Jab'o Starks, the drummer who provided the steady beat for James Brown's iconic mid-'60s band and who stayed with the King of Soul through the early '70s, died at the age of 79 Tuesday morning at his home in Mobile, Ala. According to his manager, Kathie Williams, Starks was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndromes, a bone marrow disorder, in January 2017, which developed into acute leukemia one week ago, after which he entered hospice care.
Starks, whose given name was John and whose nickname is sometimes spelled "Jabo," joined James Brown's band in 1965. He became the group's fifth drummer just months before Clyde Stubblefield became its sixth. in August of that year. Starks and Stubblefield's rhythmic partnership became the foundation of a lifelong friendship — "brothers," as Starks told an interviewer in 2013. Stubblefield died in February 2017. The pair played together for decades, most recently as Funkmasters.
Starks was raised in Mobile, where he taught himself the drums. "I used to go to the 'holiness' church when I was up in the country with my grandmother," Starks observed in the James Brown biography The One, by RJ Smith. "I went almost every Sunday because I loved to hear the rhythms they were using. That's basically where a lot of it comes from for me. That sanctified rhythm influenced my playing."
Starks was mentored on the kit by Cornelius "Tenoo" Coleman, who had played with Fats Domino, including drumming on Domino's indelible hit "Ain't That a Shame." After that mentorship, Starks played in Alabama with some of biggest names in blues history, including Howlin' Wolf, Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker. In the late '50s, he began backing the R&B/soul singer Bobbie "Blue" Bland. Starks later pointed out how large the shadow of James Brown loomed over artists, which was clear while he was touring with Bland. "If James Brown was in front of you, you could give it up," he said in a 1995 interview with WGBH. "You weren't going to draw anybody. If he was coming behind you, you still didn't draw anybody."
Upon joining Brown's band, Starks found a mentor again. This time it was Clayton Fillyau, a former drummer for Brown who was driving the tour bus at the time Starks joined. At bar sessions, Fillyau would show newcomers the ropes by tapping on the bar or their arms.