Born James Ambrose Johnson Jr., on February 1, 1948, in Buffalo, NY; died on August 6, 2004, in Los Angeles, CA; son of James Sr. (an autoworker) and Mabel (Gladden) Johnson; married Tanya Hijazi, c. 1996; children: Tazman.
The very name Rick James seems to ring synonymous with his biggest hit, the 1980s' dance-funk classic "Super Freak." During the height of his career, James was putting out successful albums for Motown as well as producing work by a roster of other talent, names that included Teena Marie, the Temptations, and Eddie Murphy. Yet James's drug addiction eventually spiraled so far out of control that he simply lost his ability---and desire---to write songs, then ran afoul of the law in a pair of disturbing incidents. With a prison term behind him and a young son to raise, James had begun an attempt to clean up his life, but died of a heart attack in 2004.
James was born James Ambrose Johnson Jr., in Buffalo, New York, in 1948. He was one of eight children in a family headed by an abusive father who left when James was just seven. From his mother, once a Katherine Dunham dancer who had worked at some of Harlem's most prestigious nightclubs, James learned at an early age about the possibilities show business offered. But with eight kids in her single-parent household in Buffalo, Mabel Johnson's glamorous days were long over---instead of dancing, she worked as a cleaning woman and ran numbers on the side for a local organized crime racket. Through this she was able to clothe and feed her children, and was also able to send some of them to private school. James went to a Catholic school for a time---even serving as an altar boy---but its strict rules and his love of sports could not keep him out of trouble. His formative years were marked by an increasing penchant for cutting class, petty crime, and a burgeoning relationship with juvenile authorities.
Though James seemed on the road to a dead-end future, it was a talent show he entered in high school that finally provided him with the focus his life needed. When he took the stage, "I started off with a bongo beat," James wrote in the manuscript for his autobiography, Memoirs of a Super Freak, reprinted in a 1996 Rolling Stone interview with Mike Sager. "Then I began to sing out this chant. I asked the crowd to sing along, and they did. The feeling of the crowd singing, the people dancing in the aisles cast a magic spell on me. ... I made a pact with myself from that day on---music was my life."
When James was not yet 16, he dropped out of school permanently; to skirt the draft, he signed up with the Naval Reserves. The part-time military duty required James to report for training two weekends out of every month, but before long he was unable to meet this stipulation because of increasing success with his first band, the Duprees. They were a harmonizing group that covered Motown songs, and James had also started drumming with another band, a jazz act. When his military superiors reached the point of exasperation, James was told to report for active duty in 1964. Instead, he fled to Canada.
James found himself wearing a Navy uniform walking down the streets of Toronto. He was immediately harassed, and a fight broke out. Three sympathetic men came to his rescue, among them up-and-coming musicians Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, who would later go on to form the lauded 1960s' rock ensemble known as The Band. They took James to a coffeehouse, and by the end of the night they were performing together on its stage. They formed a band called the Sailor Boys, and James went underground using an alias, Ricky James Matthews.
The Sailor Boys were the predecessor to James's next band, the Mynah Birds, formed with Nick St. Nicholas, who would later go on to become part of the successful California rock band Steppenwolf. Canadian guitarist Neil Young was also a Mynah Bird for a time, and the group became well-known on the Canadian rock scene. The fledgling band was financed by an ambitious British rock impresario, and eventually they secured a contract with Motown Records. After recording an album, the Mynahs were dropped when the label found out James was a wanted man in the United States because of his AWOL status.
Landed in Jail
Realizing his judgment day had arrived, James gave himself up to authorities, but then escaped from a naval brig. He eventually served out his sentence and returned to Toronto, where Canadian authorities then arrested him on stolen-property charges. He served more jail time there before being deported.
Despite his problems with the law, Motown recognized James's talent and hired him as a songwriter in the early 1970s. He grew unhappy with the "hit factory" nature of the process, however, and quit. For some time after that, he indulged his growing taste for illicit substances by working as a drug courier. Eventually he was able to record an album on his own, and took it to Motown, who re-signed him as a recording artist. That LP, Come Get It, and its first single, "You and I," established James as a solid singer/songwriter able to turn the basics of funk into a catchy pop tune. At the height of the disco era, "You and I" was the number one R&B single, and the album achieved double-platinum status.
Under Motown's aegis, James put together a massive backup ensemble, the Stone City Band, and became famous for his live shows. The band members were all over six feet tall, like James, and wore their hair in braids as he did. At the time, James was considered a bit outrageous in appearance with his spandex stage gear, a bare chest, and long braids---a style which he admitted borrowing from two dissimilar elements: Masai dancers and the rock act Kiss. James followed up the success of Come Get It with Bustin' Out of L7 in 1979 and Fire It Up a year later; the sound he created during this era helped establish him as the historical link between George Clinton's funkadelic sound and the "Controversy" years of Prince.
As the money poured in, James lived well. He moved into a Hollywood mansion and built a recording studio there, and also bought a large property closer to Buffalo in 1980. Part of the largesse for such a lifestyle came from James's success as a recording artist and producer for Motown. He helped craft hits for numerous other Motown acts, but it was his 1981 hit "Super Freak" that earned him millions. The song sold four million copies and crossed over to the white pop audience. The album Street Songs sold three million copies, and another single, "Give It to Me Baby," was also wildly successful. James was tagged the King of Funk Punk, and enjoyed the appreciative social company of stars like Mick Jagger and David Bowie.
Spiraled Out of Control
Yet a 1981 encounter with rock legend Sly Stone changed James's life irrevocably. He and a bandmate witnessed the former 1970s star freebasing, or smoking cocaine, a practice that had severely injured comedian Richard Pryor just a year before. Sly Stone appeared so unaware of his surroundings that James and his horn player were shocked at how far he had fallen, and vowed never to try freebasing, which was known to be extremely addictive. A few days later, however, James visited Stone again in San Francisco, and the pair spent a week freebasing, while locked in a recording studio.
Soon James was spending $10,000 a week on drugs, even though he continued to have a moderately successful career as a recording artist and producer. Street Songs was followed by Throwin' Down in 1982. He had a hit in 1983 with "Cold Blooded," a song he wrote about actress Linda Blair, whom he had dated, and a year later scored with the raunchy "17." In 1985 he launched the record career of comedian Eddie Murphy, producing the ill-advised "Party All the Time"; though it reached number two on the charts, Murphy would soon direct his ambitions to acting in feature films. James received Grammy nominations for his extensive production work for these and other artists.
Over time, however, James's drug abuse began to undermine his creativity. He became withdrawn, and finally stopped writing music. His 1986 LP for Motown, The Flag, sold fewer than 100,000 copies. James sued the label to be released from his contract, and the label countersued, saying The Flag was a dismal effort, due to the extent of James's drug abuse. A federal judge in the case finally ruled that the charges of drug use were irrelevant in the company's case against James.
James emerged from the legal troubles of the late 1980s relatively unscathed, and signed with Warner/Reprise. His creative career, however, seemed on the skids. A review in People of his 1988 effort for the label, Wonderful, was less than kind; critic David Hildebrand declared, "The grooves are stale and the instrumentation clamorous." The death of Mabel Johnson sent James into a tailspin of self-destructive behavior, and his drug use grew increasingly ruinous. In 1991 he and a girlfriend were accused of assaulting a woman in their Hollywood home, and faced a trial; a year later, another woman also filed assault and torture charges.
Los Angeles prosecutors combined the two cases, and James faced three life sentences for a total of 15 felony counts. Yet the Los Angeles Times uncovered prosecutorial misconduct---someone in their office had been supplying drugs to one of the witnesses against James and his girlfriend---and a deal was cut in which James received a prison sentence of five years and four months. The judge at the sentencing called James "the luckiest man on earth," and said, "[If I'd] had my way, I'd have thrown away the key," according to Sager in Rolling Stone.
Attempted a Comeback
James served out his sentence in California's Folsom Prison, where he converted to Islam, joined Narcotics Anonymous, began writing his autobiography, and finally returned to songwriting. He estimated that he had squandered over $400,000 a year on drugs over a decade, and considered his incarceration "a blessing in disguise," according to People. He was released in the summer of 1996. Though James had declared personal bankruptcy, there was still some money left from his music business to do another album, which was released in 1997 on Private I/Mercury. Jancee Dunn, reviewing Urban Rapsody for Rolling Stone, called it "a mellow, reflective, and intensely autobiographical affair."
Although Urban Rapsody was both a commercial and critical success, James disappeared from the music scene once again shortly after the album's release. The tour following the album was only sporadically successful, with slow ticket sales responsible for the cancellation of a show in Buffalo. Making a comeback after a two-year prison sentence was also difficult for James personally. He told Anthony Violanti in the Buffalo News, "I feared going into the studio and I feared going on stage again. I had a lot of anxiety, but getting back has been great. The crowds have been amazing." The tour, however, was brought to a halt on November 6 during a show in the Mammoth Event Center in Denver. While performing, James felt something pop in his neck, then reported feeling pain and numbness. After being admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the doctors diagnosed the singer as having suffered a stroke.
James faced more legal difficulties in 2002 when he was accused of sexually assaulting a 26-year-old woman, a charge he denied. James died on August 6, 2004, at his Los Angeles home, and although the coroner's report found the presence of nine different drugs, the cause of death was officially listed as a heart attack. Despite his legal and drug problems over the years, James told Aidin Vaziri in the San Francisco Chronicle that he had few regrets about the highlights of his career. "No, there's not a whole lot of things I would change. ... I was at such a high point, what would I change?."
by Carol Brennan and Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr
Rick James's Career
Singer, producer, songwriter, and musician; member of the Sailor Boys with Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, mid-1960s; member of the Mynah Birds, mid-1960s, with Neil Young; hired by Motown Records as a staff songwriter, early 1970s; turned in a finished album, c. 1977, to Motown and was signed as a recording artist; first single "You and I," released in 1978; first LP, Come Get It, released on Motown in 1978; achieved biggest success with 1981 single "Super Freak"; released several albums for Motown until the 1980s; contractual disputes led to a switch to Warner/Reprise, c. 1988; released Urban Rapsody on Private I/Mercury Records, 1997; toured, 1997-98.
- Selected discography
- Bustin' Out of L7 Motown, 1979.
- Fire It Up Motown, 1980.
- Street Songs Motown, 1981.
- Throwin' Down Motown, 1982.
- Cold Blooded Motown, 1983.
- The Flag Motown, 1986.
- Wonderful Reprise, 1988.
- Bustin' Out: The Best of Rick James Motown, 1994.
- Urban Rapsody Private I/Mercury Records, 1997.
- Buffalo News, November 22, 1998, p. E1.
- Jet, August 26, 1991, p. 56; January 24, 1994, p. 51; August 8, 1994, p. 61.
- People, August 8, 1988; June 17, 1996, p. 123.
- Rolling Stone, May 18, 1989, p. 30; June 27, 1996; November 26, 1997.
- San Francisco Chronicle, January 6, 2002, p. 51.