NEW YORK — Jabo Starks, a drummer steeped in blues whose steady groove became the backbone for many of James Brown’s hits, died on Tuesday at his home in Mobile, Ala. He was 79.
His manager, Kathie Williams, said he had leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes and had been in hospice care for about a week.
Mr. Starks, whose first name was John and whose nickname was sometimes spelled Jab’o, was one of two drummers identified with Brown during his heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s. The other was Clyde Stubblefield, remembered for his indelible solo on Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” perhaps the most sampled drumbeat of all time. (Stubblefield died last year).
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 such singles as “Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine” 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 such as L.L. Cool J, Kendrick Lamar, and A Tribe Called Quest.
Mr. Starks and Stubblefield appeared together onstage and on records, seeing each other as partners and not competitors, they said. “You have to understand this, we’re two different drummers,” Mr. Starks told NPR in 2015.
Mr. Starks came from a blues background, while Stubblefield came up playing soul and funk. Mr. Starks’s style was more straightforward, without some of Stubblefield’s flourishes, but it drove Brown’s songs and got audiences on their feet.
“If you can’t pat your feet and clap your hand to what I’m doing, then I’m not doing anything worthwhile,” Mr. Starks said.
Brown was a demanding boss, known to fine his musicians for errors. But according to Stubblefield, Mr. Starks was never fined. By his account, he sometimes caught Brown in a mistake. “Sometimes James would miss a change or a cue, but I wouldn’t,” he said in a profile in Mobile Bay magazine in 2015. “He’d turn around and say, ‘You got me, Jab!’”
John Henry Starks was born in Jackson, Ala., on Oct. 26, 1938. His father, Prince Starks, worked in a lumberyard, and his mother, Ruth Starks-Watkins, worked in food services at a public school.
Mr. Starks, who acquired his nickname as a baby, grew up listening to gospel and blues. He became enamored with drums while watching a marching band in a Mardi Gras parade in Alabama.
“You could tell when that drummer stopped playing and when he started playing, he had that much command over the band,” Mr. Starks said in 2015. “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.’”
He taught himself to play on an improvised drum kit — a bass and snare drum tied to a chair, and cymbals on a stand — but received little formal instruction. After graduating from high school in the mid-1950s he started playing with blues artists John Lee Hooker, Smiley Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, and Big Mama Thornton at the Harlem Duke Social Club in Prichard, Ala., a famous venue on the so-called chitlin’ circuit.
Mr. Starks joined Bobby (Blue) Bland’s band in 1959 and played on some of his hits, including “I Pity the Fool” and “That’s the Way Love Is.” He left to join Brown’s band in 1965 and stayed with him until the mid-1970s, when he began touring with B.B. King.
Mr. Starks said that even after decades onstage he never lost the joy of music. “When I’m playing music, man, let me tell you one thing: There ain’t nobody in the world higher than I am,” he said. “I get so high playing music, it scares me.”