The double drumming dynamite of John "Jabo" Starks and Clyde Stubblefield helped James Brown pretty much invent modern funk. Yet it was Stubblefield alone who created that famed "ghost note," the off-the-beat syncopation that gave each raw Brown smash a stammering halt and dramatic heft.
"Yeah, that's all me," says Stubblefield. "I came up with those beats for my soul, what I wanted and needed to hear. I played what I felt ... and what felt good and right."
He had already been drumming in his native Chattanooga, Tenn., before he auditioned for Brown in Augusta, Ga., and joined the band in 1965. Upon entering the inner sanctum of the Godfather's rhythm section (Brown was also a drummer), Stubblefield recalls, everything happened fast, loose, and tight. "As soon as we set up, it happened," he says with a laugh. "We'd just start jamming. And everything came from those jams."
The everything that Stubblefield is talking about is Brown's compositional groove, which many believe the drummer should have received publishing credits for. "James wrote there, in those jams. We'd get on it and keep jamming until Brown would walk in — he traveled in separate planes from us — but when he'd get there, hear it, and dig it, he'd say, 'Let me put some words to it.' It was always like that. We knew what we were doing, and it felt good, so it was all very easy, natural, and came together quickly."
Unlike other Brown collaborators, Stubblefield did not have a problem with the Godfather's being a strict taskmaster. "Naaaaaaah, he was cool," says the drummer. "He was not difficult. He just knew what he liked. So did I. And he liked what I did, because I knew what I was doing."
Stubblefield says that Brown directed the band as if it were a vehicle. "Once we got going, he'd put his hand up as if to 'break here,' as if he was driving a car. He gave the direction, but it was our rhythm."
Stubblefield made a handful of solo albums such as 2003's The Original, drummed for such greats as jazzbo Ben Sidran and blues guy Phil Upchurch, and famously held down the beat for an organ jazz trio in his adopted hometown of Madison, Wis., from 1971 to 2011, when he gave the gig to his nephew Brett Stubblefield ("he plays like me, unschooled but intuitive").