The Legacy of Jabo Starks
Drummer for James Brown, who died last week, helped invent funk.
John “Jabo” Starks died last week at age 79 after an illustrious career with James Brown and other blues greats like Bobby Bland. He lived and played in a world that doesn’t seem all that long ago. It was an era where the only drum machines in use were on grandma’s Wurlitzer and featured that ever popular dance rhythm, “The Beguine.”
Then something historic occurred: A very successful handoff was made to our robot successors. Today, a large percentage of music heard on the radio is created using programmed drums. Even when real drums are used, they go into a computer for a makeover. One step in this process is called quantization, in which a human drummer with imperfections is turned into a metronome. Without denying the creativity involved in modern production, it’s possible to feel a real sense of loss. There is a feeling of fussiness and predictability in a universe where mistakes can’t happen. Also a complete lack of risk. And it’s about as believable as CGI.
Drummers like Jabo had something that even the most sophisticated drum machines lack and may never attain: The human touch. This video, which ran in New York Times, demonstrates his unflappable cool. It’s just him and a bass player showing what they did in a couple key James Brown songs, “Sex Machine” and “Super Bad.” His warmth and humor shine through when he plays and when he talks. I have yet to meet an affable drum machine.
Let’s discuss what JB and his band actually did that what was so damn signature. They played a style I have heard called “linear funk.” The idea, as I understand it, is to play the kit in a way that avoids, as much as possible, hitting two drums or cymbals at the same time. The degree of independence this takes is hard to master. It’s a case of “Don’t let your left hand know what your right had do.”
This means that everyone in the band has to play like a drummer. For The Famous Flames, Brown’s band, rhythm was king. A flam — landing close to the beat but not right on it — was unthinkable. It was a felony that could get you fired or fined depending on how egregious and how often it happened. Legend has it, Jabo caught the boss doing it more often than he was caught himself. He was never fined.
A James Brown song barely fits the standard definition. They are more like cheers or field hollers. Repetition was desirable and taken to new extremes with tension mounting every painful measure. When James Brown shouted “take it to the bridge,” the sense of release was epic. It was like a jailbreak. None of these things we take for granted (Uptown Funk, anybody?) would exist without James, Clyde and Jabo and other members of that inspired crew. Our world, good or bad, might not have been funky at all had these two drummers not been as great as they were.
Listen to James Brown on a song like “Super Bad” and you’ll hear that greatness. Watch Jabo and you’ll see a magician at work. That’s no exaggeration; in the video about Jabo (starting at 3:16), he plays two completely different and opposing patterns at the same time, one on the cymbal and one on the snare. He does it in the most relaxed manner you can imagine, smiling and chatting with the host and explaining it as if anybody could do it — that only adds to the amazement. And there is no algorithm for amazing.