Longtime Madison resident Clyde Stubblefield, the famed “Funky Drummer” for James Brown and one of music’s most sampled drummers, died Saturday from kidney disease. He was 73.
“(Music) was his voice,” said Stubblefield’s wife, Jody Hannon. “It truly was a God-given talent that he had.”
Stubblefield, who moved to Madison in 1971 after performing here with James Brown, played on several of Brown’s hits including “Cold Sweat,” “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “I’ve got the Feelin.’ ”
But it was “Funky Drummer” that made him a household name.
Noted as one of the most widely sampled drum breaks in music’s history, Stubblefield’s beat on “Funky Drummer” was sampled by artists from Public Enemy to Prince and served as the backbeat for songs by artists like George Michael and Ed Sheeran.
In 2016, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Stubblefield and partner John “Jabo” Starks of Brown’s rhythm section No. 6 on its list of the Top 100 drummers of all time.
Hannon said Stubblefield’s foray into music began when he was a toddler, beating on what he could find at a young age. He formed his own style, his own groove, by drumming on everything from can lids to boxes.
Stubblefield was hired by Brown, known as the Godfather of Soul, in the mid-1960s and met his lifelong friend and collaborator John “Jab’o” Starks. With the band, the two became known as “the funkiest men alive,” Dave Jewell, a marketing manager for Yamaha Drums, told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2013.
Hannon said Brown used to use five drummers on stage, each with their own drum kits. After Stubblefield and Starks joined the band, she said, that number was cut to two.
Stubblefield faced health issues for more than 15 years. In 2000, he battled bladder cancer and faced $90,000 in medical bills.
As a testament to his talent, Prince paid the bill, Hannon told the State Journal last year. She said Prince’s people asked to pay for all of Stubblefield’s bills since he was a “drumming idol” of the late music superstar.
Stubblefield continued to drum after surviving cancer and as he suffered from end-stage kidney disease.
Unabashedly fond of his adopted hometown of Madison, He played in the band for Michael Feldman’s public radio show “Whad’Ya Know?” and played local gigs with his band The Clyde Stubblefield Show that featured different vocalists.
Stubblefield’s contribution to music didn’t go unnoticed. He was inducted into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Hall of Fame, his drumsticks have been displayed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and he was awarded the Yamaha Legacy Award, a rare honor given by the instrument manufacturer.
Despite these honors, Stubblefield never saw the money that was made by artists sampling his work. Hip-hop groups making millions off tracks featuring his work didn’t pay Stubblefield any royalties, and often never credited the drummer. Stubblefield spoke out against the inequity in The New York Times and in the 2010 documentary “Copyright Criminals.”
But Stubblefield used his notoriety to help others. He performed in the Clyde Stubblefield All-Star Band to benefit the Clyde Stubblefield Scholarship Fund. The fund, less than two years old, was created to help Madison-area musicians pursuing music majors in college.
The Clyde Stubblefield All-Star Band was scheduled to play with Stubblefield Feb. 27 at the High Noon Saloon to benefit the scholarship fund.
News of Stubblefield’s death garnered tributes from many of his fans, including his more famous followers.
Questlove, drummer of the Grammy Award-winning band the Roots, shared a photo of Stubblefield on his Instagram and wrote, “The Funky Funkiest Drummer Of All Time. Clyde Stubblefield thank you for everything you’ve taught me. The spirit of the greatest grace note left hand snare drummer will live on thru all of us.”
William “Bootsy” Collins, who was a bassist for James Brown, wrote on his facebook, “U taught me so much as I stood their watchin’ over u & Jabo (Starks) while keepin’ one eye on the Godfather. We all loved U so much.”
Collins asked fans of his page to post their stories of “this Fire breathin’ Drummer.”
Stubblefield’s musical talent isn’t his only legacy. Hannon said Stubblefield’s friends and family will remember him as “the nicest man you’ve ever met.”
“Clyde was wonderful. Clyde was fun. Everyone wanted to be around Clyde,” Hannon said.
Stubblefield and Hannon were married 25 years.
“If you can find someone who loves you for 25 years, you’re a very lucky woman,” Hannon said.
Hannon said funeral arrangements are pending.