When Ike Stubblefield followed his heart, his fingers and ears joined in lockstep.
Together, they made the journey from Toledo to Detroit to New York, London, San Francisco, Ontario and Georgia. Every address could have been written in pencil. More than half a century in nightclubs, concert stages and recording studios has provided quite a travelogue.
He has made music from Motown to Haight-Ashbury to Music City to Macon because that is what he does, and is all he ever has wanted to do.
“I started when I was 8, and I’m 65 now,” he said. “I don’t look at this as work. I never have. I bring joy to people. That’s what I do.”
His fingers have raced up and down so many keyboards they could qualify for frequent flier miles. He has performed, jammed and recorded with some of the all-time greats.
Stevie Wonder. Marvin Gaye. Otis Redding. Eric Clapton. Ike and Tina Turner. Jerry Garcia. Gregg Allman. Chuck Leavell. The Temptations. He can be heard tickling the ivory on several songs in the movie, “Top Gun,” one of the top-selling soundtracks of all time.
“You could write a book about me,” he said, leaning over an ash tray on a frigid afternoon.
Maybe someday, somebody will.
Ike’s hands have been so much a part of his livelihood he once had them insured with Lloyd’s of London. About a year ago, his right hand began locking up on him.
The diagnosis was carpal tunnel syndrome, which afflicts typists, hairdressers, artists and others whose hands are under repetitive stress.
It brought him to Macon, where he has been under the care of renowned hand surgeon Dr. Waldo Floyd III. During his stay, he was a house guest in the home of Floyd’s niece, Valli Berg, and her family.
He had been to Macon many times before, including visits to the former Georgia Music Hall of Fame. He was part of the huge tribute to Otis Redding at the City Auditorium several years ago.
A few days before he went under the knife, Ike dropped by historic Grant’s Lounge on Poplar Street. He pointed his finger as he strolled past the photographs and memories on Grant’s Wall of Fame. Every picture told a story.
I played with him. And him. And her. And them.
He has been on the cutting table plenty of times. There was the cancer a few years ago and a bone marrow transplant. He has had a hip replacement. He once was involved in car accident in Springfield, Missouri, back in 1977 while playing with a band called Granny’s Bathwater.
After the hand surgery, Floyd told him he might be playing a chord in a few days. Not to be greedy, but within 24 hours Ike was back on the piano bench playing five times that many.
This past week, he returned home to Conyers, where he lives on land near the famed Monastery of the Holy Spirit. The monks don’t throw a lot of wild parties or play loud music at night, so it’s usually so quiet he can hear his toe tapping.
Ike grew up in Toledo, Ohio, a city known more for its weighing scales than musical scales. He was one of seven children, including two sets of twins. He was named Isaac, after his father, and nicknamed Ike. He and his twin brother, Michael, were known as Ike and Mike.
He got his musical talent from his mother, Edna, who played jazz trumpet in the Chicago Big Band era. His father wasn’t blessed with an abundance of musical aptitude.
“He played … the radio,” Ike said, grinning.
Ike began playing the piano by ear after his sister’s piano lessons. He also learned to play drums and saxophone by ear.
When he was 11, at an age most boys might be asking for a new bicycle, he told his parents he wanted a Hammond B-3 organ for Christmas. They turned down his request, of course, since the price tag in the 1960s was upward of $1,000.
Ike responded by giving them the silent treatment. For almost six months, he used sign language at the supper table.
“It worked,” he said. “My mom knew I was serious about it. My dad was still trying to train me for the family business.”
His father was in cement construction. His uncle, the late Christopher B. “Stubb” Stubblefield, became a legendary restaurateur in Texas. His face is on now every bottle of Stubb’s Bar-B-Q Sauce, rubs and marinades. He was a music promoter at his restaurant in Lubbock, where the likes of Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Willie Nelson and Muddy Waters stopped by to play.
By the time Ike was a freshman in high school, he already was part of the Motown Revue with musicians like Stevie Wonder, who was only a few years older.
He would play at clubs around Toledo on weekends. He dropped out of high school when he was junior to move to Detroit and devote full-time to his music.
“I already was making more money than the teachers,” he said, laughing.
His age and his health now might be cause for pause, but Ike keeps any swan song in the distance. He said he is “more content with the things I haven’t done than what I have.”
“I’ve never really wanted to be an artist,” he said. “I’ve seen how screwed up people get. I like being behind the scenes.”
He still does not read music. His ears do all the heavy lifting. He is not a one-hit wonder or three-chord sensation. He’s got all 88 keys covered.
Think cereal, he said.
“If you like corn flakes, you go down the aisle where the corn flakes are, go home, pour them in the bowl and it’s great,” he said. “If you go to the same store the next day, get the corn flakes off the shelf, pour them in the bowl and they have raisins, you say, ‘Wow, this is not what I was expecting,’
“You think twice about going back, because you’re not sure you still like corn flakes. But, if you get the variety pack with corn flakes and raisin bran and fruit loops, when you get home you can choose. You’re not surprised. That’s kind of like me. I’m the variety pack.”
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.