James Brown: Funky Drummer (King 45-6290, 1970)

DJ Gunga's copy of James Brown's Funky Drummer
Funky Drummer – 1970 King U.S. release

Why did I NOT buy this record?  To sample it.  Despite this record being a big hit for James Brown, finding a good copy of it is difficult.  DJs around the planet have sampled this record to death.  As such, finding a playable copy of the “Funky Drummer” 45 can be a chore.

Why did I buy this record?  In hindsight, excellent question.  Ironically, I acquired a copy of this record the day that Clyde Stubblefield, the “Funky Drummer” of the title, passed on.   I am not a sentimental person.  However, every obituary I have read on Stubblefield talks about those 8 bars that he played on “Funky Drummer” like that was all there is to his legacy.  Those 8 bars are part of a larger piece, and before I get off track that is what I want to talk about.  I did not come here just to jump on the Clyde Stubblefield eulogy bandwagon.

“Funky Drummer” is really an extended jam session.  The song consists of a single bar, played over and over again, with various instruments playing chord riff variations off the break beat.  (I believe those of you who are professional musicians call this a “vamp”.)  At various points, sax and organ solos are played.  The beat is a solid 4/4 midtempo groove.  Brown does not sing; instead he directs his band with various vocal encouragements.  Stubblefield’s drumming is subdued and, dare I say, perfect. Near the end of Side 2/Part 2, an obviously impressed Brown refers to Stubblefield’s playing as “a mother”.  Brown directs the band to pause so he can “give his drummer some”.   Stubblefield ‘s “solo” is the epitome of cool.  Light taps on the snare, almost like he is brushing it.  Easy on the bass.  The hi-hat sounds like he is just sliding his sticks down it.  And that is it.  The single fades out just as the bridge ends.

In The Jungle Groove - 1986 US release
In The Jungle Groove – 1986 LP, U.S. release

I opted not to include “Funky Drummer” in my list of “Essential Forgotten James Brown” for three reasons:

  1. It was a big hit for Brown in 1970, hardly forgotten.
  2. Every turntablist on the planet has sampled this beat.  Every.  Last.  One.  Even if all you know about hip-hop music is that it is built around samples, you know Stubblefield’s “Funky Drummer” break.
  3. The 45 presents the listener with nothing more than the warm-up to the real groove, and as such is not the definitive release of the song.

The 1986 LP “In The Jungle Groove” offers the full 9-minute jam.  After the break (the fade-out of Part 2 on the 45), a satisfied Brown dubs the jam “The Funky Drummer”, a rhythmic phrase he repeats numerous times on the downbeat.  The post-break solos are smoother than the pre-break.  The LP cut gives the listener a true feel for the sound Brown was chasing after.  From a dance perspective, the 9-minute version really gives a dancer time to feel the beat and get into a groove for him/herself.

If you want to get down with the funky drummer, get the LP, put on your dancing shoes, and get ready to groove.  A listener cannot appreciate “Funky Drummer” unless s/he hears the full take.  The LP has the full takes of other classic James Brown funk jams from this period and offers a much more rewarding listening experience.  Leave the 45 for the collectors.  Speaking of which, if you would like a VG+ copy of “Funky Drummer”, send me a message.  I happen to have one for sale.

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