‘it’s all like colours and shapes to me – I just feel the patterns‘ – Siobhán Kane chats with Hammond organ legend Ike Stubblefield Over his almost-50-year-career, Hammond B3 organ master – Ike Stubblefield, has worked with artists as diverse as Marvin Gaye, Eric Clapton, Curtis Mayfield, the Jerry Garcia Band, and Stevie Wonder, and producers like Quincy Jones, Giorgio Moroder, and Phil Spector. He has lived all over the world, helping out so many music scenes, through setting up venues and collaborating with musicians, from Toledo to Detroit, Vancouver to London, and Atlanta to Athens, Georgia, where he presently resides. At 62 years old, Stubblefield is busier than ever – last year he featured on almost 30 records, and he is as passionate about disseminating the culture of the Hammond B3, as he is playing it, as he tells Siobhán Kane.
You are synonymous with the Hammond B3 organ – when did you start to express an interest in playing it? Oh boy, well I started off on drums, actually, but I was playing keyboards and piano when I was 3 years old, but I think drums really helped my rhythm. And I was playing in church when I was little, so I was really familiar with the B3 organ. It’s a very different instrument, it’s so different to the piano, it’s a whole different technique to playing. I started playing the organ around age 12, and professionally I started playing when I was 14.
How did that come about? It was very natural – I knew a lot of the musicians who played for Motown at that time, like Marcus Belgrave, and Richard [“Pistol”]Allen who played drums on a lot of stuff, so I just kind of went to those shows, and they were all getting ready to move to Los Angeles, as Berry Gordy had decided that there was a lot of film work coming up with Diana Ross, and he wanted to get into film stuff, so I was at the tail end of the original Motown Detroit scene for a little bit. It was when I was 14 I was playing some of the Revue’s in Detroit – that early! It was 1968 I believe. And then I was on tour with Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, all at the same time, it was very exciting – that was all piano, it wasn’t organ at that time, as there was no organ on those tracks, but then I started working with BB King, and became known for the Hammond B3 organ. I then moved to London, as my manager back then also managed the Electric Light Orchestra, and I did a couple of shows with Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton, and toured for around 4 or 5 years, and then moved back to the States, to California actually, and I was just hungry for so much. Back then it was a whole different musical experience, because everyone used to practice and play together, and there was so much good music. Even when I was with Motown I used to play with them at one side of Detroit at the Revue, and then after that I would go to the east side of the city and play with Iggy Pop and MC5 and rock out, and then go to another part of Detroit at Bakers Keyboard Lounge and play some jazz tunes, and then go home and listen to Frank Zappa! [Laughs] At 14 I was all over the place, I have always loved all kinds of music, and it’s always been so exciting to perform all kinds of music.
Detroit has always been a real touchstone in musical history, and is regularly written about, not just in terms of its importance, but in terms of its struggles, also – what are your thoughts? It’s always had very creative musicians, and it has a special history of music, but with the economy and the global crash, Detroit never recovered, but you know, when Motown left in 1970, it was a big loss, because it took a lot of potential away from Detroit as a whole, but even to this day there are so many gifted musicians that come out of there, but the economy is very rough up there at the moment, and it has been for at least a decade now, and the winters are brutal, so it is not a very appealing place to live, and it can be quite a rough area. There are a lot of interesting major music capitals in the United States, like Chicago with the blues, and Nashville with country, and of course, New York, Atlanta, New Orleans, and LA-there are many major music capitals that basically have a similar history to Detroit, in their own ways. New Orleans is one of the last places in the United States that is culturally musical like Detroit used to be – it’s part of its whole culture, and I really enjoy going down there, because it is still a special place, and I don’t want to ruin it by moving there, and it’s so close, it’s only an hour’s flight from where I live now.
You have lived in so many of those special places, linking in to their musical communities. Yes, I suppose I am actually a part of their musical history! [Laughs] I am all about putting back into communities and keeping their integrity, and back then it was a different era of community, everybody helped each other, and gave back, but today, globally, it has changed, there are younger kids with iPhones and the internet, and for some of them it’s all about entitlement, they think they are entitled to being given everything without working for it, they don’t understand why they can’t have it!
I just turned 62, and I am still 14 [laughs]. I missed my whole adolescence, I was never a teenager, because at 14 I was always around adult musicians and acting responsibly, so I guess I am broken in that mould, because I never did the kids stuff at 14. Things are so radically different now, but change is always good – we didn’t have the technology back then – we really had to get it right, and focus on being a real musician, and supporting each other – these days you have so much information coming to you from everyone on the planet, it’s just overwhelming, as opposed to being okay with mistakes, you can’t learn anything unless you do that, but so many kids today don’t want to go through a process of failure, or going through mistakes to find out a better way.
Yet I know that you respect some technology, and use it in some of your work. Oh absolutely. I am always in my studio, surrounded by the most advanced technology, and recording equipment – I was on 29 records last year, by getting the files through the internet, they send me mp3s, I import them into Logic, and then put the organ or keyboard part on while they are still doing the vocal, and then the organ is on the track. Technology is great, but it’s a tool to get the job done – you can’t let it take over the creativity, you have to use it wisely.
You always try to use vintage Hammonds when performing on stage, honouring that kind of idea. I’m a purist that way, I like the ingredient and integrity of the instrument, and what I am hearing – and I think people want the real thing, it’s more of an integrity thing for me.
Is it true that you own 15 vintage organs? Yes, 15 organs and about 22 Leslie Speakers scattered all over the world – it’s just a little pet thing of mine, and to me, they all sound different, and it’s like cooking for me, which ingredient will I use? Some musicians and instruments are like the staple, like salt and pepper, or eggs, but if I want to do something outside the box, I’ll go there, that’s what I am known for.
Who are some of your greatest influences? I believe that George Duke was by teaching you many Mini Moog techniques? He was a major influence, but also Frank Zappa, because he was so outside the box, but there are so many, over the years. I don’t listen to any popular music, really, I listen to classical and opera – and for classical, I always go back to Beethoven, and all the masters, really, just because every time I hear what they have created, I hear something different, and it all makes sense, and unfolds the story, and flows, and that’s how I think when I am playing. There are quite a few others that influence me in different categories, some in England, but also in Ireland, Enya is a big influence on me, her compositions are brilliant, they are all in colours and shapes, it’s like being in a totally different place. Peter Gabriel does that to me, also, and as I said, classical does that to me, it’s not all about RnB and funk music and jazz, though that’s there too.
You know, I don’t know how to read music, or what a C major chord is, I play totally by ear – every chord, rhythm, everything, it’s all like colours and shapes to me – I just feel the patterns, and am able to accommodate what is going on around me, it’s a little bit about being aware. I teach students, and I use a phrase from Star Wars “use the force, Luke” – because students’ biggest fear is mistaking a mistake, but I try to get them to shake off that fear. I get them to play a C chord, then I put a blindfold on them, and ask them to try and hit that same note again, and it might take a while, but they get it. I show them how I do it on the keyboard, and go up an octave up each time, not looking at the keys, and they don’t understand how I can do that, but it’s about space, and knowing every inch of your instrument like it’s a part of you – if you get up in the middle of the night, it’s pitch black, but you’ll know where a lamp is, you’ll find it, because your sense of touch multiplies.
It’s all about hearing and being aware of what’s going on, and it has nothing to do with sight per se, unless you are looking at a conductor or something like that, it’s about not being afraid to make mistakes, and it’s pretty easy really [laughs]. It’s a natural thing for us to do; it’s just that our brain can get in the way. If you drop all that, it’s quite easy.
You have worked with so many idiosyncratic people, including Phil Spector, what was that like? Everybody’s so different about how they look at things, and my time with Phil was short, as I only did two or three recording sessions, so didn’t get to know him that well, but he was quite reclusive, although some of the greatest people on earth have been like that, and you really don’t know what is true about all the rumours and stories – when you are in the public eye like that, people really want to know what makes you tick.
You also worked with the wonderful Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, they played in Dublin recently, and it was heartening, because she has suffered the slings and arrows of the fickle music industry and has survived, and radiates goodness, she has such a gift. She’s great – 2 years ago I had her come down from Detroit to Athens, Georgia, where I live, and she said she knew I was going to be 60, and asked what I would like for my birthday, and I said “I would like for you to sing my four favourite songs” so she sang Heatwave, Dancing in the Street, My Baby Loves Me, and Jimmy Mack, and it was a brilliant time – that was my 60th birthday present [laughs].
You seem to get so much enjoyment from collaborating with other musicians, setting up venues, and basically expanding the musical culture around the Hammond B3, it seems as important for you to do that, as it is to perform. Yes, these days I am actually more into teaching and speaking with the youth and kids, because music is not just about performing, but sharing knowledge, and a lot of that knowledge and integrity needs to be shared, so that people can access that, and understand that and use that. I suppose I really relate to kids because in terms of music I am still 14 [laughs].