Born James Ambrose Johnson, Jr. on February 1, 1948, in Buffalo, NY; died of a heart attack on August 6, 2004, in Los Angeles, CA. Singer. Rick James burst on the scene with his smash hit, "Super Freak," in the early 1980s. He later had a string of hits and some believe his record sales are responsible for keeping Motown Records solvent. He is credited with bridging the gap between funk and punk music. His sound was reminiscent of Sly Stone, Parliament, The Ramones, and Prince (whom he toured with before either was famous). According to CNN.com, James had stated, "I'm trying to change the root of funk, trying to make it more progressive, more melodic, and more lyrically structured." His rowdy image and drug habit led to his arrest for assault and eventual time in prison. After his release, he began to regain all that he lost.
James' upbringing was rough. He was one of eight children born to James and Mabel Johnson. According to James, his father was abusive and abandoned the family when James was eight. James' mother was a former dancer who worked as a housekeeper, but also was a numbers runner. Though James went to Catholic school and was an altar boy, he also committed petty theft crimes, and spent some time in juvenile detention centers. He also began doing drugs. While James was always musically inclined, it was not until he performed in a talent show in high school that he seriously considered a career in music. He formed a group called the Duprees. At the same time, he joined the Naval Reserve to avoid the draft. As he and his group gained popularity—and more importantly, gigs—he began to skip out on his naval duties. James was soon drafted, but he fled to Canada.
During his stay in Canada, he formed another group, the Mynah Birds. Members included Neil Young, Bruce Palmer, and Goldie McJohn, who would later join Steppenwolf. The group would combine both folk music and R&B. However, they never recorded an album due to James' draft evasion. The group later disbanded.
James moved to London, and joined a blues band called Main Line. His uncle was Melvin Franklin of the legendary Temptations. Franklin helped his nephew get a recording contract with Motown Records. James struck a deal with the government, and served some time in prison for draft evasion. After his release, he began to record his first album, which included the hits "You & I," and his alleged ode to marijuana, "Mary Jane." The album sold two million copies.
His third album, Street Songs, proved to be a crossover success. With the Temptations on background vocals, James released "Super Freak." With lyrics that included "She's a very kinky girl/the kind you don't take home to mother," "Super Freak" quickly rose on the R&B charts, and crossed over to the pop charts. He also released "Give It To Me Baby" as a B-side, and it did well.
With the success of "Super Freak," James began to produce for other artists. He formed an all-girl band named the Mary Jane Girls. He also performed duets with R&B singer Teena Marie and Smokey Robinson. He also produced comedian Eddie Murphy's "Party All The Time," which was a hit in the mid-1980s.
James' on-stage persona was one of wild debauchery. Dressed in sequins, tight leather, high-heeled boots, and cornrows or a jheri curl, James oozed sex on stage. Offstage, he smoked marijuana and snorted cocaine. According to the Washington Post, he told the Detroit News in 2004, "The biggest mistake I made is that I tried to become my alter ego. I wanted to be Rick James, wild man, party machine, lady slayer, and the cocaine told me I could. I forgot that I was James Johnson, a nerdy kid who grew up reading Dante's Inferno on Saturday nights."
In the late 1980s, James' career took a nose dive. However, when rap star M.C. Hammer sampled "Super Freak" for his song "U Can't Touch This," the latter song became a huge hit. Though the usage was unauthorized, James and M.C. Hammer settled out of court and he reaped the benefits, including his first Grammy that he shared with M.C. Hammer and co-writer of "Super Freak," Alonzo Miller.
James' spiral out of control came to a head when he was charged with assault in 1991. He and his girl-friend, Tanya Hijazi, held a woman against her will, burned her with a crack pipe, and assaulted her. While on bond, he and Hijazi assaulted a second woman. He was also arrested for cocaine possession. James was convicted in 1993 and served three years. He vowed to get clean and live a more sedate life.
Upon his release, he married Hijazi. The couple had one son but later divorced. He began to resurrect his career, and released an album titled Urban Rapsody. Though he hated rap and sampling, James worked with Snoop Dogg as well as Bobby Womack. He began touring again in 1997, but it was cut short by a stroke, which was attributed to "rock 'n' roll neck," which is excessive twisting of the head. The following year, James underwent hip replacement surgery. He also suffered from heart problems.
James was enjoying a minor comeback, thanks to comedian Dave Chappelle, who created spoofs about the singer that aired on the Comedy Central show Chappelle's Show . James even showed up to play himself. He also penned his memoirs, and put in a couple of performances. There were talks of bringing his life to the big screen, with Chappelle playing the singer. In June of 2004, he received a career achievement honor from ASCAP.
James was found dead on August 6, 2004; he was 56. There was speculation that he had returned to his old ways, and a Los Angeles county coroner's report confirmed it. His death was ruled accidental but nine drugs were found in his system. However, the official cause of death was a heart attack. A memorial service was held in Los Angeles, and James was buried in his hometown. Motown founder Berry Gordy told the Chicago Tribune that James' "creative abilities, his instincts about music and production were just awesome . [James was] a pioneer who took Motown in a whole new direction." In addition to his son by Hijazi, James had two other children, and two grandchildren.
Chicago Tribune, August 7, 2004, sec. 2, p. 11.
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/Music/08/06/rick.james/index.html (August 10, 2004).
Entertainment Weekly, August 20/27, 2004, p. 22.
E! Online, http://www.eonline,com/News/Items/0,1,14666,00.html?eol.tkr (August 10, 2004); http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,14949,00.html (September 20, 2004).
Los Angeles Times, August 7, 2004, p. B16.
New York Times, August 7, 2004, p. A15.
People, August 23, 2004, pp. 56-57.
Times (London), August 9, 2004, p. 26.
USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/life/people/2004-09-16-james-obit_x.htm?csp=27&RM (September 20, 2004).
Washington Post, August 7, 2004, p. B4.
—Ashyia N. Henderson