And it continues. The death of your heroes is a part of life’s cycle, but 2017 has already taken Al Jarreau, David Axelrod, Junie Morrison and Clyde “Funky Drummer” Stubblefield. All four of these amazing musicians played a role in my musical development, but the news of losing Clyde and Junie within 48 hours was extra rough. It was also a sobering reality check that now has me both afraid to go online and reaching out to everyone I haven’t spoken with for my Give The Drummer Some column. Here’s a toast to Clyde and Junie, and how they impacted my musical journey.
I remember unearthing a tattered copy of Ohio Players’ “Funky Worm” 45 from my mother’s collection around 1987. I thought it was the freakiest, funkiest and most twisted shit I’d ever heard. I was 10 years old and getting heavy into funk, while my peers were more into Run-DMC and The Fat Boys. That meant I had nobody to share this cool record with, so I’d sit in my room and play it over and over and over until I eventually wore the 45 out. The “Granny” character on that record became the mascot of funk. There was Kool and the Gang’s “Funky Granny.” There was The Nite-Liters’ “”Do The Granny.” My real life grandmother was funky. But “Funky Worm” started it all. The character – as well as the ‘worm’ synthesizer – was created and played by none other than then 18-year-old musical prodigy Junie Morrison, and as my musical knowledge expanded, I discovered he was the main creative force behind the Ohio Players’ early Westbound Records albums, which in my opinion housed the band’s funkiest and most ambitious material.
Junie eventually went on to release a series of brilliant solo records – 1975’s Freeze is my personal fave – on which he played just about all the instruments himself with all the latest overdubbing techniques available and injected humor, skits, alter egos and other spice rack stuff generally missing from funk albums.
When Junie joined Parliament-Funkadelic, he gave them more of the same and added to an already insane musical empire overflowing with talent and quirks. Junie Morrison was a genius in a true and literal sense of the word. He embodied the multi-talented, mad scientist, multi-instrumentalist of funk aesthetic in the same the way George Clinton, Sly Stone, Ronald Bell or Prince do, but unfortunately never with the same accolades. As I work on becoming a better musician, Junie is the high water mark for all the disciplines and possibilities of funk. Thank you, Junie.
Two days later, my heart sunk hearing about Clyde Stubblefield, the original Funky Drummer who laid the groove down on some of James Brown’s greatest musical moments, both live and in the studio. But in the case of Clyde, it goes much deeper than an admiration for his playing on a few funk hits. Mr. Stubblefield changed the beat of modern music, both in 1968 when he laid it down and in 1988, when he was the go to sample source for hip-hop and dance music drums. He eventually became the source for everyone’s drums by the ’90s – and was never properly compensated, but that’s another post – and never got his due until then, as credits were never listed on albums in James Brown’s day. Clyde’s drumming was the pulse of my generation, and when I decided to learn to play drums at the tender age of 35, he was one of my biggest influences, obviously.
And it wasn’t just about (trying to) learn his break beats. I can remember watching footage of Clyde taking his routine “Cold Sweat” solo at James Brown’s Boston Garden concert one night and being floored by his left hand technique. It made me want to practice 5 hours a day in a basement with no air conditioning, and the following morning I started doing just that.
It’s a known fact Clyde didn’t read music and was entirely self-taught, so now that we’re in an era of advanced Moeller method videos, Buddy Rich technique tutorials and clinics, Whiplash-like devotion to complex solos, trolling other drummers for not having pristine technique and all the headiest of heady drum shit on YouTube, it’s pretty amazing that someone who inspired us all thought so little of formalities and was so far ahead of the rest of us who obsess over them. He didn’t know his trademark ghost notes were called ghost notes. He just grooved his ass off. By the time I discovered his solo at the Olympia/Paris gig (1967), I decided to dedicate my full attention to learning the drums.
And these videos are the reason why I use traditional grip till this day – for people who’ve inquired about why I started out using a grip that I’ve been told is only for looking cool and playing jazz or drum corps – but at the time I started doing it, I didn’t realize that stuff doesn’t really matter. I was just copying Clyde. Clyde could play matched grip (which he eventually did), traditional, missing a finger (which he also did in recent years) or handcuffed holding two spatulas. Whatever. Stop thinking and just groove. There are no rules to drumming, just groove. He showed me that…and changed my musical focus simply by watching his command on his instrument…and provided the beats behind my favorite songs, both in their original form and by way of an SP-1200. And for those reasons, I’m indebted forever. My only regret is I never got to interview him for my Red Bull drummer column. It was in the works, but never finalized. Thank you, Clyde.
Appreciate and celebrate the greats while they’re still with us!