By most accounts Clyde Stubblefield is the most sampled drummer in history.
There are plenty of funky drummers out there. But there is only one Funky Drummer. Clyde Stubblefield is best known for propelling many of James Brown’s greatest hits, but for the last 40-plus years he has dwelled among us right here in Madison. He’s been a fixture on the stages of local clubs, playing with his own band, which features a revolving cast of local talent. And in spite of a litany of health problems that have plagued him in recent years, he’s a happy man.
“I just sit back and enjoy life,” Stubblefield says.
Stubblefield is quick to talk about how much he loves Madison. This fall, Madison is going to collectively return the love; or, in James Brown’s immortal words, “give the drummer some.” The main event of the love fest will take place Oct. 8 at Overture Center in the Overture Hall main lobby, where Mayor Paul Soglin will proclaim Clyde Stubblefield Day and present Stubblefield with a key to the city. Stubblefield is going to present some drumsticks, photographs and other artifacts to the Wisconsin Historical Museum to be preserved for future generations. The live soundtrack for the occasion will be provided by Clyde Stubblefield & Friends, an all-star collection of musicians anchored by the Big Payback. They will be joined by Stubblefield himself as well as some of his former bandmates from his days with James Brown: fellow drummer John “Jabo” Starks, trombonist Fred Wesley and bassist Fred Thomas. Black Star Drum Line, a project of Stubblefield’s longtime friend and protégé Joey B. Banks, will also be performing.
Two other events, both fundraisers for the Clyde Stubblefield Scholarship Fund, will precede the Overture gala. The scholarship will benefit a Madison-area student planning to major in music in college. The first event was an Aug. 30 kickoff party at the High Noon. The second takes place at the Barrymore Theater on Sept. 11. Both of those fundraisers feature the Clyde Stubblefield All-Star Band, featuring a mighty lineup of some 30 mostly-Madison musicians who have played with Stubblefield over the years. Together, the series of three events is dubbed, appropriately, “Give the Drummer Some.”
“Give the Drummer Some” is being orchestrated by the Coalition for Recognition of Clyde Stubblefield, an ad hoc group that sprang out of the Madison Blues Society. “Several years ago we did a memorial to Luther Allison, and it turned out really nice,” says Shari Davis, Madison-based vocalist and secretary of the Blues Society. “It got me thinking, why don’t we honor a musician while they’re still alive rather than memorialize them later? So we tossed that idea around for a couple years, and last August we decided to do it this year, and we chose Clyde for our honoree.”
Stubblefield grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he taught himself how to play the drums by absorbing the percussive industrial sounds that surrounded him. “I had no training at all. I just taught myself how to play and how to feel,” says Stubblefield. “There was a factory there that puffed out air — pop-BOOM, pop-BOOM — hit the mountains and came back as an echo,” says Stubblefield. “And train tracks — click-clack, click-clack. I listened to all that for six years, playing my drums against it.”
One day around 1960, Stubblefield was playing music down in Macon, Ga., when James Brown passed through town, heard Stubblefield play, and dug the groove. He invited Stubblefield to sit in at a show as a quasi-audition. A couple weeks later, Brown summoned Stubblefield to North Carolina to join up with his band. Upon arriving, Stubblefield found that Brown had no fewer than five drummers on board. Brown soon trimmed the drum roster down to mainly just Stubblefield and Jabo Starks, with whom Stubblefield has remained tight ever since. Stubblefield went on to tour with Brown all over the world, including a memorable trip to Vietnam to perform for the troops in 1968.
Stubblefield left Brown’s band in 1971 and, after short, not particularly happy, stints in Washington, D.C., and Detroit, settled in Madison, a town with which he quickly fell in love. “I didn’t know nothing about Madison,” he says. “My brother was here from the Air Force, and I stayed with him for a few weeks until I got my own place. I love Madison. It’s a great place, and the people are great here.”
Stubblefield’s life partner of 23 years, Jody Hannon, concurs. “He just absolutely fell in love with Madison. This is where he wants to end up.”
Millions of people have heard Stubblefield’s licks millions of times on such James Brown classics as “Cold Sweat,” “Mother Popcorn,” “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” and, of course, “Funky Drummer.” Millions more have heard him play as part of the house band on Michael Feldman’s popular public radio show, Whad’Ya Know? And even more millions have heard Clyde’s distinctive patterns secondhand as samples employed by some of the world’s best-known hip-hop artists and rappers, including Public Enemy, Run DMC, Beastie Boys and many more. In fact, it’s quite possible that Stubblefield is the most sampled musician in history. Unfortunately, he has supplied most of that material involuntarily; royalties have been few and far between. Clyde is featured prominently in the PBS documentary Copyright Criminals, which explores the issue in depth.
Health issues prevent Stubblefield from playing as much as he’d like these days. Kidney disease requires him to undergo dialysis three times a week, which saps a lot of his energy. He survived bladder cancer in 2000. More recently, he burned his thumb on a skillet, and ended up having it amputated after complications, probably related to his dialysis, prevented it from healing. You’d think a missing thumb would be a big problem for a drummer, but Stubblefield has adapted. He fashioned a special drumstick using the thick padding from a maraca handle, and can still play without missing a beat. Through it all — the health problems, the royalty ripoffs and everything else life hurls at him — he remains remarkably upbeat most of the time.
“I never expected all the stuff I’ve experienced,” Stubblefield says. “I just play from my soul and heart and feelings, and I love it. Like I say, I’m a very happy man.”