"Funky Drummer" Clyde Stubblefield, keeper of James Brown's beat, never truly got his due

Give the drummer some! On this day in 2017, the world lost one of its most influential drummers

Published February 18, 2019 5:30PM (EST)

Clyde Stubblefield (Getty/Phillip Faraone)
Clyde Stubblefield (Getty/Phillip Faraone)

“GIVE THE DRUMMER SOME” —James Brown ("Cold Sweat," live 4/5/68, Boston Square)

“Two thousand miles I roam, just to make Madison my home.” —Clyde Stubblefield

I never saw James Brown dance across the stage to Clyde Stubblefield’s funky beat, but I danced many times to that beat in Madison, Wisconsin, years after Clyde left Brown’s band. Decades before in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Clyde was honing his rhythms under the tutelage of the city’s African-American musicians. He incorporated the world around him in his rhythms, and in a few years his style solidified into the sound of funk.

Ninth Street was the place to hear a cornucopia of sound, spanning the musical history of America in the '40s, '50s and '60s; from the blues, to rhythm and blues, jazz, soul, and eventually rock. The Blue Shufflers, The Cascades, The Inclines; with their musicians Robert ‘Slim’ Eppinger, Joe Burke and Lionel Glass, Clyde’s bandmates, mainly stayed in and around Chattanooga. When I talked to Slim in Tennessee he told me, “Clyde had something else he wanted to do.”

Those bands and musicians expanded the blues scene that originated with Bessie Smith who was born in 1894 in Chattanooga—a trailblazer who, as Renee Blodgett wrote in the HuffPost, “grew up playing on the city’s streets and is historically known as the “Empress of the Blues.” In 1923 she signed with Columbia Records and was the highest paid black performer of her day. Today the cultural center is named for her. “From the early 20th century into the 1970s, the Big Nine was a mecca for black music and entertainment: Tennessee’s very own Harlem,” notes Charles J. Moss in Medium. “When the 1950s came to an end the big band and R&B sounds gave way to jazz. As the 1960s continued, jazz turned into soul,” he writes. In 1965 Clyde auditioned for the “King of Soul” James Brown in Augusta, Georgia, that rhythm left Chattanooga and was taken onto the world stage.

The list is long of the musicians who knew, influenced or played with Clyde; along with his Chattanooga based groups there were James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, The Midnighters, Chubby Checker, The Clovers, Jim Dandy, Lena Horne, Otis Redding, and many more. The music; rhythm and blues, the blues, rock and roll. The original sounds came from Clyde’s world: the sounds of train wheels on steel, the thump, thump, thump of the grain elevator on the Tennessee River. Clyde had told me about the elevator. When I traveled to Chattanooga I went looking for the sounds. I sat down by the river and imagined the rhythms synthesizing inside him, the sound emerging through his hands and soul.

Robert “Slim” Eppinger was the bass player for Clyde’s first band, The Cascades. I traveled to Chattanooga to meet some of the musicians that were Clyde’s mentors, fellow band members, and friends when he was just starting out as a teen of 15. Slim was first on my list. Slims’ nickname described him, tall and slim, an African American man with dark hair and eyes that welcomed us. In 1996 Slim took me and my friend Norine on a tour of the Chattanooga music scene.

This is the story of Clyde’s rise to become the Funky Drummer. The people that Clyde played music with were an important part of his growth and helped him bring his beat to James Brown. Brown appreciated Clyde’s unique beat and made it his own. However, he never gave credit to Clyde, who gave his gift of rhythm to the world. That rhythm danced under James Brown’s and the rest of our feet, on and off the stage. It is also the story of Clyde’s time after Brown, which ended in the cold climate of Madison, Wisconsin, where I met Clyde. Clyde’s world in Madison, Wisconsin after his years with Brown were satisfying and hard. During those years is where I met and befriended Clyde, many years after his years with James Brown. His music was profoundly inspiring to me.

What was it that drew me in? As a white Jewish middle-class suburban teenager in 1969, I was introduced to Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket, an organization run by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference working to improve economic conditions for black Americans, through my friend’s south side Chicago Lutheran Church meetings where I first heard gospel music. Every Sunday the choir and band would sing and play uplifting music. During the mid-'90s Clyde’s beat stirred in me a feeling of something that had been deeply lacking from my life: soul and rhythm and blues music. For many reasons, some I don’t even know, my mind, feet, and heart connected with that funky beat. The rhythm that took its seed near the waters of the Tennessee River that snake through Chattanooga, where Clyde was born and raised.

Clyde’s music was a refreshing change from the eclectic mix that was my version of the blues. "Rhapsody in Blue" on my father’s clarinet, the sadness of Bob Dylan’s poetry, the soulful Garcia ballads of the Grateful Dead, and my own experience with personal depression. The continuous grim political and global realities were always present, from the Vietnam war to the Iraq invasion, racism, sexism and the downward spiral of the environment, there was always a reason to sing the blues. Funk was a rhythm of its own, a world out of the blues that was a solid intricate beat that through soul and rhythm kept moving down the road.

Moving down my own path, I traveled 170 miles northwest from a suburb of Chicago when I went to college at the University of Wisconsin and made Madison my home in the early 1970s. During the two times I lived in Madison, over 27 years total, I discovered another home, a place for my heart and soul, a place to dance with the warmth and depth of Clyde Stubblefield’s funky beat.

A Broad Brief History

When I listened to Clyde’s beat I felt a connection to the African diasporic music in America which ultimately landed as rhythm and blues. During large periods of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the hums and cries from old Negro spirituals evolved to become the foundation for blues music. Out of the blues of the 1930s and '40s came “Rhythm and Blues” which paved the way for future rock and roll. In the southern city of Chattanooga, beneath the gaze of the Civil War monument on Lookout Mountain, came the unique rhythms of a sound that would eventually be called funk. Funk evolved out of the distinctly American rhythms of jazz; between the sounds of a washing machine, a box factory, and the ticking of a clock that Clyde heard in his young, everyday world. Clyde told me of the beat he heard in the grain elevator he heard along the Tennessee River that stayed with him throughout the years.

In 1942, Clyde Stubblefield was born near Ninth Street in Chattanooga, Tennessee, ten years before I was born. It was the year War Bonds raised $13 billion and the Voice of America had its first broadcast. In 1942 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps by Executive Order 9066. Later that year on December 2, the first nuclear chain reaction was achieved under a soccer stadium at the University of Chicago. My father soon became a part of the Manhattan Project in Chicago where he was a graduate student in Chemistry. Elvis Presley was seven years old in 1942, growing up southeast from Chattanooga in East Tupelo, Mississippi. It was the year a Russian audience heard the premier of Shostakovich’s Symphony #7 in Leningrad. The drum had an unheard of lead role in the symphony, beating the rhythm of war.   In 1943, when Clyde was one year old, Billboard charts first used the term “Rhythm and Blues.”

Clyde will always be remembered for being the “Funky Drummer,” a name given to him after the musical hit of the same name. Clyde’s drum breaks from the recordings of “Funky Drummer” and “Cold Sweat” are one of the most frequently sampled rhythms in hip hop and popular music.

While I was watching the riots on TV just 25 miles from my home on the south of Chicago, Clyde was playing “Cold Sweat” which gave voice and rhythm to the cities burning throughout the nation. The “genre-breaking 1967 hit “’Cold Sweat,’” the surprise single that broke the rules of popular music, captured the growing fury of America’s cities, and catalyzed an uprising — in other words, it was the beginning of funk,” writes Natalie Weiner in Timeline. Clyde’s funk beat completely changed the way people heard and danced to music. That rhythm was the vessel that held the blues and the notes no one had listened to before. Clyde’s rhythm was punctuated by his ghost notes, the almost silent taps on his snare drum. These are the notes “heard under the main sound of the groove,” according to Mick Barry and Jason Gianni in "The Drummer’s Bible: How to Play Every Drum Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco." And the music was amplified, to a bigger audience and across a larger distance, both in concerts and through the radio across the nation.

The ghost notes were getting louder as segregation was failing. Integration occurred through cultural necessity and legislation and brought more white people to appreciate the unique groove of funk. The ghost notes accentuated the underlying rhythms of those not heard in segregated America. It was the backbeat rhythm to the ghetto uprisings and riots of 1968, their roots in the unnamed thousands who inhabited the ghosts of slavery and their ancestors. Without Clyde’s beat there would be no Rap, Hip Hop, or Kendrick Lamar. No bands like Public Enemy or background music to the movie "Black Panther."

Looking back, maybe these were the notes that were missing in my life, the beats that fill the spaces between other beats. After a few years of hearing Clyde play, I had the idea to write a book. Even though James Brown voiced the words during Clyde’s famous drum solo in "Funky Drummer" — “give the drummer some” — Clyde never got his due. He also became, without compensation, the most sampled drummer of all time. He told me the lack of recognition bothered him more than the money. I traveled to Chattanooga and met Clyde’s sister and people he knew, when he was a teenager.

Madison, Wisconsin

Along the shores of Lake Monona bay in the capitol city stands a statue of Otis Redding. It is a place where the icy winds blow, the lakes freeze, leaves of all colors fall to the ground, and lilacs bloom in spring. On December 10, 1967, Redding’s plane crashed into an icy Lake Monona not a mile from where I first heard Clyde play. Clyde Stubblefield had the offer to be on that tour, filling in. He had played with Redding before and was asked to join but something came up. I believe it was fate.

I met Clyde at the King Club (on a street of the same name) at “Blue Mondays,” a weekly gathering of Clyde’s Madison band which included frequent guests, including blues great Luther Allison who also settled in Madison. On any Monday, for five dollars, I could be welcomed by uplifting music to either dance to or just to sit and tap my hands on the table. I was so inspired by Clyde’s rhythms that in a couple of years my tapping grew into drum sticks with a full drum set of high hat, cymbals, bass and snare drums, with lessons.

The neon glow from the sign of the King Club with a crown on top scattered through the window over where Clyde sat on his drum throne. He was striking with his muscular frame, his warm smile, wire glasses, short and curly black hair. He wore a look that said more than he would ever give voice to, except through his music. A glow seemed to emanate from his red drum set. In that club, my inner rhythms found a home with Clyde’s polyrhythms, that were heard around the world.

I would finish an evening shift at the sleep research lab in the middle of the Wisconsin winter; the temperature was usually between 10 degrees above and 20 below zero. I would arrive just before midnight, on a clear cold night, the stars were visible after the moon went down.

Springs and summers were special because we would sit outside when the band took a break and we would talk about music, politics, the weather, and listen to the quiet streets that during the day were filled with state politicians and university students. In a small dark smoky club, with a stage barely large enough for a band. It was half a block from the Capitol, with its white dome and golden lady on top pointing forward with the unwritten message to locals of “On Wisconsin,” the State team song.

Around five years after Otis Redding’s plane crashed in the icy lake, Clyde settled in Madison. He vanished in the middle of a James Brown Tour. He was done. His brother Frank gave him shelter. Frank, who I had become friends with told me Clyde escaped to his house and hid out from Brown, who had no idea Clyde’s brother lived in Madison. He was getting away from Brown’s abusive tactics. With his brother as a link to his new home, Clyde built a simpler life with friends and family. Brown was so mad at Clyde for leaving that he never spoke to him again.

Clyde’s future included Blue Mondays, playing with Madison jazz great Ben Sidran, and blues great Luther Allison. One of my favorite memories was seeing Clyde play with Luther, at the King Club, a soulful guitar player and musician, and a kind and humble man. I shook his hand and told him how fantastic his playing was. He looked at me wide-eyed as if no one had ever praised his musicianship before. A blues club was renamed Luther Allison Blues Club after Allison died. Clyde was a regular on road shows for Wisconsin (later National) Public Radio Show Michael Feldman’s "What da ya Know Show" band.

Madison had become a haven for musicians who wanted to get away from the big city blues scene of Chicago three hours away. In Madison, you could have a less hectic life, play your music, go on tour, but be anonymous if you wished. Roscoe Mitchell, from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, was a friend of my next-door neighbor, Primus Fountain, who himself is a world-class composer. The Ensemble was avant-garde, free jazz, atonal music, completely opposite from western music. Roscoe was virtually unknown in Madison, but famous around the world.

Clyde played all styles of music: blues, rock, jazz and even country. He inspired me with the rhythm of hope that winds its way through the blues. The music accesses the depths of sadness and despair. The beat and music elevate one’s mood through dancing, allows the music into one’s soul, and expresses joy, without leaving behind the roots and struggle of blues music.

Two years after I first heard Clyde play, I took drumming lessons at a music store I had worked at in college. Clyde taught me the rhythm three against two — three beats with one hand during the time that the other hand plays two— then he told me to switch hands. A few years later I saw Clyde at a country bar and he wanted to take a break. He asked me to fill in for a few songs. That was the first in a handful of times I have played with a band, on Clyde Stubblefield’s red drum set.

Like all of us who lived in that climate, Clyde struggled with the long and freezing Wisconsin winters, staying warm, shoveling snow, having cars break down, and paying his bills. He had left the craziness of the road and Brown’s band behind but survival was hard. He settled down to a domestic life with his wife Jody Hannon, brother Frank, nieces and nephews.

Clyde mostly stayed and played his music in Madison. Madison being a predominately white city, the capital of the “Dairy State” wasn’t the place to make a great living as an African American drummer. Despite that, he was happy living in his adopted home and developed an appreciative and dedicated following.

While in Madison in 2014, I heard Clyde play at a more upscale sanitized club than the one where I had first heard him. I took his photo; the last one I have of him. He now had short grey hair but, despite a bout with kidney cancer a few years before, he maintained his strength from decades of drumming and his wide, warm smile. I went up after and said, “Do you remember me?” He said, “Yes, you were going to write a book about me.” Yes, that had been my intention, to give Clyde his due, but I never got there.

When I told my friend Alice I was finally looking at the interviews I did so many years before, she said, without knowing how true her words would be, “You better write it soon, you never know how long Clyde will be around.” One week later Clyde was in the ICU at a hospital in Madison and in a matter of days had died of kidney failure at the age of seventy-three. From two thousand miles away, near the dock of the San Francisco bay, I thought I heard Clyde singing Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”. I hung my head and cried, and watched “the tides roll away.”

By D. Leah Steinberg

D. Leah Steinberg is the daughter and niece of scientists who worked at the University of Chicago Metallurgical (Met) Lab, a branch of the Manhattan Project during WWII, the secret project that researched and developed the first atomic weapons.

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