Jabo Starks, James Brown’s Drummer, Dies At 79

Posted On : 05/04/2018

MOBILE, ALABAMA — James Brown’s acclaimed drummer, Jabo Starks, passed away earlier this week. Here are the details regarding his death.

“If you can’t pat your feet and clap your hand to what I’m doing, then I’m not doing anything worthwhile.” — Jabo Starks

According to New York Times, Jabo Starks  died on Tuesday, May 1, at his home in Mobile. Reportedly, Starks was 79.

The source notes that his manager, Kathie Williams, confirmed his death — after having suffered from leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes. Additionally, the Times states that Starks had been in hospice care approximately a week.

John “Jabo” Starks was born in Jackson, Alabama — on October 26, 1938. Prince Starks, Jabo’s father, worked in a lumberyard, and his mother, Ruth Starks-Watkins, worked in food services at a public school.

Starks is survived by his wife of 58 years, Naomi Starks; a daughter, Sonya Starks; a son, Mark; two sisters, Ruth Brown and Sally Bumpers; and two grandchildren.


According to the source, Starks was one of two drummers who played for James Brown during his prime in the 1960s and ’70s.

NOTE: The other drummer was Clyde Stubblefield, who was known for his contribution to “Funky Drummer.” Stubblefield died last year.

Reportedly, Starks and Stubblefield appeared together onstage and on Brown’s records.

In a 2015 interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Starks mentioned that they were two different drummers, but were never in competition.

“Mr. Starks came from a blues background, while Mr. Stubblefield came up playing soul and funk,” the source notes. “Mr. Starks’s style was more straightforward, without some of Mr. Stubblefield’s flourishes, but it drove Brown’s songs and got audiences on their feet.”

Also, New York Times reports as follows.

“Both drummers played on some of Brown’s best-known albums, including ‘Sex Machine,’ ‘I Got the Feelin’,’ ‘Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud’, and ‘Cold Sweat.’ Mr. Starks drummed on singles like ‘Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine,’ ‘Super Bad’, and ‘The Payback.’ All those songs, like most of Brown’s work, have had long afterlives. They have been sampled in songs by hip-hop artists like L. L. Cool J, Kendrick Lamar, A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots, the Black Eyed Peas and Kool Moe Dee.”

According to Starks, Brown was a demanding boss. Likewise, it wasn’t a strange occurrence for the singer to fine his musicians for errors.

However, Starks was never fined. Actually, he sometimes caught Brown in a mistake and pointed it out.

“Sometimes, James would miss a change or a cue, but I wouldn’t,” Jabo mentioned to Mobile Bay. “He’d turn around and say, ‘You got me, Jab!'”


The source reports that Starks grew up listening to gospel and blues. He eventually fell in love with drums while watching a marching band perform in an Alabama Mardi Gras parade.

“You could tell when that drummer stopped playing and when he started playing, he had that much command over the band,” Jabo stated in the aforementioned interview. “I must have walked two miles with that band, watching and listening to him. And I made up my mind and said, ‘I’d sure like to be able to play just like that.'”

So, he ended up teaching himself how to play. After high school, he started playing with blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Smiley Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, and Big Mama Thornton.

And throughout all his years of musicianship, he never lost his joy of drumming…even to the very end.

Williams, his manager, said that Starks last performed in March, at the Red Bar in Grayton Beach, Florida.

May John “Jabo” Starks rest in peace and honor.

Let us know your thoughts about Mr. Starks and his legacy. If you have any comments, feel free to share them via our Facebook page.

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[Featured Photo via Black Music History / Twitter]

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