MARVIN GAYE. Eric Clapton. Stevie Wonder. B.B. King. Jerry Garcia. The Pointer Sisters. The Derek Trucks Band. Widespread Panic. The Allman Brothers.
That’s a diverse array of artists, but they all have one thing on common: knowing who to call when they need perfect organ strains and magnetic stage presence all in one package.
Ike Stubblefield has been in the game for 48 of his 64 years. Through the collapse of the recording industry, the birth of the Internet, astounding advancement in musical equipment and electronics, and a battle with cancer, the Toledo, Ohio native remains the world’s foremost player of the Hammond B3 organ.
Many seasoned musicians might look fondly over their résumé, smile and kick back, content to reflect on their successes while enjoying retirement, but not Stubblefield. The keyboard player/organist is still pushing himself and seeing where the musical journey can take him.
Savannah folks may remember Stubblefield’s energetic performance at the 2011 Savannah Music Festival or his recent Barrelhouse South appearance. This weekend, relish the opportunity to catch him in a concert hall environment at Tybee Post Theater.
“I always played piano, but I started out on drums,” Stubblefield says of his musical roots.
He first played an organ when he was seven years old in church.
“I started playing professionally when I was 12 or 13,” he estimates. “There are a lot of people who don’t know the difference between an organ and a piano. The keyboard is the only real similarity. Real organ-playing is a technique in itself. I had some pretty great colleagues and teachers when I was that young.”
An incredibly versatile organ, the Hammond B3 can evoke the sounds of a horn section, jazz tones, funk, carnival whimsy, and even flutes. Stubblefield notes that, though he’s famous for playing that particular electric organ model, he also enjoys playing keyboards, as well.
“I’ll be doing that at the show,” he notes.
In 1968 at age sixteen—sixteen!—Stubblefield began playing keyboards with the stars of the Motown Review, joining artists like The Four Tops, Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and more on the road.
Two years later, he returned to the Hammond B3 and became an in-demand player through the early 1970s. San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury neighborhood was a hotbed of rock ‘n’ roll activity at the time—Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Boz Scaggs and more were honing their craft, and many called upon Stubblefield’s talents to broaden their sound.
“Those Asbury days were very musical,” Stubblefield says. “Sly and the Family Stone, everybody respected them. We all would sit in and play with each other, just like we do today.”
The Pointer Sisters, George Benson, B.B. King, Rod Stewart, Ike and Tina Turner, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Eric Clapton, and The Jerry Garcia Band, among others, all called upon Stubblefield’s incredible talent. Stubblefield juggled his time between San Francisco, New York and London, but, for the most part, the open road was home from 1970-1975.
As his touring time wound down, Stubblefield found work as a session player, composer, and producer.
“I was always around studios, touring, just watching and recording,” he recalls.
He speaks humbly of his impressive accolades, writing and producing with music legends like Quincy Jones, Phil Spector, and more. As he delved further into production, he also sharpened his skills on the Mini Moog, a synthesizer, under the tutelage of iconic keyboardist George Duke.
In the 1990s, Stubblefield explored the world of live music booking by bringing talent to The Purple Onion, a club in Vancouver, Canada. He even decided to give back to his hometown of Toledo by opening a club called Yikes Supper Club in 1997 (old pal Rodney Dangerfield was even there for the opening). The venue allowed Stubblefield to bring many talented, world-reknown organ players to Toledo.
Throughout his various endeavors, Stubblefield still played. While living in Vancouver and Seattle, he kept a Hammond B3 quartet, Is Not Was, going.
In 2001, he decided to move to Atlanta, performing locally and trying out new collaborations with regional acts like The Derek Trucks Band, Susan Tedeschi, Col. Bruce Hampton, and CeeLo Green.
Upon meeting David Neel, owner of Buckhead’s The Blue Room, Stubblefield found a fellow Atlantan with his passion for sharing organ music with the world. The duo turned The Blue Room into the only Hammond B3 venue on the East Coast outside of New York City. While it’s no longer open, the venue is fondly remembered in Georgia music circles.
These days, fans can catch Stubblefield performing with Big Hat in Nashville, Papa Mali in New Orleans, and, of course, performing as a leading man, as he will this weekend. Stubblefield has enjoyed bringing a variety of sounds and players to the stage in his solo work.
“It’s all about the music,” he says. “It’s not about one style. That’s what I try to portray with whatever I play. Every instrument has a voice.”
“I never really wanted to be an artist,” Stubblefield shares. “I like performing, but it goes with the territory—people look at me as one.”
When he creates a lineup, Stubblefield treats it like walking into a kitchen with a rumbling stomach.
“In the process of putting a gig together, I’ll get out all the ingredients, and see what I’m trying to cook next. In Savannah, these guys haven’t played with us before, so we’re going to jam and have fun, like I do with everything. It’s not about them playing with me: it’s about us playing together. We’ll bring those ingredients up and see what we can cook.”
Stubblefield hints that, though he likes to read the audience and feel out the evening’s sound, Savannah will likely hear “everything from New Orleans to some funk, jam band, some Latin, blues, and everything I’m known for.”
As a master of his instrument, Stubblefield doesn’t like to be associated with any one style and looks forward to keeping it fresh at Tybee Post Theater.
“Come on out and have fun,” he beckons. “We’re gonna do some major cooking!”
Live Wire Presents: Ike Stubblefield
When: Saturday, May 21, 8 p.m.
Where: Tybee Post Theater