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Pee Wee Ellis, ‘the Man Who Invented Funk,’ on His Dreams of Playing Jazz for a Living

If James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis was his consigliere. Pee Wee joined the James Brown Revue in 1965, became bandleader within six months, and soon began writing with James Brown. He co-authored “Cold Sweat,” which is widely considered the first funk hit, in 1967. It was followed by many others — including “Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud,” “Mother Popcorn,” “Lickin' Stick,” and “The Chicken” — and Pee Wee Ellis soon became known as “the Man Who Invented Funk.” In recent years he has turned his creative attention to other styles, including world music and jazz. In 2008, he created a tour called Still Black, Still Proud, a tribute to James Brown featuring contemporary stars from Africa. (I’m currently producing a documentary film that features Pee Wee and fellow JB bandleader Fred Wesley on a road trip across Africa, unearthing and rerecording the original stars and songs of the continent’s vast body of independence music.) Starting today, Pee Wee celebrates his 69th birthday with a residency at the Iridium. He has assembled a quartet of jazz legends — including Ron Carter (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums), and Mulgrew Miller (piano) — and promises to cover the full spectrum of his long and varied career.

Tell us about the birthday gig.
This band is very special to me. I played with Ron Carter about 30 years ago … was it 30 years ago? No, 50! 1957, that was the last time I played with Ron. He sent me a song that we’re gonna do. We’re going to be playing other people’s music and some of my new material, some of my old material, a couple of songs from my latest CD, and some old standards and old favorites.

Will other luminaries be dropping by to sit in?
Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, you know New York, cats tend to show up unexpectedly, and they’re all welcome of course.

You’ve said that you joined the James Brown Revue in order to earn enough money to play jazz, but that you didn’t expect it to take this long. Did you move straight to a solo career in jazz when you left?
Well, jazz wasn’t paying all that much money, and it was hard to afford to play jazz. It still is!

Do you sometimes feel like you’ve been typecast as “the man who invented funk”?
Well I don’t mind it, since it wasn’t me by myself that invented it — James Brown had something to do with it. [Laughs.] But I did bring some jazz influence to his projects and that had something to do with the transformation from R&B.

So why did you decide to leave the James Brown Revue when you did?
I was kind of tired of that at that time. It was a full-time job. I wanted to do other things, and I couldn’t do them when I was working with James Brown. I mean, I enjoyed working with James Brown; it was a learning experience, but it had run its course. After four years, it was like being in the Army. And I was the bandleader, so the band would come to me with issues about James Brown and James Brown would come to me with his issues with the band. I was the mediator.

Did that band have more issues than other bands?
Sure did!

What kinds of issues?
Some of that stuff gets pretty personal. Let’s go to something else. But it was mostly about money.

You wrote the music to “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and James Brown wrote the lyrics. Did you have any idea what he was going to write?
No, I had no idea what he was going to write. It was a surprise to me. It was in the studio when I first found out what that was all about. But my biggest memory of that is the first time we played it live, in New York at the Apollo, shortly after we had recorded it. Didn’t seem like there would have been enough time for people to have heard it, but when James Brown said, “Say it loud!” and the whole theater said, “I’m black and I’m proud!” it sent chills up my spine. It was amazing. It was like an anthem.

Do you think that popular music has lost the ability to be such a galvanizing force?
Yeah, I think so. But I also think the rap movement has taken it in a different direction. The gangsta rap, I don’t appreciate that. But a lot of hip-hop is very influential in a positive way, and I think that’s good. I’m glad that the younger generation has that to use and has taken the music forward.

So, how did you get the nickname Pee Wee?
When I was growing up in Texas, I was always the smallest guy, and I was hanging out with the older guys playing music. I was a skinny little kid. That was a long time ago [laughs]. But it stuck. The first time I auditioned for James Brown, I went up to him and said, “Hey, I’m Pee Wee.“ But he didn’t like to call me Pee Wee, he called me Alfred. Him and my mother.

Photo: Samir Hussein/Getty Images