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Dave Liebman Remembers Pee Wee Ellis

The multi-instrumentalist pays tribute to the saxophonist and arranger (4/21/41 – 9/23/21)

Dave Liebman and Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis
Dave Liebman (L) and Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis (photo courtesy of Dave Liebman)

We got to know each other in the early ’70s. We met at this club called Rapson’s in Port Chester, New York, right over the border with Connecticut; it was well-known to Connecticut people because you could drink there [if you were under 21]. He came and sat in with my band. I don’t remember exactly how it all went, but certainly it was great to have somebody play like that. I was familiar with his work [directing James Brown’s band] only up to a certain, very small degree. Those worlds [of R&B and jazz] didn’t come together so much then, it was still quite compartmentalized. But we liked each other. I said, “We’re going to have a band someday, I’ll tell you right now.” And before long we did; it was called the Ellis-Liebman Band, A&M Records was serious about us for 10 seconds or so, and we went to the West Coast to put it all together. You can hear that band on my [1977] record Light’n Up, Please!—it’s probably going for about $100 a copy now, which it’s not worth [laughs]. While we were doing that, I got to live with Pee Wee and his family in Mill Valley.

Pee Wee’s personality was just beautiful. He was very humorous, very relaxed. He had a way of eating chicken bones that impressed me very much. He would suck out anything live or even appearing to be live—sounds disgusting, but it actually was amazing—and he’d still be sitting there working at it an hour after everybody else had split from the table. Fish bones too. I don’t know where he learned it. Very thorough and methodical. And his writing, especially his big-band stuff, had that same kind of mentality.

Musically, what made Pee Wee interesting was that he was a triple threat. First, he could write, and he could write fast. There were nights when it’d be two in the morning and he’d be finishing up a tune for Esther Phillips—he did a lot of work with her—and I’d say, “Why don’t you do the chart now and then get some sleep?” and he’d say, “No, no, I got time.” Which meant he had four hours. He played very close to the vest when he wrote.

Second thing, he was of course extremely blues-oriented. Whether he played left or right, up or down, pickled herring or anything, it came out funky and soulful. And the third thing is, he was a very good jazz player. We didn’t play much jazz, but when we would open it up a bit, he was impressive.

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We were planning to do a tour together next summer. So that’s something we missed. But he was a great cat and I learned a lot from him.

[as told to Mac Randall]

Pee Wee Ellis 1941-1921