Pee Wee Ellis was born to play music. He began studying piano as a young boy in Bradenton, Florida and after a family move to Lubbock, Texas he started playing clarinet and sax in Junior High, under Band Director Roy Roberts. He showed exceptional aptitude and was already a skilled musician when his family moved to Rochester, New York in 1955, after the tragic racial murder of his stepfather, Ezell Ellis.
Pee Wee began performing to the public very early: at 11 he sat in on piano with the bands his stepfather booked for the local dance hall in Lubbock; and by 13 he was playing saxophone with Dunbar High School Jazz Combo in local towns like Amarillo and also performing on clarinet with the high school marching band in State competitions. But it was in Rochester that he began gigging in earnest at the renowned Pythodd, in a scene that included Ron Carter, Chuck Mangione and Roy McCurdy. In the summer of 1957 he studied with Sonny Rollins in New York, flying down to the city for his weekly Wednesday lesson!
Pee Wee joined the James Brown Revue in 1965 and began arranging with James Brown almost right away, becoming band leader within six months. He soon began co-writing with the Godfather of Soul and Funk’s first hit Cold Sweat, was co-written with James Brown in 1967. This defines what we think of as Funk to this day and was followed by many other songs (26), including Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud, Mother Popcorn, Lickin' Stick and The Chicken (later made famous by Jaco Pastorius). Thus, Pee Wee Ellis has been called ' The Man Who Invented Funk'. Using his jazz influences, he distilled R&B and wrote complex, polyrhythmic arrangements that created a dialogue with Mr. Brown's singing rather than simply being a backing track. Pee Wee’s effect on music was huge, leading directly to George Clinton, Sly Stone and, in a circular twist, Miles Davis’ 70’s work.
Pee Wee yearned to grow beyond the confines of James Brown and left the revue in 1969 to work as arranger and musical director for CTI-Kudu records, the most popular jazz label of the 70’s. He was MD and Arranger for Esther Phillips and worked with other CTI artists George Benson, Hank Crawford, Johnny Hammond, Sonny Stitt and Brother Jack McDuff.
In 1979 Van Morrison asked Pee Wee to write arrangements for his Into The Music album, leading to Pee Wee becoming Van’s musical director for the next few years. Pee Wee collaborated on several of Van’s finest albums including Common One, Beautiful Vision and A Sense Of Wonder, and also led a fine stage band which produced some of Van’s greatest live performances. He stopped working with Van around 1987 but in 1992, coinciding with a new surge in popularity for Van, Pee Wee returned as horn arranger for the critically and commercially acclaimed cd's Days Like This, How Long Has This Been Going On? and Back On Top.
In between his work with Van Morrison, Pee Wee reunited with Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker and they made several albums and toured extensively as both The JB Horns and Maceo Parker's Roots Revisited project.
Throughout the 1990’s, whilst continuing to tour, Pee Wee released several solo albums on Minor Music that truly illustrate the depth of his music. The first of these cd's Twelve and More Blues (a jazz trio album) was chosen by the New York Times as one of the 10 Best Jazz Albums of 1993.
Since the Millennium, Pee Wee has released Live ‘n Funky, a brilliant live set, recorded in New York; Ridin’ Mighty High, a gospel album that has been his biggest hit yet, and his last project for Skip records Different Rooms, a new genre for the new millennium: smooth funk, nicknamed ‘SMUNK’.
In 2005 he visited Japan with the Cuban pianist Omar Sosa to great acclaim and in 2006 they performed together again in South Africa followed by a sell-out week at Yoshi's in Oakland. More recently he has performed with, and arranged for, the Miami-based Spam All Stars with whom he also performs live.
Pee Wee and his own band, The Pee Wee Ellis Assembly, regularly tours the UK and Europe. He also continues to work in the education field and, as always, produces and arranges.
They call him "the man who invented the FUNK". Only 11 years old, he was already sitting at the piano for some of the bands, his father had booked for a dancehall in Luddock. Some years later he enjoyed lessons with the legendary Sonny Rollings, for which he traveled week by wekk to New York an back home. 1965 he joined the JAME BROWN REVUE! He became the musical director in six month and so became co-writer of some of the biggest hits of the Godfather of Soul, like the seminal "Cold Sweat" in 1967, followed by 26 other tunes, above others such classics like „Say It Loud, I´m Black and I´m Proud“,„Mother Popcorn“,„Lickin‘ Stick“ and „The Chicken“!
His influence as a jazzinfluenced R&B-Songwriter was unexpected but is obvious on people like Geroge Clinton, Sly Stone even Miles Davis.
In the 70´s Pee Wee Ellis moved on to work for the famous NYC Jazzimprint CTI KUDU REC. to work with artists like Esther Phillips, George Benson, Hank Crawford, Johnny Hammond, Sonny Stitt and Brother Jack McDuff.
So Pee Wee Ellis became a sought after saxophonist, arranger and composer in the musicgame and succesfull musicians like Rod Stewart, Chris Isaak worked with his warm an mellow tone, as well as Tom Jones, Van Morrison or his old time colleagues from teh J.B.Horns: Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley.