As reported by The New York Times, blues drummer John “Jabo” Starks—best known for playing on a ton of James Brown hits—has died. His manager confirmed that he had been suffering from leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes and had been in a hospice for the past week. Starks was 79.
Starks was one of two drummers closely associated with James Brown, with the other being Clyde Stubblefield, whose iconic drum solo in “Funky Drummer” has made him one of the most sampled musicians of all time. Stubblefield and Starks played with Brown in the ‘60s and ‘70s, appearing on tracks like “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine,” “Super Bad,” “The Payback,” and “Cold Sweat,” and the two of them continued playing together without Brown for decades after that under the name The Funkmasters. Stubblefield died last year at the age of 73, having never seen any money from the many artists who sampled his work.
In interviews, Starks would acknowledge that he lacked some of the style of Stubblefield’s drumming, but his dependable style gave Brown’s songs a necessary foundation. “If you can’t pat your feet and clap your hand to what I’m doing,” he said once in an interview, “then I’m not doing anything worthwhile.” The Times obit notes that Brown was known for fining his musicians when they made mistakes, but even Stubblefield had agreed that Starks was one of the few who never got fined—to the point where he could even catch Brown missing cues.
Starks was born in Alabama in 1938, and he said his first exposure to drumming came when he saw a marching band at a Mardi Gras parade. He was so enraptured by the way the drummer could control the band that he walked for miles just so he could keep watching and listening to them. He taught himself how to play after that, eventually working under blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Big Mama Thornton. After working with Brown in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he began playing with B.B. King.
Starks is survived by his wife, two children, and two grandchildren.