John “Jab’o” Starks, the drummer who laid down the rhythmic foundation for some of James Brown’s biggest hits, passed away on May 1, 2018, after battling leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes. He was 80.
There’s no doubt that Jab’o left an indelible mark on the drum and music world with a groove that paved the way for future funk, blues, R& B, soul, pop and hip-hop for years to come.
Starks played with Brown during the ‘60s and ‘70s, on his own, as well as most notably part of the dynamic duo with Clyde Stubblefield, who passed away last year. Though Starks and Stubblefield had very distinct and different playing styles, together they created a powerhouse rhythm section that defined funk, and later hip-hop, leading to both being two of the most sampled drummers in music.
Starks [and Stubblefield] played in James Brown’s live band, as well as lent their talents in the studio, working on classic records such as I Got the Feelin’, Say It Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud, and Cold Sweat, while Starks’ deep pocket and groove can be heard on singles such as “The Payback,” “Super Bad” and “Sex Machine.”
Starks also played with other artists under Brown and his management, including the J.B.’s, Bobby Byrd, and most notably, Lyn Collins. His drumming on Collins’ 1972 single “Think (About It) ” has been sampled by a variety of artists, once again helping to make hit singles decades after the fact.
Born in Jackson, Alabama on October 26, 1938, the self-taught Starks began playing on a homemade drum kit comprised of a kick and snare tied to a chair, with cymbals that sat on a dinner table. A natural from the start, it wasn’t long before he found himself performing locally with some of the biggest blues musicians of the time–John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thornton. He eventually joined Bobby “Blue” Bland’s band in 1959 and drummed on Bland’s biggest hits, including “Stormy Monday Blues,” “Turn On Your Love Light” and “I Pity the Fool,” before joining Brown in 1965. Upon leaving Brown in the mid- 70s, Starks recorded and performed with B.B. King, and later, reunited with Stubblefield, forming a duo called the Funkmasters; recording music and instructional videos.
Starks continued playing up until the end, often performing live and holding down a regular gig at the The Red Bar in Grayton Beach, not far from his home in Mobile, Alabama.
Starks was quoted in 2015, “When I ’m playing music, man, let me tell you one thing: There ain’t nobody in the world higher than I am. I get so high playing music, it scares me.”