Name originally Rick Johnson; born c. 1951; son of James (a foundry worker) and Betty (a numbers runner) Johnson; married once (divorced); two children. Religion: Born-again Christian. Addresses: Office-- c/o Mary Jane Productions, 104 Chapin Parkway, Buffalo, N.Y., 14209.

Funk star Rick James has been hailed as "the cornrow-braided sultan of street music" by Eric Levin of People. Perhaps best known for his 1981 dance hit "Superfreak," he has been writing songs professionally since the early 1970s and recording since the later years of that decade. Street Songs, the album that includes "Superfreak," has sold over four million copies; his combined album sales are in the area of ten million copies. James has also received attention for his secondary vocals on comedian Eddie Murphy's singing debut, the hit single "Party All the Time," and is credited with the discovery of pop singer Teena Marie.

James, whose original surname was Johnson, was born into a poor family. His father, James, worked in a foundry in Buffalo, New York, but left his wife and seven children when Rick was six years old. According to Levin, Betty, the singer's mother, then became a numbers runner to support her family. She made quite a bit of money at this illegal undertaking, enough so that by the time Rick was eight she was able to buy a house in a white neighborhood. There, the black family suffered from racial prejudice. James told Levin: "We had to fight our way home from school every day."

When James was in high school, he was active in sports, lettering in both basketball and football. But he was also beginning to write songs, and he liked this better than the more structured pastimes of team athletics, so he spent much of his time singing in bands. In 1966, however, though he was only fifteen, James began to worry about being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Thinking to evade this fate, he lied about his age and entered the U.S. Navy reserves--reserve members usually being the last to see active duty. But his attendance at reserve meetings was irregular at best, and as punishment he was assigned to a ship headed for Vietnam. James decided to run away to Canada.

He wound up in Toronto, where he again became involved with music. In the various groups he sang for, he met fellow artists who would become members of bands like Steppenwolf and Buffalo Springfield. Because James feared the Navy would catch up with him, he sometimes performed under the alias Ricky James Matthews, Matthews being the surname of one of his girlfriends at the time. James also met rock musician Neil Young during his stint in Toronto, and together they started a group called the Mynah Birds. In 1971 the Mynah Birds signed a contract with Motown Records, but the company insisted that James come back to the United States and turn himself in to the Navy before he began recording.

The result was that James spent approximately eight months in a Navy prison. He escaped once with three others, but returned to finish his sentence two months later. James told Levin that prison strengthened him: "I went in there a pitiful form of human being, and I came out 180 pounds of rock." While he was incarcerated, the Mynah Birds deal fell through, but he still had a job writing songs for Motown. James spent several years in this position, but in 1978 he recorded his debut album, Come Get It, along with his first hit single, "You and I."

James was unable to handle his overnight success. He confided to Levin: "In 1978 I spent $1 million on cars, wine, women and booze." He also did hard drugs, and though he continued producing successful albums, he wound up with hepatitis and large debts due to his abusive lifestyle. As of 1982 James told Levin he had given up all drugs except marijuana; as of 1987 Jet magazine reported that James had become a born-again Christian. In that article James was quoted as saying, "God has saved me from overdosing and all kinds of different experiences," but "God has not told me to stop rocking." Critic David Hiltbrand of People, however, complained that on the singer's 1988 release, Wonderful, "his usual creativity [had] deserted him." But James came back with a different style in 1989, trading in his long braids for a 1950s-era pompadour on the video for his medley remake of "This Magic Moment/Dance with Me," from the album Rock, Rhythm, and Blues.

by Elizabeth Thomas

Rick James's Career

Singer, songwriter, 1971--. Formed the Mynah Birds with Neil Young, 1971; wrote songs for Motown Records, c. 1972-78; recording artist and concert performer, 1978--.

Rick James's Awards

Two platinum albums.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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