Word has it that the great drummer Clyde Stubblefield has died at the age of 73.
Stubblefield was one of two drummers (along with Jabo Starks) who animated James Brown’s funkiest period, more or less from “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” as a creator, when Brown seemed to be breaking new musical ground with every single. He played on such classics as “I Got the Feelin’,” “Cold Sweat” and dozens more.
But it is the James Brown song “Funky Drummer,” recorded in late 1969 and released in the extremely funky season of 1970, that made Stubblefield a legend.
Like a lot of Brown’s songs at this fecund time, it’s a vamp both simple and enormously sophisticated.
And there are a bunch of different edits of the thing, I first heard this song on a 7 minute edit on the indispensable James Brown boxset “Star Time;” I don’t think this version exists outside of the boxset in that form. The single was about five minutes across two sides; the album version on “In the Jungle Groove” is nine minutes long.
These time codes refer to the seven minute version below. At around 4:41, Brown says, “One more time I want to give the drummer some of this funky soul we got going here. You don’t have to do no soloing, brother, just keep what you got.” he says to Sutbblefield, “Don’t turn it loose, ’cause it’s a mother.” This is correct, as were many of Brown’s improvisational exhortations — the groove, it is sick and does not need to be expanded upon.
At 5:34, after Brown says “One two three four hit it,” Stubblefield’s plays a 20-second break. It is the sort of drum solo for which people should be put on Mt. Rushmore. A small chip on the $20 bill should play it whenever said bill changes hands. It is that good. It is that important.
No wonder it became the root integer of classic hip-hop, sampled by everyone from Public Enemy to Dr. Dre to NWA to the Beastie Boys to George Michael’s “Freedom ’90” and very literally about 1,000 more.
During it, Brown makes noises and says, “Ain’t it funky…ain’t it funky….ain’t it funky…ain’t it funky…a one two three four!” and the band comes back in. The groove continues.
But my favorite part comes at around 6:45. It is as if he needed a few minutes to process what he just heard.
It’s all Brown can do to simply credit the songs to Stubblefield: “The name of this tune is ‘the Funky Drummer’…’the Funky Drummer…” Brown sounds in AWE of what young Clyde has done, almost stunned. Brown was not a man lacking in confidence and he doesn’t sound shaken as much as blown away. The future is being made in front him.