This article first appeared in Isthmus on Aug. 9, 1991
Clyde Stubblefield is a groove-master. And a lot of contemporary rap and pop stars know it.
Well, sort of. When Sinead O'Connor, Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane and the Fine Young Cannibals sampled the stuttering drum break from the James Brown Orchestra's "Funky Drummer," they probably didn't even know Stubblefield's name. True, they were crafting hits from an irresistible riff he'd laid down 22 years ago in a Cincinnati recording studio. But like the Godfather of Soul before them, these chart-topping youngsters weren't really all that interested in giving the drummer some.
Stubblefield is used to the fact that people don't give him his due. By the time he quit Brown's band in Toledo back in 1971, he knew what it was like to play on hits and not get much credit for his work.
"Brown never did put too many people's names on the albums," explains Stubblefield, a longtime fixture of the Madison music scene. We're talking as he sets up his ubiquitous drum kit for the regular Monday night R&B gig he hosts at Inn Cahoots.
"But since these European labels started reproducing his stuff, they started listing everybody who was playing on it. Nobody ever knew who was playing on anything when Brown was putting out the albums. He was pretty selfish that way.
"And the whole thing about 'Funky Drummer' is that I think that's the worst drum part in the world," he adds with a laugh. "Out of all the patterns I have performed on songs, they picked that! I think it stinks, but the rappers love it. Sinead O'Connor. Fine Young Cannibals. All these big artists are using it. But they haven't paid me anything, of course. Hopefully, one day they'll step out and say, 'Well, we should give this guy something.'"
Stubblefield may sound a little bitter about his experiences with the big-time music business, but he really isn't. since 1971, when he first came to Madison, he's made a pretty good living playing music full-time. And he's determined to stay in Madison, even though more and more folks in other parts of the country want to "hear the drummer get wicked" live.
These days, Stubblefield is just too damn busy to worry about anything except how he's going to get to the next show or recording session.
When he's not leading the eight-piece Clyde Stubblefield Band (a.k.a. the Motown Players) or holding forth at Inn Cahoots, Stubblefield is playing, recording and touring with a dizzying array of area acts, including Tex Mex guitarist Cris Plata, jazz violinist Randy Sabien, the studio band of Michael Feldman's national syndicated radio show Whad'ya Know?, contemporary jazzers NEO and the hybrid folk trio Common Faces. Stubblefield's local and regional commitments alone make for a daunting schedule, and they represent only a portion of his current musical life.
When James Brown was sent to prison on an assault charge in 1988, it seemed like everyone who'd ever heard a James Brown record became an enormous fan of the ageless soul singer. At the same time, funk and soul aficionados all over the globe began to recognize that Brown's astonishingly tight bands of the '60s and early '70s had a lot to do with the legendary James Brown "feel." And it didn't take too long before music magazines, production companies, filmmakers and even the occasional rapper came looking for Stubblefield -- the funky drummer who drove the Brown orchestra from 1965 to 1971.
Over the last few years Stubblefield has been asked to contribute to a lot of James Brown-oriented projects. Harry Weinger, one of the producers of the popular new James Brown compilation, Star Time, has interviewed Stubblefield for both Modern Drummer and Rolling Stone; he also worked some of Stubblefield's reflections into Star Time's encyclopedic liner notes.
The organizers of a reunion of artists who recorded for Brown's old label, King Records, flew Stubblefield to Rochester, N.Y., to play with veterans from the Brown band like Bobby Byrd, Vicki Anderson and William "Bootsy" Collins. (A recording of this session should be available in September.) And this past May he traveled to Prince's Paisley Park recording complex in Minneapolis to work on a documentary about funk that's being put together by a British film company.
"They got in touch with me because they wanted the funky drummer so they could do their thing there," Stubblefield says of the Minneapolis session. "I worked with the JB's while I was there, and that came out beautiful. Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis -- you know, the [Brown] horn section -- they're the JB's. Just the three of 'em. Yeah, we had a real good time."
Stubblefield is pleased about the new opportunities that have begun opening up to him, thanks in part to the Brown revival. Promotional deals with drumstick and drum head manufacturers have helped fatten his wallet, and he's apt to reap even greater financial rewards from a James Brown reunion that's currently in the works. Still, the 48-year-old bachelor isn't planning to pull up stakes. In fact, he can't say enough about the town he fell in love with in the late '60s after playing a date at the Coliseum with Brown's band.
That may seem strange to young musicians who yearn for a shot at the spotlight -- the ones who start making plans to move to L.A. after their self-financed CDs sell a thousand copies. But Stubblefield knows what he wants out of life. It doesn't bother him that industry types express shock when they hear that the guy who took groove-based music to another level with his revolutionary drumming on "Cold Sweat," "I got the Feelin" and "Mother Popcorn" is content to make his home in little Madison, Wis.
What they don't understand is that Stubblefield (who grew up in Chattanooga) likes the quality of life in Madison. He likes the city; he likes the way people "get behind you here." And he doesn't mind the fact that living in Madison means he's forced to play the occasional wedding gig.
"I love Madison. I wouldn't leave here for anything," he exclaims, after being asked whether there's any truth to the rumor that he's planning to move to Florida in the fall. "The biggest problem here is that people -- single musicians -- think the grass is greener somewhere else. But it's not. It's worse. A lot of great musicians here aren't doing well because they're looking too hard, and they get disgusted when they don't find it.
"But, see, they shouldn't go looking," he continues. "They should go presenting and let luck find them. When I was with Brown I was living in New York, but that was an easy task because I was with a name, so I had no problems. I had a job when I went there -- that made it easy. But to go there now and try to find a life? The time I was on the road with Brown I saw more musicians come out and try to join his group and never make it...."
Stubblefield says the key to his success in Madison has been his flexibility. "I always tell musicians around here: 'Don't play one type of music. If you're going to play music and make a living off it, play quite a few different things so you can work all the time.' That's how I've been doing it. Sure, I'll go to New York or L.A. to manufacture things and perform, but as places to live? No. this is home, and it's gonna be home because it's comfortable. It ain't a rat race."
Ironically, like his former employer, Stubblefield also spent some time in jail recently. He was convicted of selling cocaine to an undercover narcotics officer, and he landed in the Dane County work-release facility for about a year. But even that experience hasn't made him sour on life in Wisconsin.
"I was entrapped on all that," he says. "A narc came out of his jurisdiction and begged me to do what I did. I was trying to help a friend and got put in a trap in between. If I'd had the right attorney and a lot of money, I probably would have come out with just a big fine."
"The newspapers called me a kingpin! A kingpin? God, no! I don't believe in dealing drugs. I can see them moving cocaine off the face of the earth. That's no good for anybody, that stuff."
Now that things are going well for Stubblefield and he's starting to get the recognition he's always deserved, everybody wants to know just how he came up with his effortlessly funky drumming style. And he's happy to oblige them with a couple of different answers. Asked what recording sessions with Brown were like, he says matter-of-factly:
"Well, what usually happened was that the band would start up grooves. I might just be playing a lick on the drums, the bass player'd come in and the guitar player would start playing and then the horn section would put horn parts to it. We'd come up with a song and then Brown would put his lyrics to it. On 'Cold Sweat' I was just playing a drum riff; it wasn't anything in particular. And everyone says, 'Great. Let's play that. Keep that going'"
When Stubblefield explains what drove him to become a drummer in the first place, you being to understand what separates one of the great groove players from run-of-the-mill timekeepers.
"I always wanted to be a drummer," says Stubblefield, his eyes lighting up when the bass player from his Inn Cahoots group walks in the door and starts setting up on the club's tiny stage. "I just set out to make it happen. I never set out to make any trends. I never said, 'Well, I'm gonna make this drum pattern be a trend.'
"When I was young I started doing R&B stuff. There was a drummer who helped me, but he really just gave me the courage to continue what I was doing. 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 and say, 'Wow!' 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."
That might sound like a simple formula for success. But then again, there's still only one funky drummer.