February 18, 2017 – Clyde Stubblefield (drummer for James Brown) was born on April 18, 1943 and grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Rhythm was in his soul. He was a natural who took his sense of rhythms from the streets, the neighborhoods, the factories and the railroad tracks. He later said that if he could hear a rhythm in his head, he could play it.
Stubblefield was already playing drums professionally in his teenage years when he moved to Macon, Georgia to play with Otis Redding, who hailed from there. In Macon, he performed with soul acts and was introduced to James Brown by a local club owner. Soon, in 1965, he was invited to become a permanent member of Brown’s band.
Over the next six years the band had two drummers, Stubblefield and John “Jabo” Starks who had joined the band two weeks earlier. Starks’ style was influenced by the church music he grew up with in Mobile, Alabama. The two drummers had no formal training. According to Stubblefield, “We just played what we wanted to play (…) We just put down what we felt it should be.” The two “created the grooves on many of Brown’s biggest hits and laid the foundation for modern funk drumming in the process.” Stubblefield performed on all of Brown’s classics in the 1960s and early 70s, including “Cold Sweat,” ”Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” ”I’ve Got the Feelin’,” and the album “Sex Machine.”
But he became best known around the world for a short 20 second solo on Brown’s 1970 single, “Funky Drummer.” According to Rolling Stone magazine it was sampled on over 1,000 songs and served as the backbeat for countless hip-hop tracks, including Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”,”Bring the Noise” and “Rebel Without a Cause”, N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” and Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride,” as well as LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” and Run-D.M.C.’s “Run’s House” and Beastie Boys’ “Shadrach.” It even turned up on Ed Sheeran’s “Shirtsleeves” and George Michael’s “Freedom ’90”, while Prince used his rhythms as well.
Stubblefield’s recordings with James Brown are considered to be some of the standard-bearers for funk drumming.
Though the sole creator of his patterns, Stubblefield was not credited for the use of the samples, because James Brown was listed as the owner of the song copyrights. He was featured in the 2009 PBS documentary, Copyright Criminals, which addressed the creative and legal aspects of sampling in the music industry.
His wife Jody Hannon said Stubblefield saw “very little” in royalties and never expected them. But Stubblefield was held in high esteem by his fellow musicians. When Prince for example got wind in 2000 that Stubblefield was deep in debt from a fight against bladder cancer, he personally paid $90,000 to cover his bills, she said. “Clyde was considered his favorite drummer,” she added.
After his stint with James Brown, he moved to Detroit for a taste of the market, but soon left for his wife’s hometown of Madison Wisconsin, where he became a long standing fixture on the local music scene.
For many years he played Monday nights with his band, The Clyde Stubblefield Band, in downtown Madison. The band featured his longtime friend and keyboard-organ player Steve “Doc” Skaggs, along with soul vocalists Charlie Brooks and Karri Daley, as well as a horn section and supporting band. Stubblefield retired from the Monday shows in 2011 due to health issues, leaving the band in the hands of his nephew Brett Stubblefield.
Stubblefield’s first solo album The Revenge of the Funky Drummer was released in 1997. In 2002 he released a 26 track break-beat album titled The Original Funky Drummer Breakbeat Album. Stubblefield’s third solo album The Original was released in 2003. All compositions were based on Stubblefield’s drum grooves and the album was produced by Leo Sidran.
Stubblefield also worked with a variety of musicians in the Madison area such as guitarist Cris Plata, jazz violinist Randy Sabien, country trio Common Faces and jazz group NEO. He performed and recorded with members of The J.B.’s including Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker and “Jabo” Starks. The group released the album Bring the Funk on Down in 1999. In October of 1999 he toured with the JB’s in Japan. Clyde was the WAMI 2000 Hall of Fame Inductee and was honored in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on 8 May 2000. Clyde’s signed drum sticks are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. From the early 1990s to 2015 he performed on the nationally syndicated public radio show Whad’Ya Know?
Stubblefield collaborated frequently with his old James Brown buddy “Jabo” Starks. As the Funkmasters, the duo released an album in 2001 called Find the Groove and an album in 2006 called Come Get Summa This. The duo also released a drumming instruction video in 1999 titled Soul of the Funky Drummers. In December 2007, the duo joined Bootsy Collins in Covington, Kentucky, for the first tribute concert in memory of James Brown. Stubblefield and Starks played on Funk for Your Ass, a tribute album by fellow James Brown orchestra alum Fred Wesley. The album was released in 2008. Later that year an expansion to the EZ drummer software was released with samples recorded by Stubblefield and Starks.
In 2009 he was diagnosed with a severe kidney ailment and in need of a kidney transplant, he underwent dialysis treatments. Musicians in the Madison area organized fundraiser events, donating the proceeds to supplement his dialysis treatment and subsequent medical bills.
In 2011 Stubblefield performed “Fight the Power” on the Jimmy Fallon show along with Chuck D and members of The Roots and Eclectic Method. In 2012 he gave an autobiographical talk and played some of his favorite beats at the Madison Ruby software conference in Madison, WI. In 2015 a scholarship fund for music education was started and named after Stubblefield.
His wife, Jody Hannon, told The Associated Press that Stubblefield died of kidney failure at a Madison, Wisconsin, hospital around noon on February 18. He had been hospitalized for a few days, she said. He was 73
In a 1991 interview with Isthmus, Stubblefield said: “What influenced me mainly was sounds. Train tracks. Washing machines. I just put patterns against natural sounds, and that’s what I do today. I could be walking down the street in time and put a drum pattern against it while I’m walking (…) That’s the same thing I’m doing now when I sit down behind the drums. I put a pattern behind what everyone else is doing.” For that amazingly simple philosophy behind his worldclass drumming, he also earned a posthumous honorary doctorate in fine arts from the University of Madison Wisconsin.
In 2014 Stubblefield was named the second best drummer of all time by LA Weekly. According to the LA Weekly, “Stubblefield is one of the most sampled drummers in history, the man whose uncanny ability to deconstruct pop music’s simple 4/4 rhythms into a thousand different sly syncopations laid the foundation not only for funk, but for most of hip-hop, as well.” In 2013 Stubblefield and Starks received the Yamaha Legacy Award. In 2004 he received the lifetime achievement award at the Madison Area Music Awards. In 2000 he was inducted into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry hall of fame. In 1990 he was named drummer of the year by Rolling Stone magazine, and in 2016 this magazine named Stubblefield and Starks the sixth best drummers of all time. A set of Stubblefield’s autographed drum-sticks are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.