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James Brown Drummer John ‘Jabo’ Starks: 5 Classic Tracks

“Super Bad,” “Sex Machine” and other funky landmarks from half of the Godfather of Soul’s legendary groove tandem

James Brown Drummer John "Jabo" Starks: 5 Classic Tracks

Deirdre O’ Callaghan

Speaking to NPR in 2015, the late John “Jabo” Starks explained the origin of James Brown‘s famous dual-drummer lineup, which produced some of the Godfather’s funkiest tracks from the mid-Sixties through the early Seventies. “The saying was, when Clayton Fillyau was the drummer with James, he had just one drummer, one guitar player, one bass player,” Starks said. “They was about to not play; they were rebelling against James for something … so he had to agree with them. And they said he made a statement after then: ‘I’ll never be caught without two of everything.’ So I guess that’s where it started. But when Clyde [Stubblefield] and I joined the group, we jelled together. And then he started letting the other drummers go.”

The two left standing, both self-taught Southerners, would alternate behind the kit. While Stubblefield would become legendary for his “Funky Drummer” break, Starks – who had gotten his start with bluesmen like B.B. King and Bobby Bland – powered several of the tracks that defined Brown’s breathtaking early-Seventies run, including “Super Bad” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” with his lean, driving beats. Here are five of his greatest grooves.

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Deirdre O’ Callaghan

“Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” (1970)

Starks smacks listeners wide awake at the start of “Sex Machine” with a series of authoritative accents. After that opening salvo, he’s slippery but not as combative, ceding the floor to Bootsy Collins’ turbocharged bass line. “I’m not trying to outplay anybody else,” Starks once explained. “The only thing I want to do is keep that heartbeat going … as long as I can keep that heartbeat going, the bass player or the guitar player or the horn player could do whatever he wants to do because he knows that that solid foundation is back there behind him.”

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Deirdre O’ Callaghan

“Super Bad” (1970)

“Super Bad” appears to start in the middle: Unlike on “Sex Machine” or “The Payback,” which build into their vamps, Starks darts forward from the first second of “Super Bad,” conjuring a shifting, riveting rhythm built around unexpected upbeats. Blasting horns enter during the B section, and a shrieking saxophone threatens to steal the track, but Starks keeps the listener’s attention by kicking up a stylish ruckus on the bell of his ride cymbal.

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Deirdre O’ Callaghan

“Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” (1970)

Starks’ bubbly rat-a-tat pattern boosts “Talkin’ Loud and Saying Nothin,'” one of Brown’s most irrepressible tracks. The hi-hat rhythm shines through here, a skipping, prancing sequence that refuses to settle anywhere for long. When Brown switches up the groove and starts heading towards one of his famous screams, Starks starts to hit with more force. But the next time Brown attempts the same move, the drummer stops playing completely, remaining cheerfully unpredictable.

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Deirdre O’ Callaghan

“Soul Power” (1971)

Like many of Brown’s early-Seventies masterpieces, “Soul Power” originally emerged as a multipart epic. But the complete track, all 12 minutes of it, didn’t emerge till 1996. Like “Sex Machine,” “Soul Power” features signature call-and-response vocals from Brown and Bobby Byrd, but Starks’ expertly calibrated grooves – crisp and shuffling on the verses, with a more open, ride-cymbal–driven feel on the B sections – are key to the song’s effortless momentum.

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Deirdre O’ Callaghan

“The Payback” (1973)

Many of James Brown’s most famous singles zip forward at a brisk pace; in contrast, “The Payback” rides a cooled-out rhythm. During the verses especially, the drumming is laconic, a breezy time-keeper at odds with Brown’s aggressive interjections – “Payback!” “Revenge!” – and the relentless attack of the guitar. Starks only breaks out of his loop when Brown commands him to: “I need those hits – hit me!” Listeners were smitten with the song’s strut: Only two Brown singles earned gold certification, and “The Payback” was one of them.

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