Before They Were Famous…

In honor of the Rochester Music Hall of Fame ceremony this week, here’s a look at the local roots of three of this year’s inductees…

Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis

Before his signature sax lines punctuated a series of James Brown classics such as “Say it Loud (I’m Black I’m Proud)” and “Cold Sweat,” Pee Wee Ellis played saxophone in the Madison High School band.


Ellis in 1957

Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis was born in Braderton, Florida in 1942, but relocated with his family to Lubbock, Texas seven years later. After enduring a racially-motivated tragedy, the Ellis’ decided to move again in 1955. They resettled in Rochester, where they had a number of relatives.

The young Alfred Ellis enrolled at Madison High, where his saxophone skills earned him a spot in the school band. Ellis also engaged in extracurricular studies, absorbing jazz performances at local clubs like the Pythodd and playing with local musicians such as noted bassist, Ron Carter, and the Mangione brothers.

A chance encounter with Sonny Rollins in New York City in 1957 drew Ellis to the city to study under the legendary tenor sax player. Ellis split his time between his hometown and the City before relocating there permanently in the early 1960s.

Ellis’ post-Rochester career as a musician, composer and arranger found him playing  with the Godfather of Soul followed by a series of dynamic artists including George Benson, Van Morrison and Ginger Baker.

Joe Locke

Before he became widely renowned as one of the world’s premier vibraphonists, Joe Locke was an East High Oriental.

           JoeLocke                        Can you find Joe Locke in this 1973 class photo?

Locke was born in Palo Alto, California in 1959, but was raised in Rochester. Both his father, Fred (a classic literature professor at the University of Rochester) and mother, Mary, were enamored with music and transferred this love to their son. He studied music at East High under the tutelage of Renee Fleming’s father, Edwin Fleming.

Like Pee Wee Ellis, Locke complemented his scholastic training with lessons from local musicians. Locke’s Rochester mentors included saxophonist Joe Romano, drummer Vinnie Ruggiero and saxophonist Joey Currazzato, in whose apartment Locke spent a lot of time listening to jazz records as a teen.

Locke deepened his musical training at the Eastman School of Music where he studied classical percussion and composition with  John Beck and Gordon Stout. In 1981, Locke left the Flower City for New York City where he built his career in earnest.

In the years since, the vibraphonist and composer has performed with an impressive array of musicians spanning from pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. to popular artists such as Rod Stewart and the Beastie Boys.

Wendy O. Williams

Before she wowed audiences with her bold stage antics, punk musician Wendy O. Williams was a shy student at R.L. Thomas High in Webster.


Sophomore Wendy Williams

Though she would later tell people she was born in “Plasmaville, U.S.A.,” Wendy Orlean Williams was born in Rochester in 1949. Her mother and father, a chemist at Eastman Kodak, raised Wendy and her two sisters in a modest State Road home in Webster.

The shock-rocker’s suburban upbringing wasn’t entirely staid, however. Williams was kicked out of her Brownie troop as a young girl and arrested for sunbathing nude in Letchworth State Park at the age of 15.

Williams nevertheless largely went unnoticed during her years at R.L. Thomas High. She played clarinet in the school band (and took clarinet lessons for six months at the Eastman Community Music School), but otherwise kept to herself.

“She was the meekest little lamb you would ever want to know,” explained Thomas guidance counselor, George Hugel.

Williams would later recall of her high school years, “I was an outcast, a loner. I never felt like I fit.” The alienated teen dropped out of school and left Webster in 1965 at the age of 16.

The following decade, her band, the Plasmatics, became a staple of the New York underground scene where Wendy’s radical conceptual performances earned her the title, the “Queen of Punk.”


-Emily Morry

Published in: on April 19, 2016 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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