The Original Funky Drummers On Life With James Brown Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks should have been rivals: James Brown hired both of them to do one job. Instead, they stuck together, and laid the foundation for modern funk drumming in the process.
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The Original Funky Drummers On Life With James Brown

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The Original Funky Drummers On Life With James Brown

The Original Funky Drummers On Life With James Brown

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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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.



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.


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.


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."


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?


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.



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.


STARKS: Love you, C.



BROWN: (Singing) One, two, three, four. Get it.

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