Clyde Stubblefield, the ‘Funky Drummer’ for James Brown, Dies at 73


By his late teenage years, he was already playing drums professionally, and he moved to Macon, Ga., after playing with Otis Redding, who hailed from there. There, he performed with local soul acts, and was introduced to Brown by a local club owner. Soon, he was flying to join Brown on the road, and became a permanent band member.

He performed with them on and off for about six years, one of two key drummers — the other was John Starks, who was also known as Jabo — playing on the essential James Brown albums of the civil rights era: “Cold Sweat,” “I Got the Feelin’,” “It’s a Mother,” “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “Sex Machine.” He performed at some of Brown’s most important concerts, including at the Boston Garden following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and for United States service members in Vietnam.

His sharp funk provided the anchor on anthems like “Cold Sweat,” “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and “I Got The Feelin’.” Always, his playing was complex but collected — his flourishes between beats were as essential as the beat itself. Brown demanded a lot of his band, and Mr. Stubblefield, with playing that had punch, nimbleness and wet texture, never appeared to be breaking a sweat.

“In short, there have been faster, and there have been stronger, but Clyde Stubblefield has a marksman’s left hand unlike any drummer in the 20th century. The thing that defines him, that sets him apart from other drummers, are his grace notes, which are sort of like the condiments of what spices up the main focus,” Questlove, the drummer and music historian, said in 2011. “His grace notes, his softest notes, defined a generation.”

Shortly after Mr. Stubblefield left Brown’s band, he settled in Madison, where his brother, who was in the Air Force, was stationed. He lived there until his death, becoming a local fixture thanks to a regular Monday nightclub gig that he held through the 1990s and 2000s, and his work on the Wisconsin public radio show, “Whad’Ya Know?” He was inducted into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2000. A pair of his drumsticks are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Though “Funky Drummer” was released as a single, it was never on an album until the 1986 compilation “In the Jungle Groove.” That was in the thick of hip-hop’s sampling era, and it caught on quickly, becoming perhaps the most important drum pattern in hip-hop history.

Brown was a notorious taskmaster as a bandleader, and he also retained all the songwriting credit for the work his band did, meaning that as the hip-hop generation discovered Mr. Stubblefield’s playing and used it as a backbone, he saw none of the financial rewards.

“All my life I’ve been wondering about my money,” Mr. Stubblefield, with a chuckle, told The New York Times in 2011. During the 1990s and 2000s, he attempted to remedy this by releasing albums of his own — “Revenge of the Funky Drummer” and a breakbeat album, “The Original Funky Drummer Breakbeat Album.” In 2011, the DVD release of the documentary “Copyright Criminals” featured a collection of new Stubblefield performances designed for easy sampling.

At times, Mr. Stubblefield performed with his old bandmates. Along with Mr. Starks, he was in a duo, Funkmasters, that released music and also recorded instructional videos. At times, Mr. Stubblefield performed with the J.B.’s, a collection of former Brown band members; they released a 1999 reunion album, “Bring the Funk on Down.” And he reunited with the original J.B.’s rhythm section on the soundtrack for the 2007 comedy film “Superbad.”

Information about Mr. Stubblefield’s survivors was not immediately available.

The later part of Mr. Stubblefield’s life was marked by bouts of poor health. He had a kidney removed in 2002. In recent years, he suffered from renal disease and underwent dialysis multiple times a week. He also had a thumb amputated following a burn accident in 2014.

In 2000, Mr. Stubblefield was diagnosed with bladder cancer, which he survived, but he faced daunting medical bills of approximately $90,000.

Last year, after Prince died, Mr. Stubblefield revealed that the singer had paid those bills in full, asking that the gesture be kept private. It was a testament to the force of Mr. Stubblefield’s artistic gift and influence — the two men had never met.

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