Clyde Stubblefield solos behind James Brown
To the general public and the casual music fan, Clyde Stubblefield was hardly a household name. But as music historian Brian Chin notes, Stubblefield, who died Feb. 18 in Madison, Wis., at 73, played "the most sampled backbeat in history."
For it was Stubblefield's 20-second drum break near the end of James Brown’s "Funky Drummer," recorded in late 1969--a "brief snippet of percussion excellence," wrote Jon Caramanica in The New York Times obituary--that became, Caramanica added, "the platonic ideal of a breakbeat, the foundation of hip-hop's sampling era and a direct through line from the ferocious soul music of the civil rights era to the golden age of history-minded hip-hop of the 1980s and '90s."
"His sound was heard on many millions of records made and sold worldwide," continues Chin, "and a debt is owed to him by every hip-hop producer, artist and listener."
Indeed, starting in the 1980s, Stubblefield's signature "Funky Drummer" drum break was sampled on over 1,000 songs, notably including Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out," Boogie Down Productions' "South Bronx," Sinead O'Connor's "I Am Stretched on Your Grave," George Michael's "Freedom! '90" and Kenny G's "G-Bop."
Stubblefield had served in Brown's band for some six years (1965-70), drumming on such classic Brown recordings as "Cold Sweat," "Say It Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud" and "I Got The Feelin'."
"There are fancy drummers with all the technique in the world that people think are amazing," says Pete Thomas, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame drummer behind Elvis Costello. "Then there are the drummers I have a bit more time for: the drummers who play on hits! The drummers who make people dance! In the category of drummers who have made the most people wiggle about and feel extremely happy, Clyde Stubblefield is No. 1. Often sampled but rarely paid, he always seemed to be laughing and easy-going. He should be made a saint."
Stubblefield never had songwriting credit for the Brown hits, so he never received royalties. He settled in Madison shortly after leaving Brown's band, and held down a weekly nightclub gig and worked on the hit Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) show Whad'Ya Know?, earning induction into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2000. He received the lifetime achievement award at the Madison Area Music Awards in 2004.
"Though world renowned he was humble about his fame," says Ruthanne Bessman, currently the host/producer of WPR's Classics by Request classical music program and formerly producer of What'Ya Know?
"Always warm and welcoming, Clyde's big smile and hug brought joy. One of my favorite memories is when Clyde sang to me Joe Cocker's hit 'You Are So Beautiful' at my wedding. He was beautiful to me and to so many others and we will always miss him."
Via Facebook, legendary Madison vocalist Ena Anka of Ziggy & the Zeu and later Dr. Bop & the Headliners fame said that Stubblefield was "one of the nicest guys I've ever known. Such incredible talent with true and genuine modesty."
Last Saturday night Rockin' John McDonald, longtime host of the popular I Like It Like That oldies show on Madison's listener-sponsored radio station WORT-FM, stated, "I'm missing Clyde already," then proceeded to program several recordings featuring Stubblefield and ranging from James Brown to Wisconsin Tex-Mex singer-songwriter Cris Plata. It was the day after hundreds of friends and admirers of Clyde Stubblefield had packed a ballroom at Madison's Concourse Hotel in a memorial tribute to a renowned musician who had graced them for decades with his friendship and presence.