A listening session with R&B legend Clyde Stubblefield
by Susan Kepecs, Isthmus
I went to the King Club on a warm June night to catch the original Funky Drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, doing his regular Funky Mondays gig. At 64, Stubblefield, who played with James Brown in the '60s and whose sticks are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, rolls out beats like it was 1969. And thanks to his persistence, R&B is coming back. In this hip-hop world Stubblefield's band - with soul singer Carolyn Black - draws a good-vibes crowd from a broad age spectrum, say 20 to 65. Some of 'em dance more disco than boogaloo, but everybody knows all the words to "Mustang Sally."
Stubblefield's spent the decades since disco keeping R&B alive, and today he's at the forefront of what looks like its reemergence. I want to know how he does it, so a day later I drop by his sunny east-side house and ask him to play me some of his favorite tunes. He offers me a glass of Coke, browses awhile, then pops a disc into the player and hums under his breath, punctuating the downbeat. "Huh!"
Stubblefield's still right on top of the groove, despite chronic kidney disease. In a world where only the rich have health insurance he's grateful for the medical fund established to provide his care. (He's not keen on discussing anything related to his condition.) He's graced with good fortune, enjoying life in this comfy place with his wife, Jody Hannan, Mustang Sally the Boston terrier, and a cat named Stubby.
Stubblefield settles on a tune and plops down on the sofa, remote control and a Miller Lite in his hand.
"This is the FunkMasters," he says, grinning. "Me and Jabo Starks on drums and lead vocals."
In the late '60s both men played with the Godfather of Soul, who usually had four or five competitive drummers edging each other out. But Stubblefield and Starks were partners from the start. Last year - some 40 years after they first played together - they cut their second FunkMasters release, Come Get Summa This on the JCK label, with fellow Brown groovester Fred Wesley on trombone, Motown bassman Bob Babbitt and a slate of other old-school stars.
"Come get summa this! Don't you wish you had that?" the FunkMasters riff on the title cut. On an instrumental roll on the second cut Stubblefield jives about a house party with Jabo and the cats, you dig? That's what this is, '60s house-party music for the new century.
Stubblefield attributes his long association with Starks to Lady Luck. "I didn't know who Jabo was," he says. "I was in my hometown, Chattanooga, Tenn., playing little clubs and delivering newspapers. I'd wait for the paper to come out, sitting in a little east-side club playing pinball. The pinball machine was right next to the jukebox - you got six plays for 25 cents. Jabo's the drummer on Bobby Blue Bland's original 'Turn on Your Love Light.' I used to play pinball to that. Oh my God, I loved that drummer so much."
Then they met, in '65, when Stubblefield went to audition for James Brown at the Augusta (Georgia) Auditorium. "Jabo was with Brown at the time, but he wasn't onstage right then - this was like the show's warm-up. Brown took me out onstage and there was five sets of drums. The place was jam-packed. Brown told me to pick a set of drums 'cause we gonna jam, and I'm thinkin', 'Oh, Jesus.' I said to myself, well, this is the time to prove it, so I got on the drums and kicked ass. When we got through the whole place was tearin' down. I thought, 'What did we do?' I'd never seen anything like that. It shocked me."
Brown gave Stubblefield a $100 bonus and took his phone number. "I went back to Macon, where I was living at the time. Brown didn't call, and I wasn't gonna depend on that. Out of the blue one morning there it came. They said I was going to join the James Brown show. I went to the airport thinkin', 'Damn, it's happening.' That show was in Charlotte, North Carolina. I stood on the side of the stage for half a show and then Brown told me to get on a set of drums, and that's when Jabo and I first played together."
You can hear them on tunes like "Cold Sweat," "Say It Loud" and Stubblefield's favorite, "Give It Up or Turn It Loose."
"We'd swap the lead. If Jabo didn't make it I had to take it, and vice versa. It was incredible, making those hits and licks together. But I quit Brown. I didn't like what was goin' on. James Brown used some of my drum patterns, but it didn't matter, it was all his 'cause he paid for it. One night I got fed up and unplugged my phone. I slept through my flight in the morning - we were goin' to a festival in Africa. So Jabo stayed with Brown and I went to Motown."
It was '68 or '69, and by then Motown was - well, like it was at the end of Dreamgirls, druggy and degenerate. Stubblefield didn't stay long. "There were unbelievable wicked parties. A person could get turned around easily. You could meet up with so many dangers - I saw it all and did some of it and had fun. But I decided I needed a homier place."
Coming through Madison on a gig with Brown, Stubblefield had stopped to see his brother, who was working at downtown's long-gone Dangle Lounge. "Nude dance clubs aren't my thing, but I met so many nice people - I liked everything about Madison. The sidewalks would roll up at 11:15 and TV would go off at midnight."
It was paradise, he says. He came back in the '70s and stayed. He got a newspaper delivery gig and played local clubs, occasionally hooking up with Starks at big all-star funk shows. Then in 2001 they put out Find the Groove, the first FunkMasters album.
In Stubblefield's living room, we're still listening to the second CD. "Check this out," Stubblefield says, turning the volume up. It's an original Stubblefield blues he calls "It's Your Fault, Baby."
Is Stubblefield moving more toward the blues as he gets older? "Uh-uh," he says, shaking his head. "Nope. I'm synchronized to the funk patterns. But I really don't have preferences. I believe in a gospel feel. When I'd go to church people would shout, and that's what I'm after. There's gospel in funk, in country-western, in the blues. I did this as a blues 'cause that's what I felt at the time. When it's the woman's fault you say baby, you made me feel this way. I could have done it funky, but it came out of a conversation that fit the blues."
He skips to another cut. "Here's a tune I always wanted to do. I finally had guts enough to do it on this CD." It's Al Green's "Still in Love With You," and it's as gospelesque as the Reverend's '72 original.
The FunkMasters are getting ready to do their third album, Stubblefield says, and they're hoping to line up some local shows at the High Noon Saloon. But that's not all the Funky Drummer is up to these days.
"I do some producing," he says. Right now he's producing Karri Daley, at Rick Flowers' Madison Sound Studios. Daley's a Madison talent who went out for American Idol and didn't make it, Stubblefield says. "But she's a winner. I'm doing an album with her and my Madison band [Pete Nelson on trumpet, Briah Husk on sax, Alex Leong on trombone, Steve Skaggs on keys, Dave Golpen on bass and Paula on congas]. Plus added attractions like Bob Corbit on sax and West Side Andy on harmonica.
"It ain't even been mixed down, it's just a raw studio recording. I'm just starting to mix in the horns. I'm real proud of it."
Daley's voice comes on smooth as silk, more Motown than Aretha Franklin, but that doesn't mean she can't belt out a tune, like the oh-so-swingin' "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean." "Here comes Bob Corbit," Stubblefield says. "Watch this solo!
"Ooooooo," Stubblefield says over Corbit's wail. "I don't read music, I just arrange by sound.
"Baby I got it!" he laughs as Daley segues into "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."
This disk brims with '60s and '70s tunes: Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' R&B ballad "If You Don't Know Me By Now," Sly Stone's "Everyday People," an inside-out version of the Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider," Stevie Wonder's "I Wish."
"Listen," Stubblefield says, "it's Wonder's key piano line, and Dave's playin' it on bass. I love it. I'll turn a song all the way around, but I always keep the same flow. I don't mix that up. My band is so great, they hang in there, they stroll this stuff. We're not doin' fancy changes. It's just a groove function, like drivin' a car."
The afternoon's fading - time for me to get in my own car and head home, but there's one last tune to listen to first. "Tell me what you think about this," Stubblefield says, turning up the volume again. It's - oh geez, it's "Honky Tonk Woman."
"I changed it up, I put in a new guitar solo, but the rhythm's pure," he says. Suddenly it's 1969. Along with Daley, we belt out the words. And to this day, I can't get that tune outta my head.
Clyde Stubblefield Medical Fund
"I want to say thanks to the people who contribute to my medical fund," Stubblefield says. Please send your contribution to: Associated Bank, c/o Clyde Stubblefield Medical Fund, 4141 Nakoosa Trail, Madison, WI 53714
For more info go to www.jaboandclyde.com.