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GIVE THE DRUMMER SOME: REMEMBERING CLYDE STUBBLEFIELD

Clyde Stubblefield, who died three years ago this week, pioneered funk drumming with James Brown, providing a ferocious backbeat for hip-hop artists that’s still being used today.

Stubblefield and Jabo Starks were Brown’s two key drummers in his 1960s band, recording funk classics “Cold Sweat,” “I Got the Feelin’,” “It’s a Mother,” “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine).”

Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” recorded in 1969 and featuring Stubblefield, has been sampled on countless records—Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police” to George Michael’s “Waiting for That Day” and Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride.” While there’s no official records kept, Stubblefield is considered the most sampled drummer in history.

“I don’t know what made any [of our records] special,” Stubblefield told me in 2014 around the time the JB biopic Get on Up was released. “Somebody would say ‘Hey man, we got a hit record out there.’ I’d say ‘that’s all right.’ I always thought I’d be playing local [gigs]; I’m just playing music.

“I was shocked that I got travel around the world—Japan, New York—I’d never been on plane before I met. Brown.”

Born and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., as a teenager he made his way to Macon, Ga., where he backed with local R&B acts, among them Otis Redding. A local club owner, Clint Bradley, introduced him to Brown.

“One Sunday I went to a jam session and after I finish, the club owner told me Mr. Brown wanted to see me,” Stubblefield said. “I saw him once or twice but I didn’t know him from nobody.”

He played a couple of songs from Brown then went home, where his friends figured nothing would come of the audition. Next thing he knew, Bradley was driving him to Augusta, Ga., to play in Brown’s band.

 “I think he got rid of one or two drummers at that time,” he said, remembering that initial show in 1965 where there were five drum kits onstage. “It was packed and I was scared. I went out and got on the far set of drums. Brown told me to just set up next to the organ. So I got on that set, we played four  or five songs and all the people in the balcony were screaming and I was shaking like a leaf on a tree.”

He thought it might have been a one time only gig, but soon Bradley was calling again, this time with a plane ticket to North Carolina.

“I went in the dressing room and [James Brown] had somebody give me their clothes,” he remembered. He was in the band.

Eventually, Brown cut the drum section down to two. Starks, who Brown had recruited from Bobby “Blue” Bland’s band, provided a swinging, gospel influence; Stubblefield was the power.

That edition of Brown’s band—with Pee Wee Ellis and Maceo Parker—toured and recorded with him  until late 1969 when they quit en masse.

“I got tired of his ways and the he treated the musicians,” Stubblefield said. “I’m very proud of our work—he got me on the map— but he was disrespectful in a lot of ways.”

Stubblefield moved to Detroit for a short while before joining his brother in Madison, Wis., where he lived for the rest of his life. He had two regular gigs in Madison—a weekly jam session on Monday nights and as a member of the jazz trio on the Wisconsin public radio show Whad’Ya Know?

Post-JB, Stubblefield recorded regularly with Ben Sidran and his former bandmates Bobby Byrd and Ellis and as a member of The J.B.’s. He and Starks worked together as Funkmasters, and in 2004, released. A funk-soul solo album, The Original. He never got around to making a record that would have taken out of the funk sphere.

“If I made a record, it would be country,” he said, vaguely remembering a trip he took to Nashville once. “I play it all—R&B, rock & roll—but I love playing country.”

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