Starks' manager Kathie Williams confirmed his death. She said he'd been in hospice for about a week and was battling leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes.
Starks played with Brown during the Sixties and Seventies, most notably as part of a percussion duo with Clyde Stubblefield, who died last year. Though Starks and Stubblefield had distinct playing styles, together they created a powerhouse rhythm section that defined funk, and later hip-hop. The duo are among the most sampled drummers of all time.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, one of Starks' many acolytes, Roots drummer Questlove, described the dynamic between Starks and Stubblefield, saying, "Starks was the Beatles to Clyde's Stones. A clean shuffle drummer to Clyde's free-jazz left hand."
Starks and Stubblefield played in Brown's live band and joined him in the studio. They worked on classic albums like I Got the Feelin', Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud and Cold Sweat, while Starks drummed on singles such as "The Payback," "Super Bad," "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine."
Starks also played with other artists in Brown's orbit, including the JBs, Bobby Byrd and Lyn Collins. His drumming on Collins' 1972 single "Think (About It)" has been sampled by an array of artists, most notably Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock on their 1988 hit, "It Takes Two."
"John 'Jabo' Starks was that rock that I built my bass grooves on while with James Brown," Bootsy Collins, who played with Starks in Brown's band, tells Rolling Stone. "He was always steady and consistent never letting me leave the pocket. When you are so young as I was, full of energy & ideas, I would sometimes rush to get to the next One that I am hearing in my head. 'Jabo' held the time and you in synch. I will never forget him and what he's done for me, music & James Brown's Planet-Groove!"
In a tribute on Instagram, Questlove praised Starks' stunning skill and detailed his lasting influence. "It was Clyde that was James' prettiest rhythm master. But Starks was his most effective drummer. It was the 'Think (About It)' break that birthed New Jack Swing culture, B'more/Jersey house and Nineties R&B. It was 'Hot Pants (I'm Comin)' and 'I Know You Got Soul' that really cultivated the classic East Coast renaissance of 87 - 92… His eight on the floor style was so unique in his funk. A serious funk god."
Born in Jackson, Alabama in 1938, Starks taught himself how to drum using a makeshift kit comprising a bass and a snare drum tied to a chair, while the cymbals sat on a dinner stand. At a local club, he played with some of the biggest blues musicians of the era – John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Big Mama Thornton – eventually joining Bobby "Blue" Bland's band in 1959. He drummed on Bland's biggest hits, including "Turn On Your Love Light" and "I Pity the Fool," before joining Brown in 1965.
In the mid-Seventies, after splitting with Brown, Starks began to record and perform with B.B. King. Later, he reunited with Stubblefield, forming a duo called the Funkmasters that recorded music, instructional videos and even helped craft the music for the 2007 comedy, Superbad.
Even as he got older, Starks continued to perform live, holding down a regular gig at a bar in Grayton Beach, Florida. According to its owner, Starks last performed there in March.
"When I’m playing music, man, let me tell you one thing: There ain’t nobody in the world higher than I am," Starks said in 2015. "I get so high playing music, it scares me."