Clyde Stubblefield doesn't want sympathy. He wants a kidney.
And one of Madison's most joyful and longtime performers hates to ask for that.
A legendary drummer who helped fuel James Brown's band during its heyday, Stubblefield faces a daunting illness with failing kidneys. Since mid-June, after a five-day stay at UW Hospital, he has had four-hour dialysis treatments three times per week.
All this leads to a kidney transplant, which can happen no sooner than early 2010 after extensive tests to determine his readiness because Stubblefield, 66, is a bladder cancer survivor.
"I don't ask, 'Why me?' Something bad happened, and I have to contend with it," said Stubblefield, sitting in his East Side home. "I go along with the doctors and see what we can do. I don't want to spoil my happiness. I want to be happy."
So he keeps playing drums.
Anyone seeing him, for instance, lead the eight-piece Clyde Stubblefield Band during one of its weekly 9:30 p.m. Monday gigs at The Frequency (121 W. Main St.) or a recent show for the Concerts on the Rooftop series at Monona Terrace would be surprised to learn about Stubblefield's health.
In concert, Stubblefield plays with fire. He was dubbed the Funky Drummer decades ago as a measure of respect from his peers. Though best known for his soulful beats, Stubblefield also performs with Madison-area jazz, country and pop bands - "everything except opera," he said with a laugh.
"My drumming is my life," Stubblefield said, turning serious. "It's my breathing, my eating. That's me, my drumming. It's the greatest."
Stubblefield has lived with his girlfriend, Jody Hannon, since 1994. She said that Stubblefield's diabetes made doctors keep watch the past two years on his increasing kidney trouble.
"We were hoping against hope," she said. "It's pretty devastating."
Stubblefield and Hannon met at a Madison-area wedding. Stubblefield was playing the event, and Hannon served as the reception's chef.
"She gives me so much support," Stubblefield said. With Hannon's guidance, Stubblefield became eligible for Medicare, easing potentially skyrocketing health-care costs.
She is pleased that Stubblefield will play with the jazz band on public radio's "Whad'Ya Know?" program when the show is aired from Fairbanks, Alaska, on Aug. 8. Stubblefield, a Madison resident since 1971, has played with the "Whad'Ya Know?" house band, part of Michael Feldman's national comedy and quiz show, on monthly road trips for 17 years.
Although Stubblefield is proud of his work with James Brown from 1965 to 1971, he never spoke to Brown after leaving the band. (Brown died in 2006.) "He was a disrespectful person to his band members," Stubblefield said. "When I left, I was through."
Still, Stubblefield's signature beats for Brown were used by many pop, rock and soul acts. Stubblefield's drumsticks are part of an exhibit at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame exhibit in Cleveland. They're placed, alphabetically, next to Ringo Starr's sticks.
"He's playing as good as ever. I don't know if he's trying to prove something or what," said Steve Skaggs, a McFarland keyboardist who has played with Stubblefield since the mid-1980s. "He's one of the best. He can play with anybody."
Stubblefield performs with acts ranging from jazz and blues violinist Randy Sabien to the pop cover band Old School to his own R&B group.
But his life-threatening illness now looms alongside the music.
"I'm scared. It's all new and strange," he said. "I have to accept this, and I have."
Stubblefield has received countless calls and e-mails - he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org- from family, friends and fans. Some have offered to be tested to see if their kidney matches what Stubblefield needs.
It's a humbling response for Stubblefield. People care about him.
He looked up when told that and smiled. "I care a lot about the people, too."