Drummer Clyde Stubblefield: Keeping his own funky beat
"The audience didn't look at the band, but they felt the grooves. (James) Brown was the attraction. He'd do the dances, the splits and all that," Stubblefield says. "But I always knew the band was the hottest thing."

Blaring from the stereo in Clyde Stubblefield’s east-side Madison apartment, James Brown barks: “I wanna hear some of this funky drummer we got here,” then punctuates the request with his trademark grunt.

A moment later, Brown stops his band . . . except the drummer – Stubblefield – who plays a 20-second solo on the 1969 song appropriately titled “Funky Drummer.”

Sitting on his couch, Stubblefield, 50, can’t remain still. It’s been years since he’s listened to this cut; in fact, it took him a while to find it among his compact discs.

He’s not impressed.

“Boring, really boring,” he shouts over the music. “That beat doesn’t excite me. So simple, so blah. (Brown hits) `I Got The Feelin’ ‘ and `Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose’ have some hot drum patterns. I love those songs. But this . . . I don’t know.”

Yet, “Funky Drummer” provided Stubblefield his nickname and remained a significant part of his 1965-1971 tenure with Brown.

And that brief drum solo developed a life of its own in recent years, having been sampled by dozens of contemporary artists from Public Enemy (“Fight the Power”) to Sinead O’Connor (“I Am Stretched on Your Grave”) to Fine Young Cannibals (“I’m Not the Man I Used to Be”).

Many musicians dug deep into Brown’s repertoire and discovered Stubblefield, whose largely uncredited drum work helped propel “The Godfather of Soul.”

Since 1971, Stubblefield has lived in Madison, played countless local shows (up to six a week), spent a year in jail, produced and developed bands, and added his expertise to every musical genre aside from polka.

* * *

A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., Stubblefield began playing drums at age 8 influenced by the rhythmic beats during an armed forces parade. As a teenager, he lived with his sister in Macon, Ga., after the death of his parents.

He dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, joined a band called Flaming Rockets and never took a drum lesson (“I can’t read music,” he says. “I play by ear.”).

In the mid-’60s, Brown, who often used at least two drummers onstage, heard Stubblefield perform in a Georgia club and asked him to audition. The next six years, Stubblefield performed on several Brown recordings and numerous tours, including an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

“The audience didn’t look at the band, but they felt the grooves. Brown was the attraction. He’d do the dances, the splits and all that,” Stubblefield says. “But I always knew the band was the hottest thing.”

Brown also earned a reputation as a strict boss. On three or four occasions, Stubblefield says, Brown made the band return to the stage for rehearsals long after the show ended. And only once did Brown credit his musicians on an album.

In 1971, Stubblefield departed Brown’s fold.

“In a sense, I wasn’t living my life,” he says. “Everything was based on James Brown, and I wanted my own career.”

Stubblefield and Brown haven’t spoken in more than 20 years, even though Brown has performed in Madison twice during that time.

“He’s just a self-centered person,” Stubblefield says.

* * *

Why Madison?

Without needing to be near Brown, Stubblefield knew he would move from New York City in 1971. He considered New Orleans, San Francisco, Toronto and London – then picked Madison.

“It’s like an untapped goldmine,” Stubblefield says of the city. “I’d pick it again if I had to.”

Longtime friend and prominent Madison musician Ben Sidran remembers seeing Stubblefield perform with Brown at the Dane County Coliseum.

“We couldn’t believe James Brown’s drummer was going to live in Madison,” Sidran says. “It was a great opportunity for us.”

Since the early ’70s, dozens of Madison acts, including Sidran, have put Stubblefield’s talents to use. He also developed the Clyde Stubblefield Band.

Stubblefield’s life, however, reached its lowest ebb in June 1990, when he was convicted of selling more than 50 grams of cocaine for $3,200 to an undercover officer. He received a year sentence in county jail with work-release privileges, which allowed him to keep playing.

“I was a foolish person,” says Stubblefield, who could have received a maximum penalty of up to 15 years in prison. “I got a spanking on the hand, but it was scary.”

Twice married with a 23-year-old son (who’s a drummer in Washington, D.C.), Stubblefield lives alone with two cats. He maintains a vigorous schedule of shows, including Mondays with a blues/jazz band at The Chamber, 114 King St.; and Tuesdays with a blues/funk group at Slammers, 150 S. Blair.

Last week, he also drummed for the reggae band Dreadknots. Then during the weekend, he ventured to Appleton and Sheboygan for gigs with jazz violinist Randy Sabien. Tonight, he’ll play with Madison Tex-Mex performer Cris Plata at Park Ponderosa in McFarland, and, on Saturday, he’ll join jazz group Kelly De Haven and the Misbehavin’ Band at the Concourse Hotel.

A few weeks ago, Madison producer Butch Vig hired Stubblefield to provide additional drum work to a remix single from U2’s “Zooropa” album.

He’s also enjoying a flood of publicity. Rolling Stone and several drum magazines profiled him and acknowledged how bands used samples from “Funky Drummer.”

And Melissa Etheridge, one of the samplers, introduced Stubblefield at her sold-out Civic Center show. (After the concert, the pair went bar-hopping at Madison clubs.)

On a recent Monday at The Chamber, though, no amount of notoriety could hide the fact that a five-man group, including Stubblefield, played to eight people. It wouldn’t take long to divide among band members the $3 covers taken at the door.

Still, Stubblefield seemed oblivious to the tiny crowd. He smiled and pounded the drums with enough energy to start a rain shower.

“On those Monday and Tuesday gigs, I don’t make much money. It’s almost a rehearsal,” he says. “But I’m happiest when I’m playing.”

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