'Pee Wee' Ellis leads 'Still Black, Still Proud' James Brown tribute

Alfred 'Pee Wee' Ellis
A student of saxophonist Sonny Rollins, Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis fused complicated harmonies and chord changes with rhythm and blues to create funk, an earthy and catchy music rooted in jazz but not restrained by it.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

At the height of the civil rights movement, black Americans listened with pride to the Godfather of Soul, whose songs and beats were an essential part of a new cultural soundtrack.

With funky beats and songs of joy and pain, James Brown struck a chord. Who can forget "Say It Loud," an affirmation of blackness - and a call for fairness: "Brother we can't quit, until we get our share."

When Brown died in 2006, many remembered him as the soul music icon who voiced the frustration and pride of black America. But his reach also extended to Africa, where he inspired generations of musicians. Some of that continent's biggest names will be among those performing in "Still Black, Still Proud," a tribute to Brown at the Ordway Theater Tuesday night in St. Paul.

Motown may have provided the beats and style that made African-American music appealing to wider audiences. But in Brown, audiences found raw and unapologetic expression.

"He was blatant with it," said saxophonist Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis, who became the band's musical director in the late 60s. "He did not apologize for nothing. He wasn't trying to be nothing. He was trying to be as forceful, and as animated, as in your face as possible."

Though he was influenced by Ray Charles and Little Richard, Brown earned his own reputation as the consummate showman who knew how to use his moves, and emotion to connect with audiences. He first drew wide notice as a member of the Famous Flames in the mid-1950s with "Please, Please, Please." A few years later, his own group found success with "Try Me."

But Brown was relegated to the soul music charts until the mid-1960s, when radio stations nationwide began playing his music. That helps explain why he earned a reputation as the hardest working man in show business - and as a demanding taskmaster.

"He did it so hard because he knew he had to work twice as hard as the white man for instance to get half as far," Ellis said. When the door finally opened, Brown of course put his feelings on vinyl.

"He wrote this song that goes, 'I don't want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door, I'll get it myself,'" Ellis recalled. "That song was about that."

James Brown
The late James Brown performs at the 2004 Glastonbury Festival in England.
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

It's no wonder the soul singer's music also made him a hit in Africa, where millions of people heard his voice speak to their fight for human dignity. That was particularly true in South Africa, where the nation's black majority suffered under Apartheid, the oppressive policies of the ruling white elite.

In the early 1970s, a young Vusi Mahlasela, heard Brown's music at his grandmother's speakeasy. Now one of South Africa's most powerful and poetic voices, Mahlasela recalls that in the soul singer's songs South Africans heard a range of emotions and messages that applied to their own reality.

"It was related to what was really going on with us during the time when it was really difficult from Apartheid," Mahlasela said. "James Brown was like a part of us and then really gave us some more. We used to go on to fight on in the struggle by listening to those songs."

The fact that the United States at that time was not a party to the cultural boycott of South Africa only served to amplify James Brown's influence in South Africa. Mahlasela said Brown's dynamic stage presence and confidence only made him a bigger star.

"That was the time of the black consciousness as well in South Africa, the Steven Biko time," Mahlasela said. "So with James Brown and Steve Biko it was like that same change whereby it motivated us to be really looking much more to be proud of what we are and then giving us more wings to fight on to remove that evil monster of Apartheid in South Africa."

Aware of his influence, Brown sought to infuse his music with socially conscious messages, including appeals to hard work and education. But he also wanted his music to be accessible and interesting and he turned to accomplished musicians who brought a jazz sensibility to the band.

That was especially true in the mid-1960s, when Ellis joined the band. A student of saxophonist Sonny Rollins, Ellis fused complicated harmonies and chord changes with rhythm and blues. The result was funk, an earthy and catchy music that was rooted in jazz but not restrained by it. Ellis was influenced by jazz tunes, as he was when married the horn line to Miles Davis's tune "So What" to the James Brown hit "Cold Sweat."

The music allowed Brown to improvise on the dance floor, where he directed the band with his moves, and sometimes guided musicians through their solos.

"The basic heartbeat of the rhythm was intentional," Ellis said. "James took that and gave his gospel, R&B influence on it. And he added some splits and twirls and twists and shouts and so forth. He was energetic. He was so visual."

Ellis concedes it's not possible to be a James Brown band without the famous singer. "It's almost like a motor boat without a rudder," he said.

But he said "Still Black, Still Proud" will show how African musicians sought to emulate the iconic singer without imitating him as the continent's musicians seem to understand Brown in a way that others perhaps don't.

Besides Mahlasela, the concert will feature vocals by Sengalese performer Cheikh Lo and the band's regular vocalist, Fred Ross.

Mahlasela said he and Lo also will perform African music that celebrates the concept of ubuntu, a celebration of humanity, community, kindness and love. It's a philosophy he thinks Brown embodied.

"The music flowed in his veins," Mahlasela said. "This is what we have at home. That was something that was natural to us. We could feel that with James, that the music was never pushed."