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The Original Funky Drummers On Life With James Brown

John "Jabo" Starks (left) and Clyde Stubblefield laid the grooves on many of James Brown's biggest hits. Here, they clown around on the cover of their joint DVD, Soul of the Funky Drummers. (Rittor Music)

All this week, Morning Edition is talking about drums and drummers. For the first installment in "Beat Week," David Greene spoke with a duo who shared drumming duties for the hardest working man in show business.


From the mid-1960s through the early '70s, Clyde Stubblefield and John "Jabo" Starks created the grooves on many of James Brown's biggest hits, and laid the foundation for modern funk drumming in the process.

The two first met in 1965, at James Brown gig in Augusta, Ga. Stubblefield was there to audition, even though Starks had just been hired two weeks earlier – and was already one of a handful of drummers on the band's roster.

"I went on stage and there was five drum sets up there," Stubblefield recalls. "And I'm going, 'Wow, what do you need me for?'"

Starks says the overstuffed lineup was a strategy Brown had adopted after an earlier conflict with his band had led to a standoff.

"The saying was, when Clayton Fillyau was the drummer with James, he had just one drummer, one guitar player, one bass player," Starks says. "They was about to not play; they were rebelling against James for something ... so he had to agree with them. And they said he made a statement after then: 'I'll never be caught without two of everything.' So I guess that's where it started. But when Clyde and I joined the group, we jelled together. And then he started letting the other drummers go."

Essentially competitors for the same seat, Stubblefield and Starks could easily have ended up as rivals. Starks says one reason they didn't was that their skills weren't redundant: Each brought something unique to the group.

"You have to understand this: We're two different drummers," he says. "Clyde plays the way that Clyde plays, which, nobody's gonna play like Clyde. I play like I play. We can play the same tune, but different ways. You never played together on James' shows, but when he wanted to hear something different from Clyde, he'd point to me."

Both drummers say working with Brown could be tough. Musicians were pretty much at his beck and call — and he would even fine them when he felt they'd made a mistake.

"Sometimes you don't have to make a mistake," says Stubblefield, who says he had to pay Brown more than once. "You just do a little something different and he'd call that a fine, he'd fine you."

Remarkably, neither Stubblefield nor Starks ever took drum lessons. Stubblefield says he got his sense of rhythm by listening to the clatter of machinery emanating from the factories in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. Starks grew up in the church in Mobile, Ala., and says he couldn't help but move to the music he'd hear at services.

"You couldn't even sit down. You couldn't stop. You had to get up to do something with it," he says.

The grooves the two drummers created have inspired generations of artists — not just in funk, but in hip-hop, where their steady but intricate patterns make natural material for sampling. Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," the bracing theme music from Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, is based around a snippet of Stubblefield's playing on "Funky Drummer" (to which rapper Chuck D makes a sly reference in his opening lines).

But more often than not, the artists who have used Stubblefield and Starks' beats in their own music have failed to give them credit. That, on top of the bad times with James Brown, would leave anyone a little bitter. But when they speak to each other, the love and respect are unmistakable.

"We're brothers," Starks says. "That's the way that I look at it. It's a brotherly love."

Stubblefield concurs. "Actually," he says, "we've never had an argument."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All this week, we're talking about drums and drummers. We're calling it Beat Week. And today, our colleague David Greene brings us a duo that's had a huge effect on music.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: From the mid-'60s through the early '70s, Clyde Stubblefield and John "Jabo" Starks shared drumming duties for the hardest-working man in show business.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET UP")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) One, two, three, four. Get up. Get on up. Get up.

GREENE: Clyde and Jabo, as they like to be called, are both now in their 70s, and they created the grooves on many of James Brown's biggest hits. Their work really laid the foundation for modern funk drumming. Can you tell me when the two of you met?

CLYDE STUBBLEFIELD: In '65 at a James Brown concert in Augusta, Georgia.

GREENE: And tell me exactly what happened.

STUBBLEFIELD: Well, I went down to audition for James Brown. And I went on stage, and there was five drum sets up there. And I'm going, wow, what do you need me for?

GREENE: That's Clyde. He was hired just two weeks after Jabo, bringing the total number of drummers in the group up to seven. Why did James Brown need so many drummers?

JOHN 'JABO' STARKS: The saying was when Clayton Fillyau was a drummer with James, he had just one drummer, one guitar player, one bass player. They was about to not play. They were rebelling against James for something.

GREENE: Oh.

STARKS: And they said they weren't going to play, and he just couldn't stand that. So he had to agree with them, and they said he made a statement after then, I'll never be caught without two of everything. So I guess that's where it started. But when Clyde and I joined the group, it was like we gelled together, and then he started letting the other drummers go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: At this time, we want to feature our latest recording. It's called "Cold Sweat." You ready, Clyde?

STUBBLEFIELD: Yeah.

BROWN: That's our drummer. One of them. Hit it, Clyde.

GREENE: Well how did you guys gel so well? Because you could've been competitive.

STUBBLEFIELD: No. We love each other.

STARKS: You have to understand this. We're two different drummers. Clyde plays the way that Clyde play, which nobody's going to play like Clyde.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLD SWEAT")

BROWN: (Singing) I break out in a cold sweat. Huh.

STARKS: I play like I play. We can play the same tune but different ways.

STUBBLEFIELD: Nobody play like Jabo.

STARKS: You never play together on James' show.

STUBBLEFIELD: No.

STARKS: But then he would change. When he wanted to hear something different from Clyde, he'd point to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PAYBACK")

BROWN: (Singing) Hey. Got to got to payback. Revenge.

STARKS: I know how to groove, sit in a pocket and groove.

STUBBLEFIELD: Correct. Correct.

STARKS: And if you can't pat your feet and clap your hand to what I'm doing, then I'm not doing anything worthwhile.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PAYBACK")

BROWN: (Singing) I'm mad. I get down with my girlfriend. That ain't right.

GREENE: Well, what was it like working with James Brown?

STUBBLEFIELD: Well it was a trip, number one.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: OK.

STUBBLEFIELD: And Jabo and I took it. And most of the time, it was fun 'cause we were traveling. And most of the time when Brown was there, it wasn't that much fun because he didn't associate with us.

GREENE: He didn't?

STUBBLEFIELD: No. He rode on a plane. We rode on a bus together.

GREENE: Clyde and Jabo do say working with James Brown could be tough. Musicians were pretty much at his beck and call. They even got fined for mistakes, though never Jabo.

STARKS: Oh, I didn't pay fines.

GREENE: You didn't pay fines?

STUBBLEFIELD: No, he didn't. I paid fines.

GREENE: You paid fines. Clyde, what were you paying fines for?

STUBBLEFIELD: For him thinking I made a mistake.

GREENE: I love you saying thinking that you made a mistake, not making a mistake. That sounds like an important distinction.

STUBBLEFIELD: Right. Sometimes you don't have to make a mistake. You just do a little something a little differently, and he called that a fine. He'd fine you.

GREENE: Now amazingly, these two guys who helped invent funk drumming never took drum lessons.

STUBBLEFIELD: We just done our own thing.

STARKS: You play from the feelings that you have...

GREENE: Right.

STARKS: ...The music that you have been endowed with.

GREENE: And it wasn't always music. Clyde Stubblefield, who grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, heard rhythms all around him.

STUBBLEFIELD: They had factories down there that would put off like a smokestack. Pa-poom (ph). Pa-poom. Pa-poom. I just made up my own soul feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT THE FEELING")

BROWN: (Singing) I got the feeling. Baby, baby, I got the feeling.

GREENE: John "Jabo" Starks was raised in Mobile, Alabama. His influence was music like this from the Church of God.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR MUSIC)

GREENE: Picture handclapping, singing, tambourines and other instruments.

STARKS: It was a feeling and a groove that you just couldn't even sit down to. You couldn't stop. You had to get up and do something with it.

STUBBLEFIELD: And Jabo is a groover.

GREENE: And the grooves these guys created have inspired so many artists. This is a song from the group Public Enemy. They used Clyde Stubblefield's famous drum pattern from the song, "Funky Drummer."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT THE POWER")

PUBLIC ENEMY: (Singing) Fight the power. We've got to fight the powers that be.

GREENE: But artists rarely give Clyde or Jabo credit when they use their beats. That on top of the bad times with James Brown have left them feeling a little bitter. Still, they give Brown thanks for showcasing their talents around the world. And sometimes, it was the hardest working man in show business who couldn't keep up with them.

STARKS: I never will forget. We played a gig with James in Olympic Theatre in Paris. We struck a groove that you just couldn't turn aloof. James came on. He did his part and when he walked off stage, the groove was still going. We could not stop it. He came back. He said, that's enough, and he took off again, and we were still playing. He came back a second time. Third time, he just threw his hands up and said, I can't go any further.

GREENE: Can I just say I get the feeling that you guys really admire one another?

STUBBLEFIELD: We do.

STARKS: We're brothers. That's the way that I look at it. It's a brotherly love. That's what it is.

STUBBLEFIELD: It is. You're right.

STARKS: Now, so far is the music world eventually, possibly, it's going to be said that OK, Clyde and Jabo did this or they did that. To tell you the truth, it doesn't really matter with me because I get respect from people that really mean what they're saying. It's not just talking or saying something.

STUBBLEFIELD: Jabo and I has never fell out. Actually, we have never had an argument actually.

GREENE: Well, you guys have been on quite a journey together, and it has been an honor talking to you. And thank you guys so much.

STARKS: Thank you.

STUBBLEFIELD: OK Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUNKY DRUMMER")

BROWN: (Singing) One more time. I want to give the drummer some of this funky soul we got here.

INSKEEP: David Greene on the line with the original funky drummers, Clyde Stubblefield and John "Jabo" Starks.

STUBBLEFIELD: Love you, Bo.

STARKS: Love you, C.

STUBBLEFIELD: OK, brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUNKY DRUMMER")

BROWN: (Singing) One, two, three, four. Get it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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