On the B-side of “Cold Sweat,” the gravelly voice of James Brown shouts several times, “Can I give the drummer some?” The band shouts back, “Yeah, yeah, give the drummer some!” When James finally pulls the trigger—“You got it, drummer!”—Clyde Stubblefield delivers a world-class, super-funky break that would soon take on a life of its own.
From that point forward, the phrase “give the drummer some” was a rallying cry for drummer power and respect. “Cold Sweat,” which was done in one take with one microphone, was released in 1967, and, with Stubblefield’s groundbreaking groove, is considered by many to be the first certified funk song. Producer Jerry Wexler recalled, “‘Cold Sweat’ deeply affected the musicians I knew. It just freaked them out. No one could get a handle on what to do next.”
In 1970, James Brown played a show in Atlanta and then drove to Cincinnati, where he dragged the band into a studio to record “Funky Drummer.” Stubblefield said he never really liked what he did on that song, but when he started playing and the band fell in, the result was magic. Clyde’s drum break on “Funky Drummer” is universally understood to be the world’s most sampled beat. And that’s just one of several breaks that have ensured his legendary status.
The “Funky Drummer” break appears in some of rap and hip-hop’s greatest hits, including “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, “Mama Said Knock You Out” by LL Cool J, and recordings by the Roots, Nicki Minaj, Sinéad O’Connor, A Tribe Called Quest, Run–DMC, the Beastie Boys, George Michael, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, De La Soul, Sublime, and more than 1,300 more.
Was Stubblefield angry that he received no royalties for “Funky Drummer” and all the other songs he played on? “I wasn’t thinking about money at the time,” Clyde told us after a clinic in San Jose, California, in 2006. “I was just thinking about playing music, traveling the world, and having a good time. We got down, and we cooked. When that band was on, it was like Sherman tanks coming down the aisle. I’m proud of what I’ve done, and I’ve gotten recognition from a lot of wonderful people all over the world. I don’t want to dwell on negativity or spread it around. I try to respect everyone and live with dignity.”
Stubblefield said he would’ve been happy simply with recognition for his work. It’s worth noting that one artist who wouldn’t be satisfied with the status quo was Prince, who’d sampled Clyde on three of his tunes—and donated $80,000 to pay medical bills that the drummer incurred when he was diagnosed with cancer in the early 2000s.
Clyde Stubblefield was never formally trained on the drums. He was inspired by the parade drummers he watched marching in the streets in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. But, as he related in an interview for the book Give the Drummers Some!, “I didn’t want to play right, left, right, left.” He was more interested in the rhythms created by the machines he heard in the factories that he passed on his way to school. “I had that rhythm going on around me all the time growing up,” Stubblefield recalled in an interview at the Vic Firth website. “The trains used to go to Chattanooga. I heard all kinds of sounds. I’d hear one rhythm on one side of the street and a different one on the other. When I got home I’d try to play them both together.”
Clyde left Tennessee in the mid-’60s to work with blues guitarist Eddie Kirkland in Macon, Georgia, which led to several road trips with Otis Redding, whose career was starting to take off with songs like “Pain in My Heart,” “Respect,” and “I Can’t Turn You Loose.”
Then, one night in a Macon nightclub, James Brown heard Stubblefield’s drumming. He called Clyde over to his table, told him he liked what he was doing, and said, “Come down to Augusta and let me hear you play. I’m gonna need a drummer.” A few days after Clyde jammed with Brown and his group in Augusta, he got the call: “Mr. Brown wants you to come to North Carolina and join the band.”
“I flew in and started playing with them,” Stubblefield recalled in Give the Drummers Some!. “When I walked on stage, they had five sets of drums sitting there already! What’d he need another one for? Eventually, Brown broke it down to two drummers—Jabo Starks and myself were the two left.” Thus began a long partnership between the two groove masters.
Things progressed rapidly after Stubblefield joined Brown’s band. “Cold Sweat” was followed by “There Was a Time” (1967), “I Got the Feelin’” (1968), “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968), and a string of other hits, including “Mother Popcorn” (1969), “Ain’t It Funky Now” (1969), and “Funky Drummer” (1970). This period also included amazing live albums featuring Stubblefield and Starks: Live at the Garden (1967), Live at the Apollo II (1968), and Sex Machine: Live in Atlanta (1970), which features Clyde playing one of the most powerful drum breaks ever on “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose.”
An Everlasting Influence
I met Clyde in New York in the late ’70s. I was doing a recording session with singer Edwin Birdsong. Saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis had recently left his post as James Brown’s bandleader and had joined Birdsong’s group, which also included the modern-jazz greats Michael and Randy Brecker. After we’d recorded a couple tunes, Pee Wee came over to me and said, “A friend of mine is in town, and Birdsong wants him to play on a few tracks.” I was surprised but said okay.
Then Clyde walked into the drum booth and introduced himself. I thought to myself, Oh my God…it’s Clyde Stubblefield! He sat down, and the band started running down the next track. Clyde had it memorized after one run-through and began playing a variation of his “Mother Popcorn” groove, which fit the music perfectly.
Stubblefield was in New York a few years later, and he came to visit me. I brought him to my gig near Woodstock. There were about ten people in the club, and I had Clyde play a set. The guys in the band were super-impressed with not only his playing but also his positive, easygoing spirit. Here was the legendary funk drummer playing with some young guys in a nearly empty club and having a great time.
“When you work with other musicians,” Clyde said after the 2006 San Jose clinic, “you have to be at peace with yourself. You have to respect yourself in order to deserve respect and love from others.” When asked if he had any regrets, Clyde replied, “I have a few, but I can’t think of ’em, because I don’t keep ’em in my head.”
Clyde Stubblefield, the funky drummer, created and recorded some of the most gut-wrenching, determined, and creative grooves ever, and the musical community will miss him dearly.
His Influence Flows Through Us
Peers, Disciples, and Friends on the Funky Drummer
Michael Bland (Prince, Soul Asylum)
I did a double-drumming session with Clyde for a track on a Phil Upchurch record at Paisley Park in the mid-’90s. As soon as he started playing, all I wanted to do was put my sticks down and listen. The anatomy of all those JB records was just there in the raw. After the session, he told me to stop by his house if I was ever in Madison, Wisconsin, for barbecue. Great guy and an incredible musician and innovator.
Chris Dave (D’Angelo, Maxwell, Drumheadz)
Clyde Stubblefield = game-changer.
Steve Gadd (Chick Corea, Steely Dan, Paul Simon)
I had never met Clyde personally before NAMM 2017, and it was an honor and a thrill for me. I was obviously influenced not only by the things I heard him play over the years but also by the things I heard others play, where his influence flowed through them—even if they didn’t know his name. He’s an unsung hero, and he gave us so much. I think it’s good that people know that and don’t forget it.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (The Tonight Show, the Roots)
The funky-funkiest drummer of all time. Thank you for everything you’ve taught me. The spirit of the greatest grace-note left hand will live on through all of us.
Erik Hargrove (James Brown)
As the last drummer hired for Mr. James Brown, I’ve always felt an obligation to carry on what was passed down from one of the longest lineages of drummers from a single artist. Mr. Clyde Stubblefield left more than just a mark on this lineage. He left an enormous crater that can never be filled. Not just because many of his grooves have been sampled and used in multiple genres, but also because of the emotional content that went into his playing. Each drum stroke conveyed his joy, pain, struggles, and victories.
Daru Jones (the Ruff Pack, Jack White)
I had the honor of hanging with Clyde for a couple days back to back in 2012. Clyde and I jumped behind two drumkits for a duo jam that was too funky. (It’s documented and posted on my YouTube channel.) I was humbled by Clyde’s humility and positive attitude as he shared some amazing stories from his experience working with JB. Clyde was truly a one-of-a-kind, beautiful spirit. He’ll be missed.
Wally Ingram (Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Kimock)
Clyde’s smile and undeniable syncopated backbeat groove are burned indelibly into my mind’s eye and soul forever! Since I met Clyde at age nineteen, he’s been a huge influence and inspiration as both a mentor and a friend.
Christian McBride (bassist)
A huge chunk of funk history has passed on to the ages. RIP to the great Clyde Stubblefield.
Steve Jordan (John Mayer, Keith Richards, David Sanborn)
In 1967, I was just a little boy in the Bronx. I didn’t own a drumset. I had a gold sparkle Zim Gar snare. My best friend, Leroy Clouden, had a blue sparkle four-piece Kent kit. When “Cold Sweat” came out, if you played drums in the hood and couldn’t execute that beat, you could not call yourself a drummer.
Clyde Stubblefield changed the face of music by his use of syncopation. Along with John “Jabo” Starks, these two men did their share to usher in a new way of thinking and playing. To me, there’s nothing more thrilling than watching footage of Clyde playing with Mr. Brown during the period from ’67 to ’70.
One of the biggest thrills of my life was hanging with Clyde, Jabo, and Zigaboo [Modeliste] in New York City, just listening to great music and hearing great stories from back in the day. What a sweet, humble man. I don’t think Clyde ever realized the impact he had on modern music. He will be missed.
John Scofield (jazz/fusion guitarist)
I got to play with Clyde on a long tour in 1999. He was super-funky and a wonderful person to be around. We had so much fun. We would watch Teletubbies in his hotel room and crack up! The last time I played Madison, he sat in with us, and I heard his band at a late-night set. He was playing better than ever. He was the funky drummer.
Stanton Moore (Galactic, Stanton Moore Trio)
I can’t think of any other drummer who has had as much of an impact on popular music and culture as Clyde Stubblefield. Clyde helped create funk with his work with James Brown. He laid down tons of amazing funk-drumming gems. As if “Cold Sweat,” “Mother Popcorn,” and “Since You’ve Been Gone” weren’t enough, his drum break in “Soul Pride” has been sampled and used as a foundation for drum ’n’ bass. And his break in “Funky Drummer” literally laid the foundation for hip-hop.
Clyde was a beautiful soul and a humble human being. He took his impact in stride. It was always great to be around his wonderful spirit.
The world will miss you, but your incredible musical contributions will live on.
Johnny Rabb (Collective Soul)
I had the honor of meeting Clyde years ago, when I was working at my drumstick company. Clyde was kind enough to do a telephone interview with me regarding the epic amount of times he had been sampled. In the interview, I quickly understood how humble, kind, and down to earth Clyde was. Over the years I would see him and Jabo at events and trade shows. They would always take time to chat and talk about what they’d been doing. As a team, they had so much feel, touch, and groove…it was mind-blowing. I will miss Clyde’s personality and approach to music and drums. He truly was an original. Thank you, Clyde, for your kindness and inspiration.
Bernard Purdie (Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, James Brown)
Clyde was a friend. He was a super-musician with the personality to go with it. We shared a great deal of music together, and we got along because we admired each other. People think that we were rivals, but we were friends. He was a very lovable person who liked what he did, and he was good at it!
Ben Sidran (producer, pianist, songwriter)
Clyde was a bundle of joy and a steam engine, and playing with him was like rolling off a log or grooving with the washing machine. We used to call him Sugarfoot, because if you ever needed to make a tough edit in the studio—and this was in the days of sixteen tracks and cutting tape with razor blades—all you had to do was solo the kick drum.
Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis
(James Brown bandleader and saxophonist)
Clyde lived simply, loved generously, cared deeply, and left the rest to God. He was naturally funky without bells and whistles and fancy complex time signatures. Just solid and dependable, he cared about the big picture more than himself. I loved working with him.
Zoro (Lenny Kravitz, Bobby Brown)
There are many great drummers that have come and gone in this world, but few of them have changed the art of drumming and the way we approach the groove in such a quantifiable way. Clyde Stubblefield was a game-changer! As one of the architects of funk music and funk drumming, his timeless grooves have made an indelible mark. As a person, Clyde touched the hearts of all those who were fortunate enough to meet him. And for those blessed to call him a friend, he was always a delight to be around. He will be sorely missed.
John “Jabo” Starks (James Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland)
Clyde was one of the finest drummers and funkiest drummers we will ever know. It was a blessing to have worked with him for the many years I did. Please don’t forget him. He’s one of the roots.
“I Got the Feelin’“
Tower of Power’s David Garibaldi on a Classic Clyde Track
James Brown’s “I Got the Feelin’” is my favorite Clyde Stubblefield track, and the following transcriptions from this song are my tribute to one of the greatest modern drummers. Recorded in 1968, the performance is as fresh today as it was when it was first recorded, and it represents the true sign of a genius. At that time in the funk world, no one else was playing with this degree of sophistication. Many of Clyde’s unique, forward-thinking sticking ideas from this song have found their way into the modern drumset vocabulary.
Stubblefield’s performance is a tremendous lesson in feel, and transcribing and capturing his feel in print is virtually impossible. However, notating the dynamic changes and subtleties in a performance can help to highlight his style. That being said, feel is as personal and unique as handwriting, and this track is a great example of a drummer who has his own voice.
There’s some very subtle and seemingly random dynamic articulation in this song. For instance, Stubblefield plays improvised accents with and without rimshots while incorporating ghost notes. The bass drum also improvises accents with softer attacks. The hi-hat is accented, however it’s as if Clyde is leaning into the louder hi-hat notes as opposed to actually accenting them. And there’s always an emphasis on beat 1. Learning the following grooves, or any other phrases from the track, while matching the articulation of the original performance can help in understanding how to build one’s own voice.
These transcriptions also have some sticking combinations that make this performance special. The rhythms themselves were groundbreaking, but the inner parts are truly genius. When I started listening and learning to play this way, I came upon a three-note left-hand sequence that I use in certain situations to create continuous 16th notes. I realized years later that this came from Clyde’s drumming. The following excerpts show two-measure sequences that contain these three-note figures. The two-beat turnaround at the end of each phrase can be used as a separate exercise to isolate these groupings.
The ideas discussed here are central to Clyde’s organic and intuitive approach. I’m still learning from him and am so very thankful for what he has left for all of us to explore.