His death was announced Friday on Ellis’ Facebook page. “With great sadness we have to announce that Pee Wee passed away last night following complications with his heart,” read the statement. “We are working on plans to celebrate his wonderful life and hope you will all take time to listen to his music and continue his legacy.”
Throughout his career, Ellis worked with and played on records by everyone from George Benson and Parliament to Marianne Faithfull and Ali Farka Touré.
“A silent genius and brilliant arrangements,” Bootsy Collins wrote on Twitter after Ellis’ passing. “We just lost another bandmate & legend.”
Born in Florida in 1941, Ellis’ life was forever changed in 1957 after a chance encounter with Sonny Rollins in New York City. “I was walking down Broadway in NYC and had my saxophone fresh out the repair shop,” Ellis recalled years later. “There was someone walking toward me with a saxophone that turned out to be Sonny Rollins on his way to a practice room on 48th street. I asked him if he’d give me a lesson, being young and cheeky, he said yes.”
Although Ellis was trained and steeped in jazz tradition, the saxophonist made an enormous impact on the worlds of R&B, rock, and soul with his work with Brown and Morrison. Within months of joining James Brown’s Revue in 1965, Ellis had become Brown’s bandleader, and would go on to earn a co-writing credit on several of Brown’s signature songs: “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
“James Brown called me into his dressing room one night after a concert in New York and said he had an idea for a song,” Ellis said of the former song in 2017. “And he quoted some rhythm. And then I got on the bus and wrote ‘Cold Sweat.’ I was young and enthusiastic and fearless.”
By 1969, Ellis had quit working for Brown, returning to his first love, jazz, for the majority of the Seventies. In 1979, Ellis joined the sessions for Van Morrison’s 1979 album Into the Music. Morrison would end up becoming perhaps one of Ellis’ most enduring collaborators; Ellis was an integral part of Morrison’s musical vision for the next 20 years. He was featured prominently on Morrison’s 1980 15-minute epic “Summertime in England” (“that’s some of my highly regarded work,” Ellis later said) and played on Morrison’s well-regarded Nineties records like Days Like This and The Healing Game. As was the case with Brown, Morrison ended up relying on Ellis for much more than his mere saxophone.
“One Wednesday, we’d go into his studio — he has an idea and asks me to put the rhythm section,” Ellis said of Morrison. “Horns, vocals, background vocals, he left all the music for me to finish, he trusted me to do that and I appreciated that.”
Although Ellis stopped performing with Morrison in the 21st century, the two remained friendly. In 2018, Ellis spent his 78th birthday seeing at a Morrison concert. “Van was in good form and promised to call me next time he was in my neck of the woods,” Ellis wrote after the show.
Ellis had a simple answer when, in 2020, he was asked what it was like to work with singers who were as famously difficult as Brown and Morrison. “They were both very demanding artists because they want things to be how they wanted it to be,” Ellis said. “I’m easy.”