Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably heard Grammy-winning keyboard player Ike Stubblefield, who specializes in rippling, soulful Hammond B-3 organ playing. His resume of sessions and tours is staggering. He began in Detroit in the 1960s at age 14 as a member of Motown Records’ traveling revue, backing the Four Tops and The Temptations, Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and others.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone moving upward after that, but Stubblefield’s reputation as a reliable, versatile player was cemented, and he seemed to go from prime gig to prime gig in the ’70s and ’80s, playing with George Benson, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, and the Jerry Garcia Band, among many others, moving from Detroit to New York to London to San Francisco without ever slowing down.
As a young musician, Stubblefield had some of the best influences possible: Keyboardist George Duke, then playing with Frank Zappa’s genre-bending Mothers of Invention, took Stubblefield under his wing, and his cousin Clyde played drums with James Brown, passing on his flawless sense of rhythm and groove.
Stubblefield could handle everything from piano to the early synthesizers, but he honed in on the Hammond B-3 early on.
“I was playing the organ in church when I was 6 or 7 years old,” he says. “It was a powerful instrument, totally different from a piano or keyboard like a Fender Rhodes or a Wurlitzer. And coming from a drumming aspect because of Clyde, it was an easy transition because I was playing the bass pedals and supporting the band.”
Stubblefield garnered attention on the Detroit club scene from the artists on Motown Records, and they recruited him to fill in on some live dates, which should’ve been intimidating for a 14-year-old, but not this one.
“It was fun!” he says with a laugh. “It wasn’t scary at all. I came from that school where you can’t ever let them see you sweat. And they’ll tell you if you’re not doing it right.”
After decades as a first-call session player, live performer, producer, songwriter, club owner, and more, Stubblefield decided to move to Atlanta, largely because of the weather.
“I’d been all over the world before I moved here,” he says. “I was in Vancouver with a club called the Purple Onion, but I was ready to get in warmer weather again. And Atlanta seemed to be a good spot. So in 1999, I came down and set up shop.”
“Set up shop” is a bit of an understatement. Within two weeks, Stubblefield had been noticed by the legendary Southern-jam-rocker Col. Bruce Hampton, and he joined Hampton’s band, The Codetalkers. That’s where he first heard the term “jam-band.”
“I thought, ‘A jam-band? What’s a jam-band?’” he says. “We were doing that 15 years ago! Jamming is what you’re supposed to do! Otherwise, it’s just like playing the record over and over again. Back in the day, the bands I was in would rehearse every day and jam.”
That experience with Hampton exposed Stubblefield to a whole new group of musicians, most notably guitarist Derek Trucks and drummer Jeff Sipe. He even found time to record extensively with CeeLo Green.
After 50 years behind the keys, Stubblefield is busier than ever, playing shows all over the Southeast, like his show at The Firmament in Greenville on Friday with Upstate blues guitarist Shane Pruitt and the Winston-Salem, N.C., psychedelic funk group Marvelous Funkshun.
“It’s like cooking,” he says of working with different musicians. “Every musician is like an ingredient. And if I’m thrown into the pot with them, I see what it tastes like. It’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t that’s important. You have to listen to what’s going on. I don’t really think about it because it’s not supposed to be about thinking. It’s about feeling. You can’t add salt to everything you cook; you can’t play the same thing every time.”
And to say the least, that approach has worked for Ike Stubblefield. “Six Grammys and 50 years and I’m still going,” he says.
Ike Stubblefield w/ Marvelous Funkshun and Shane Pruitt
WHEN: Friday, March 16, 8 p.m.
WHERE: The Firmament, 5 Market Point Drive, Greenville