combination of funk and jazz. I also have a jazz quartet, which is bebop. I very much like playing with other people’s bands, and I like being a guest artist. I also like recording. And when I’m not busy doing all that, I teach. So, as you can see, I’m quite busy.”

For times and ticket information, call (215) 898-3900.