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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

“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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