Drummer John Starks, better known as Jab’O, passed away on May 1 of acute leukemia, which had developed as a complication of myelodysplastic syndrome. He had been in hospice care for about a week, and he died in his home in Mobile, Alabama, the same city in which he was born. Best known as a drummer for James Brown’s band from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, Starks played on some of the singer’s most iconic recordings.
Starks was the fifth drummer to play for Brown. The singer’s sixth drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, joined the band just months after Starks, and the two percussionists found a wonderful working rhythm together. They remained lifelong friends and often spent time together in the ensuing decades until Stubblefield’s death in 2017. Although his diagnosis in 2017 slowed him down, Starks continued to perform, appearing onstage most recently in March of 2018.
Starks discovered his love of music and of percussive rhythms through the church, which he attended regularly as a child. As he grew older, he teamed up with various mentors in the thriving music scene in Alabama, among them Cornelius Coleman and Clayton Fillyau. By the time he joined Brown, he had a great deal of experience, having worked with some of the best drummers in the business. He also saw the face of music transform during his decades of performing and recording.
While he continued to perfect his craft throughout his life, he remains best known for his tenure with Brown. The songs for which he is most famous include number 1 hits “The Payback” and “Get on the Good Foot.” His legacy will live on in these and many other songs that bear his percussive influence.