When the hands of Ike Stubblefield hovered above the keyboards of his Hammond B-3 organ, they were like divining rods in search of water.
That’s how trumpet player Joey “Papa J.” Sommerville describes it. Ike played by ear and his ears were nearly perfect. If someone kicked off a song he didn’t know, Ike would hover his fingers over the keys, close his eyes for a few seconds, and then join in as though he’d been playing the song for years. And few, if any, musicians ever heard Ike Stubblefield play a wrong note.
“When you play as long as we’ve played, your ears get trained,” says Grant Green Jr., the Atlanta-based jazz/funk guitarist who performed with Stubblefield for a decade. “But Ike had great ears and he was a great musician. He could listen to anything and then play it. He could dissect with his ears songs that aren’t easy to dissect.”
Stubblefield, one of the masters of the Hammond B-3 and a driving force on the Atlanta music scene for the past 30 years, died June 20 at his home in Conyers after a long bout with cancer.
The list of people Stubblefield performed with during his career is astounding to consider: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves, The Four Tops, The Temptations, George Benson, Eric Clapton, Quincy Jones, Rod Stewart, Jerry Garcia, Colonel Bruce Hampton, Gregg Allman, Chuck Leavell, Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes. He played piano on several songs on the Top Gun soundtrack, one of the biggest-selling soundtrack albums in history. One of his solo albums featured 12 Grammy winners doing guest musician spots.
There was even a song written about him with the refrain: “I gotta learn to play like Ike Stubblefield.”
Caroline Aiken, who helped forge Decatur’s folk music scene, toured with Stubblefield and recorded with him on her most recent album, Broken Wings. “Ike was an amazing musician, and I’m so honored to have had him on that CD and that tour,” she says. “He was an international player who was beloved in all parts of the world.”
“Ike was a special individual,” says Peter Stroud, the Atlanta guitarist and longtime music director for Sheryl Crow. “He was inspiring to me, both as a person and the way he played music. He had an amazing level of spirituality. There was something different about him, and you could see it right away. I always picked up the phone when Ike called. Because it was Ike.”
Sommerville calls him “my big brother,” and they forged a close offstage friendship. “He will be sorely missed musically,” Sommerville says. “If you were fortunate enough to have played with him, consider yourself blessed. There’ll never be another one like him.”
A musical celebration of Stubblefield’s life is in the works; Sommerville says details of the memorial concert will be announced in the coming weeks.
The B-3 man
Isaac “Ike” Stubblefield was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1952, one of seven children and the twin of Michael Stubblefield. They were known to the family as “Mike and Ike.”
He was named for his father, who was in the cement construction business. His mother, Edna, played first trumpet in a big band jazz ensemble in Chicago. Ike began to play the piano by ear at a young age, and also learned to play drums and saxophone.
He was exposed to the Hammond B-3 organ through church. “I was playing the organ in church when I was 6 or 7 years old,” he told Vincent Harris of the Greenville Journal. “It was a powerful instrument, totally different from a piano or keyboard.”
When he was 11, Stubblefield asked his parents for a Hammond B-3 for Christmas. They said no because the cost, about $1,000 at the time, was prohibitive and they didn’t know if he was going to stick with it. In protest, he stopped speaking to his parents. For nearly six months, he communicated with them only through sign language at the supper table.
“It worked,” Stubblefield told Macon Telegraph columnist Ed Grisamore in 2018. “My mom knew I was serious about it. My dad was still trying to train me for the family business.”
By age 14, when Stubblefield was a high school freshman, he was playing with the Motown Revue and backing up Motown stars on tours. “It was fun,” he once said. “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.”
Colonel Bruce Hampton told the story that during one of Stubblefield’s first shows with the revue, he showed off a little during a song. After the concert, the musicians all climbed into a station wagon on a cold and snowy night to go back to Detroit. The car pulled over to the side of the road under an overpass; Stubblefield was ordered out of the car. He was told to walk home and as he did, to think about the importance of staying within the music instead of trying to steal the spotlight.
The other musicians went down the road a ways, then turned around and came back to pick him up. But it was a lesson that Stubblefield took to heart.
“The musicians were different back then, they were hard on you,” says Green, the son of legendary jazz guitarist Grant Green. “All of us from that generation got beat up in some way. If you played something they didn’t like, they’d kick you off the stage and let the audience see it happen. That was totally embarrassing. But you go right back up there. That’s how you learn.”
Stubblefield dropped out of high school when he was a junior to move to Detroit and play music full time.
He talked about how dynamic Detroit was for a young musician. He’d rehearse with the Motown Revue, then go to a rock club and jam with Iggy Pop, then go to a jazz club and play Jimmy Smith songs, and then go home and listen to Frank Zappa. “I was all over the place musically at the age of 14,” he said once. “That was fun.”
Green thinks those experiences helped define Stubblefield as a musician, and enabled him to step comfortably into any musical setting. “I don’t think there are a lot of people in Ike’s category,” he says. “It was a different generation. We listened to rock and roll, we listened to everything. And that affected how we played. Ike listened to more than organ players. He listened to Brian Auger and Joe Zawinul and people like that. Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, those guys got him started on the B-3, but he wasn’t from their generation. He would listen to Bowie. I don’t think Jimmy Smith was listening to guys like that.”
The move to Atlanta
After the Motown sound began to wane, Stubblefield spent time living in New York City, London and San Francisco. He worked with legendary producers Quincy Jones and Phil Spector. Jazz keyboardist George Duke became a close friend. Stubblefield played with a wide array of musicians: George Benson, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart.
He eventually relocated to Vancouver, where he ran a music club called The Purple Onion. In 1999, he moved to Atlanta. Two weeks later, he met Colonel Bruce Hampton and joined Hampton’s band at the time, The Codetalkers. Bobby Lee Rodgers, the band’s chief songwriter, even penned a song called “Ike Stubblefield” that told the story of his life, including a nod to Stubblefield’s parrot, Stanley. The song became a mainstay for the group with its refrain: “I gotta learn to play like Ike Stubblefield.”
Stubblefield’s friendship with Hampton introduced him to the cream of Southern musicians in and around Atlanta: Sommerville, Yonrico Scott, Sonny Emory, Jeff Sipe, Derek Trucks, Jimmy Herring, Warren Haynes, brothers Oteil and Kofi Burbridge, and many others.
He also helped run a jazz club in Buckhead called The Blue Room, which was devoted to the Hammond B-3. Green, who was living in New York City, played The Blue Room with the Godfathers of Groove, a trio with Reuben Wilson on organ and legendary drummer Bernard Purdie. On a break, Green and Stubblefield stepped outside into a warm February night for a cigarette, and Green asked if it was always that warm in the winter. “Yes,” Stubblefield replied.
Green made an instant decision to move to Atlanta. In addition to his solo shows, he quickly became a mainstay in bands led by Hampton and by Stubblefield. “Ike was all about the music,” says Green. “He didn’t really care about anything else. I like to watch football and basketball. He wasn’t into any of that. If it wasn’t about music, he didn’t care. It was about total music with him all the time. He had one care: the music.”
Around that time, Stubblefield became a staff producer at Tree Sound studios and began to work with singer Diane Durrett. “We met at a music jam, and we started talking and hit it off,” she says. “My music has always lent itself to having a B-3 and he invited me to play at The Blue Room. Then we started writing together.”
Stubblefield produced Durrett’s Blame It on My DNA album in 2009, recorded in his home studio and at Tree Sound. “He brought in a whole bunch of folks he knew to play on it,” she says. That list of musicians included Bernard Purdie (Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan); Yonrico Scott (The Derek Trucks Band); Benji Shanks (Blackberry Smoke); and Sommerville.
“We played a lot of shows together, festivals and the Northside Tavern and The Five Spot,” Durrett says. “We became friends, always keeping up with each other and talking on the phone. He would ask, ‘How are you doing?’ And we’d sit and really talk.”
Sommerville also forged a deep friendship with Stubblefield. They were both from Toledo and although he hadn’t known Stubblefield then, his parents were good friends with one of Stubblefield’s sisters.
“He was ‘big brother Ike’ to me, always looking out for me and always ready with counsel,” says Sommerville. “When he was at the B-3, it was Ike’s world. You were playing in his playground. With Ike and that B-3, it was like getting on a magic carpet ride.”
A B-3 on every continent
Stubblefield was a familiar figure in Atlanta music circles, traveling to gigs in his dark green BMW station wagon with the personalized license plate: B3 MAN.
His B-3 and Leslie speaker would fill up the rear space of his station wagon, and both were monstrously heavy as anyone who ever helped him lift them out can attest. There is a legendary story of people seeing him roll his organ up Roswell Road to reach the Brandy House club for a gig with Bruce Hampton.
Stubblefield played regularly around Atlanta and the Southeast, and at festivals and nightclubs in the United States and Europe. He said he had 17 Hammond B-3 organs in storage all across the world so that he’d always have easy access to his instrument no matter where he was. He was inducted into the Atlanta Hard Rock Cafe Hall of Fame, and the console of his first Hammond B-3 was placed on the wall in the restaurant.
He moved to Athens for a time — where he played with Caroline Aiken, Randall Bramblett and John Keane, among others — then moved a few years ago to Conyers near the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.
By this time, his health was a challenge. He’d survived bone cancer and a bone marrow transplant that kept him in Grady Hospital for several weeks. He’d had a hip replacement, and had problems with his back.
He’d once had his fingers insured with Lloyd’s of London. In 2017, he had to deal with carpal tunnel syndrome when his right hand began to lock up. Stubblefield went to Macon to the care of renowned hand surgeon Waldo Floyd III; within 24 hours of surgery, he was behind his Hammond, playing again.
He was shaken by the death of Yonrico Scott in the fall of 2019. The two performed together often and Scott spent the last day of his life recording at Stubblefield’s home studio; he fell ill on the drive home and passed away a short time later.
On March 14, 2020, Stubblefield played a show at the Northside Tavern in front of about 150 people and then everything shut down with the pandemic. He returned to the stage for a streamed performance from the Savannah Jazz Festival on September 27. In March, he recorded an instrumental version of Kevn Kinney’s “Covered By an Underground Umbrella” with Peter Stroud, bassist Robert Kearns and drummer Red Eltringham for a YouTube video release. “We were doing the song and I thought, ‘Man, we’ve got to have Ike on this,'” Stroud says. “It might have been his last performance. I feel grateful that it happened, for that reason alone.”
Surrounded by love
In early April, Stubblefield learned he’d have to move because his landlord was selling his house. He told Stroud that he planned to go to Nashville, and seemed as positive as ever. But Stubblefield did offhandedly mention, “I just had to do five days in ICU, but I’m fine now.”
Stroud and Sommerville talked to him that same day. They were concerned about his labored breathing and urged him to see a doctor. A few days later, he was admitted to Emory University Hospital; his cancer had returned and spread.
“We reconnected toward the end,” says Durrett, who sits on the board of the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy. “He needed some help when his cancer came back and he’d have to go through chemo. I connected him with MusiCares and the Recording Academy. That’s exactly what that fund is for, when you can say to a musician, “Hey, man, they’ve got you covered.” He had the medical covered, and MusiCares helped with other expenses.”
Stubblefield struggled medically, then seemed to make a comeback. He was released to a rehab center to try to gain enough strength to go through chemotherapy. “He had a rough time of it at Emory hospital, then he was going to the rehab center and starting chemo,” says Green. “I thought he was going to pull through.”
But his condition worsened. He returned home from rehab for hospice care on June 15. He passed away five days later. “I was there and his sisters were there as he transitioned,” says Sommerville. “People had been calling to talk to him. He went out surrounded by love, and knowing he was loved by a lot of people.”
For Durrett, Stubblefield’s death is a reminder not to take life for granted. “We had a sweet last conversation,” she says. “He was like a big brother to me. He was solid and real. It’s such a big loss. It makes you wake up. You think people like Ike and Yonrico are always going to be here, and they aren’t.”
Ike Stubblefield was like a big brother to many people, myself included. I met Ike through Bruce Hampton 15 years ago. We even played in a band together for about six months, and I sometimes sat in with his groups over the years. Like Joey Sommerville, I consider myself blessed that I was fortunate enough to play with Ike. In the band, he pushed me. He’d chide me for playing timid and he was right; I was too often more concerned with not making a mistake than with falling into the song. But he was also encouraging. Always. And consistently through the years, ever so often he’d call me up like a big brother checking in to make sure all was OK and to fill me in on his latest adventures.
I loved to watch Ike when he would settle in behind his B-3 at the start of a show. The audience couldn’t see this because it was shielded from sight, but even when I wasn’t onstage I would maneuver so I could watch Ike slip off his shoes. The B-3 has foot pedals for bass notes so that the organist can double as a bass player. They look like giant piano keys, and he explained to me that being shoeless allowed him to feel the pedals.
Ike seldom smiled or showed emotion as he performed, he was in deep concentration — almost meditative. It was his feet where his joyous love for making music was expressed. They would glide up and down the pedals, dancing a fast waltz. His feet would be in perfect harmony with his hands as they roamed the keyboard, those divining rods in search of the exact right note. He always knew where to find it.
“I don’t look at this as work, how could I?” Ike once said. Then he beamed one of his enormous smiles, an alert that he was about to reveal a deep truth. “I bring joy to people. That’s what I do, you know?”
And he did it exceptionally well. After all, he didn’t just play like Ike Stubblefield, he was Ike Stubblefield.