The Legacy of Clyde Stubblefield
Madison resident and former drummer for James Brown had a huge impact.
In one of my favorite songs by Amy Rigby, “Tonight I’m Gonna Give the Drummer Some,” she promises to do just that. She must have been thinking of Stubblefield — who else could it be? It may even be the break he demonstrates here in an instructional video showing what he played in James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”. That massive lick has achieved ubiquity in the world of Hip Hop, sampled over 1,000 times and featured in a ton of hits. This would seem like a good way to get rich if musicians actually shared in royalties for their work on other’s songs, but Clyde made nothing. Watching the video you understand immediately what you’re watching is a real drummer, the kind others in his field emulate and adore. That’s because what he does is simply impossible.
If you have played and taught as long as I have, you realize keeping time is something you can always improve but never really perfect. Only a few masters get to do that. But the rest of us mere mortals should make the effort to think and play like drummers. It’s an act of generosity. Don’t rush, don’t drag and for God’s sake, get in step. Playing in time is the bold print in the social contract you have with other musicians. It allows the groove to lock up and turns the band into one giant, unstoppable instrument. James Brown, the prime architect of that principle, couldn’t have built his Palace of Funk without Clyde.
But Clyde was more than a metronome. Of course the unshiftable grid of tempo he created moved nary an inch — that’s a given. But beyond that there’s an ineffable essence that used to be called swing that now, post Clyde, must be referred to as funk. It’s in the little things he does, the ghost notes, barely perceptible but all important, that tug the time ever so slightly one way or another. In a great vocalist it’s called phrasing. Computers, robots and drum machines may someday come close to creating that — they’re almost there now and certainly dominate the pop charts. But there was a time before these infallible engines of precision when excitement was homemade and analog.
Clyde was the road drummer for “Whad’ya Know?,” the public radio show based in Madison, so it was my good fortune to know him. I got to play with him a few times and that makes me more than happy. He was so not full of himself for someone who had done all the things he had. No entourage, no flash, just a mellow personable guy whose laugh flowed unimpeded, like his groove. You can see the calm presence when you watch the videos of him and James Brown. In a band that was subject to fines for a missed cue or a wrong note, he looks so relaxed you’d think he was watching his favorite TV show. He knew he wasn’t going to miss a beat so he let the boss do the sweating.
Clyde liked living in Madison. It was roughly the same size as Chattanooga, his home town. Getting from here to there wasn’t an ordeal and there were clubs in town and the airport for gigs elsewhere. That benefitted many local musicians,who got to play with him at his jam sessions. In Michael Feldman’s house band for “Whad’ya Know?,” Clyde played Jazz and that was where his famous left hand, the one Questlove waxes poetic about in his tribute, really came in handy. He wasn’t schooled, which is less surprising than it sounds. American Music often rises from self-taught geniuses who are studied by academics later. Intellectual analysis needs something real to exist.
His health had been a concern for a long time. He needed dialysis several times a week. He struggled successfully against bladder cancer — Prince picked up that tab and asked him not to mention it. Last summer when I saw him for the last time, his right thumb was gone. He had suffered a burn but had not taken care of it properly and it couldn’t be saved. He had a special velcro glove so he could hold a stick and carried on with his usual panache. He never had health insurance, few musicians do.
Clyde is gone now, an artist of the first magnitude, living amongst us and reaping the rewards of a musical life, few of which were monetary. The fact that he shared his talent with the world increased our joy quotient immeasurably. And so, for one more time, let’s give the drummer some.