“He had that ‘stop-your-heart’ groove.” That’s how Fred Wesley, former bandleader for the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown, describes the drumming of John Starks, who died this past May 1 at the age of seventy-nine. And the description is apt.
John Henry Starks was born in Mobile, Alabama, on October 26, 1938. “Jabo,” as he was known, broke into the scene with blues and R&B legend Bobby “Blue” Bland, with whom he played between 1959 and 1965. “Musically,” Jabo once said, “that was the best band I ever played with.” Starks recorded most of Bland’s major hit recordings, including “Turn on Your Love Light,” “Don’t Cry No More,” and “Stormy Monday Blues.” He attributed his famous, unique drum break on “Turn on Your Love Light” to his affinity for the tambourine playing he heard as a child when his grandmother took him to church in Mobile. He played somewhat of a similar groove in the bridge to “Super Bad” when he was with James Brown.
When I interviewed Jabo for my book Give the Drummers Some! he told me that he always remembered the advice he got from trumpeter/arranger Joe Scott and trombonist Pluma Davis when he started out with Bobby Bland. “They told me, ‘Remember this—play time. You’re the heartbeat. Once that time starts, you hold it right there. Whatever anybody else does, don’t you go there. Make them come back to you.’
“I’m not going to let you pull me,” Jabo continued, “and I’m not going with you. If you say that the tempo is here, then it’ll be here. When you finish what you’re doing, playing all those curlicues and fancy licks, and finally get back, the time will be right here in the same place where you left it.”
James Brown had his eye on Jabo for several years. He sent people from his organization to wherever Bland was playing to tell Starks, “Mr. Brown wants you to join the group.” Jabo wouldn’t budge until he finally got an offer he couldn’t refuse—double what Bland was paying him. By that time he had a wife and family to support.
This decision was the start of a long relationship with his drumming partner, Clyde Stubblefield, as well as with James Brown bandleaders Fred Wesley, Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, and Maceo Parker. When Brown’s “old band” revolted and left in 1970 because of pay and working condition disputes, Jabo honored his contract, stayed in the drum chair, and worked with “Bootsy” Collins and his brother, Phelps “Catfish” Collins, to anchor a new direction in Brown’s music. Between 1970 and 1975, Jabo recorded more charting singles than any other drummer in the singer’s long career, among them “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” “The Payback,” “Soul Power,” and “Super Bad.” The latter was based on a groove Jabo learned playing behind dancers, and it features an infectious bridge similar to his famous “Turn on Your Love Light” solo. (See sidebar.) The list of hits goes on: “Licking Stick—Licking Stick,” “Doing It to Death,” “Papa Don’t Take No Mess”…. And who could forget Jabo’s hits with Brown’s spinoff groups, like the J.B.’s songs “Gimme Some More” and “Pass the Peas,” and a track credited to Maceo & the Macks, “Soul Power ‘74.”
Jabo’s sound was hugely important to the Godfather. The drummer had a sophisticated jazz touch and a unique feel. He could put the groove somewhere between 16th notes and 16th-note triplets and turn funk into an infectious, swinging half-time shuffle. His drum tracks, sampled again and again by hip-hoppers and hit-makers, attest to the strength and longevity of his creative talents.
Fred Wesley sent a tribute to Jabo that the mayor of Mobile read at the celebration the night before the drummer’s funeral. “Jabo was my favorite drummer,” said Fred. “I could just lose myself in that ‘stop your heart’ groove and just blow free. I’m sure you can hear it in the shuffle on ‘Doing It to Death.’ I just rode that groove like I was flying through the wind.”
When I attended the funeral at the Ebenezer Baptist Church the next morning, I was overwhelmed. The packed church, the respectful people, the friendly ushers, the huge choir singing with unbelievable force and conviction—I hadn’t cried openly in years, but that day I couldn’t stop the tears. I learned so much from this man. He was slow and steady, but also persistent and unstoppable. He was extremely hard-working and always joyful, and above all, he was wise and tough, with years of experience that he willingly shared with all.
Jabo Starks had that “stop-your-heart” groove in his body, and he had it in his soul.
From his work in Bobby “Blue” Bland’s group to his legendary tenure with James Brown, John “Jabo” Starks laid down plenty of iconic grooves. Let’s check out a few examples.
“Turn on Your Love Light”
Here’s the legendary break Starks plays on the Bobby “Blue” Bland song around the 1:02 mark. The 16th notes should be played with a swung interpretation.
At the top of this James Brown classic, Starks lays down this instantly recognizable groove.
“Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine”
Jabo plays this funky groove on the 1970 studio version of this James Brown staple. Be sure to swing the 16th notes.
“Doing It to Death”
Jabo demonstrates his mean shuffle throughout this Fred Wesley & The J.B.’s tune.
Payin’ It Back
“Kind, gentle, funny, generous, steady as a rock, and as funky as they come. The ‘pop’ of his backbeat was what I thought every backbeat should sound like. That drum break on ‘Turn on Your Love Light’ shook up the world. And most people don’t realize how difficult it was to play with James Brown. Being onstage with a performer who brought a hundred percent meant you had to bring a hundred fifty percent every night. Then you had to watch his every move, so you could ‘hit’ him every time he wanted to be hit. In the early ’70s with Bootsy and Catfish, Jabo and Clyde [Stubblefield] had the groove on lockdown. They’ve both been sampled thousands of times without credit or compensation, but in the end they played for the joy of it. Jabo always felt blessed because of the support he got from his loving family, and I feel blessed having known him. Heaven just got a (whole) lot funkier. God Bless John ‘Jabo’ Starks.”
“John ‘Jabo’ Starks was the master groove-maker who showed us that space is the place where the notes not played make the difference. His syncopations and backbeats ignited the nation and the world, teaching us what it meant when the music’s ‘got to be funky.’ Thank you, Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefield, for a lifetime of musical grace and pleasure.”
“Jabo was a big influence early in my life, as were all the JB drummers, who were always on the cutting edge. Jabo was a master of the groove—no fills, no frills, just groove for the length of a song. That was revolutionary to me, and it changed my concept of a drummer’s role in a contemporary ensemble. I still love listening to him. He always reinforces my understanding of what my basic function as a drummer is.”
“I thought Jabo was one of the finest drummers in the world. He was a great person as well. And that’s what I liked about him. He was real.”
“Jabo Starks has been one of my heroes since I first heard him on Bobby Bland’s ‘Stormy Monday’ and ‘Turn on Your Love Light.’ I loved his flat-tire shuffle on ‘Further on Up the Road’ and ‘I Don’t Want No Woman.’ The swingin’ funk Jabo brought to the James Brown band had a huge impact on me. He was an innovator, a pioneer drummer, and one of the inventors of what people now call funk! Above all, he was a hell of a nice guy.”
“Jabo was one of the undeniable architects of funk music. His playing was streamlined, slinky, always in the pocket, and so funky. His right hand often closely resembled the jazz ride pattern, and he played with a beautiful lope with the slightest hint of swing. I got to hang with and know him a little bit, and he was incredibly sweet, humble, and gracious. Jabo, thank you for your contributions to modern drumset playing and to music. You will be missed.”
“Jabo was truly an inspiration for so many of us, from Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light” to all of his groundbreaking work with James Brown. His illumination continued until he passed, and even now it lights the path into
As this issue went into production, Modern Drummer was saddened to hear about the passing of Colosseum drummer Jon Hiseman, longtime Elvis Presley drummer D. J. Fontana, and Pantera cofounder and Hellyeah drummer Vinnie Paul. Keep an eye out for tributes to these drummers in upcoming issues of MD.