When Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis signed on to the Godfather of Soul's band in the mid-1960s, he couldn't help overlaying his background in jazz on funkmeister Brown's signature, but evolving sound.
"I tried to bring a little culture, an advancement to the music, some sophistication and class," says Ellis, 70, who's performed with jazz greats ranging from Sonny Rollins to Hank Crawford. "Bebop was my first love ... I had little more musical knowledge than James Brown did, and he allowed me to use that and gave me a free hand in his band."
So "Cold Sweat," the James Brown hit that Ellis co-wrote, was inspired by Miles Davis' "So What." Play them back to back and hear the parallels.
What many longtime and new devotees of James Brown sometimes miss, however, is some of the nuance and texture of the James Brown Revue's music, says saxophonist, arranger and composer Ellis, Brown's bandleader between 1965 and 1969. "There's a lot to it. It isn't all salty and raunchy. It has layers ... It's important not to think of this music as something you can fluff off. It's very important music and shouldn't be taken lightly."
Its continued resonance prompted him in 2008 to launch "Still Black, Still Proud: An African Tribute to James Brown," whose tour stops tonight at Memorial Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill.
"The idea was to put some African artists and some funksters together to cross-pollinate them," says Ellis, who, for two decades has lived near Bath, England, spending parts of every year in the United States. Featuring a transcontinental lineup of stars, the Chapel Hill concert does as much to showcase Brown as his band's lingering, global impact. During the concert, Cheikh Lo will sing his version of Brown's "It's A Man's Man's Man's World," a lament on how human beings build and destroy.
Coming of age in Senegal, Lo's was one of those villages where a daily, open-air broadcast of, say, Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" would bring all activity to a standstill, Ellis says. Brown was both protester and preacher of his time, he added, and the Still Black tour spotlights the messages that Brown sometimes set to music.
Also slated to be onstage are saxophonist and Kinston native Maceo Parker, who got his start with Brown, and South Africa's Vusi Mahlasela, who will perform "Try Me," Brown's 1958 love song.
"We're going to have some fun. It's gonna be slap-your-knee fun," Ellis says. "We're doing an extended version of 'Say It Loud' ... with everybody offering a piece of that in their native language. By the time that get's going, you can bet everybody is singing and has a smile on their face."