Memphis got a double dose of funk on Wednesday, when the Memphis Drum shop hosted drumming legends Clyde Stubblefield and John “Jabo” Starks. Both men played on James Brown’s essential funk hits of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Both were in town for the Memphis Drum Shop’s “In-Store Clinic” series. I arrived as both were enjoying lunch from Soul Fish with shop owner Jim Pettit and store staff. Stubblefield was reticent in contrast to the loquacious Starks.
“This place is a museum,” Starks said of Memphis Drum Shop. “If you say ‘drum’ it’s in here. It’s the best-organized store I’ve ever been in, bar none. And I’m not greasing my friend Jim because he’s standing here.” I mentioned that I come to the store even though I’m a bassist. “You got no business at this store,” joked Starks, who kept the lunch lively throughout.
While the two frequently worked together with Brown, Stubblefield’s biggest hits are from the late ’60s ("Cold Sweat", "There Was A Time", "I Got The Feelin'", "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud", "Ain't It Funky Now", and "Mother Popcorn") and Starks’ from the early ’70s ("The Payback", "Sex Machine", "Super Bad", and "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing"). Brown was a legendary taskmaster to his players and had many bands before working with Stubblefield and Starks. Starks recalled the turmoil around the addition of Phelps brothers Bootsy and Phelps, who were much younger and often oblivious to the expectations of the demanding Godfather.
“The rhythm changed when Bootsy got there. I said, ‘Boy, you got to gel. Once you lock in, I don’t care what you do.’ He played different. It was a 360-degree turn. You see, James was declining. But with [Sex Machine], he shot right back up to the top.”
Stubblefield is of particular musicological interest as the most-sampled drummer in the history of hip-hop. He did not enjoy royalty income from his ubiquitous influence over hip-hip in the 80s and 90s, when his beat for “The Funky Drummer” proved irresistible to emcees and rappers who sampled that beat with its magical combination of rock-solidity and compelling liveliness. Users of the beat include Run DMC, Public Enemy, NWA, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys. It is a masterpiece for the ages, but it provided no remuneration to Stubblefield, who was profiled in a PBS documentary, Copyright Criminals.