When it came to drummers, he was among the baddest. Today we say goodbye, at age 73, to the great Clyde Stubblefield, who was best known as the drummer who gave the backbeat to the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, James Brown.
Stubblefield's recordings with James Brown are considered to be some of the standard-bearers for funk drumming, including the singles "Cold Sweat", "There Was a Time", "I Got The Feelin'", "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud", "Ain't It Funky Now", "Mother Popcorn", "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved" and the album Sex Machine.
His rhythm pattern on James Brown's "Funky Drummer" is among the world's most sampled musical segments. It has been used for decades by hip-hop groups and rappers such as Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C., N.W.A, Raekwon, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and Prince, and has also been used in other genres.
Stubblefield grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a youngster his sense of rhythm was influenced by the industrial sounds of factories and trains around him. He was inspired to pursue drumming after seeing drummers for the first time in a parade. In early 1960s he worked with guitarist Eddie Kirkland and toured with Otis Redding, and then joined the James Brown band in 1965.
Stubblefield has lived in Madison, Wisconsin since 1971. For over twenty 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.
Since the 1970s Stubblefield has worked with a variety of musicians in the Madison area such as keyboardist Steve Skaggs, 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. From the early 1990s to 2015 he performed on the nationally syndicated public radio show Whad'Ya Know?
Stubblefield's first solo album The Revenge of the Funky Drummer was released in 1997. The album was produced by producer-songwriter Richard Mazda. 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.
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 1990 he was named drummer of the year by Rolling Stone magazine, and in 2016 the magazine named Stubblefield the sixth best drummer of all time. A set of Stubblefield's autographed drum-sticks are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Ben Sisario of The New York Times writes, "on songs like 'Cold Sweat' and 'Mother Popcorn' he perfected a light-touch style filled with the off-kilter syncopations sometimes called ghost notes." According to the National Public Radio, "the grooves the two drummers (Stubblefield and Starks) created have inspired generations of artists — not just in funk, but in hip-hop, where their steady but intricate patterns make natural material for sampling.
Rest in peace, Mr. Stubblefield, and thank you for the ever-loving funk you gave us.