Rick James (, 1948 - , 2004) was an American Grammy Award winning musician. James was a popular R&B and funk singer in the late 1970s and 1980s, scoring four #1 hits on the U.S. R&B charts. Among his best-known songs are "Superfreak" and "You and I". In addition to his music, he gained notoriety for his wild lifestyle: later in life, James' drug abuse led to widely publicized legal problems.
Born James Ambrose Johnson Jr. he lived in Buffalo, New York, he was the third oldest in a family of eight. His father was an autoworker who abandoned the family. His mother was a former dancer. His uncle was Melvin Franklin, bass vocalist of The Temptations.
In 1964, James left the U.S. Naval Reserve after having begun to miss weekend training because it interfered with his music career. Fleeing north to Toronto, Ontario in the summer of 1964, James, now using the stage name Big Jimmy, continued his musical career. His first band, formed with future Steppenwolf member Nick St. Nicholas was initially called the Sailor Boys but soon changed their name to the Mynah Birds. Bassist Bruce Palmer took over for St. Nicholas in early 1965, and the group soon released their first single, "Mynah Bird Hop" / "Mynah Bird Song" for Columbia Records of Canada.
James and Palmer soon formed a new Mynah Birds lineup with guitarists Tom Morgan and Xavier Taylor, and drummer Rick Mason. In early 1966, the Mynah Birds auditioned for the Motown label in Detroit. Morgan was unhappy with the label's attitude towards the musicians and left, with Neil Young taking his place. With Young on board, the Mynah Birds returned to Motown to record an album, but their manager pocketed the advance money the label had given the band. The band fired their manager, who in turn told the label that James was AWOL. Motown told him to give himself up to the FBI, and the Mynah Birds' album was shelved.
James spent a year in the Brooklyn Brig, after which he briefly returned to Toronto. During the summer of 1967, Rick James formed a new version of The Mynah Birds (sometimes spelled "Myna Byrds") with Neil Merryweather. The band returned to Detroit and recorded a new version of James and Neil Young's It's My Time, but the band broke up soon afterwards. During early 1968, James returned to Motown and became a songwriter and producer, writing under an assumed name and working with Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Canadian band Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers and The Spinners.
In late 1968, James and Greg Reeves moved to Los Angeles, California and formed a band called Salt and Pepper (under the name Rick Matthews) with drummer Steve Rumph from T.I.M.E and Michael Rummans from the Yellow Payges. A later version consisted of Coffi Hall from Mama Lion and Merryweather and guitarist Dave Burt and Keyboardist Ed Roth from Merryweather.
Former Buffalo Springfield roadie Chris Sarns played bass for a while, before Ron Johnson from Kaleidoscope stepped in the following year. The group recorded a demo for Atlantic Records, and played at The Fillmore West with Jethro Tull.
In 1971, James and Roth both appeared on Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer's solo album, The Cycle is Complete. Then they returned to Toronto, where they recorded two singles - Big Showdown and Don't You Worry - as part of Heaven and Earth, a band that also featured guitarist Stan Endersby, bass player Denny Gerrard, and drummer Pat Little. Heaven and Earth, minus Little, then merged with another local group, Milestone, to form Great White Cane with horn players Bob Doughty and Ian Kojima, drummer Norman Wellbanks, guitarist Nick Balkou, and keyboard player John Cleveland Hughes. The group recorded an album for Lion Records in Los Angeles in March 1972, but by that summer, they had disbanded.
In 1973 A&M Records released the first Rick James single, My Mama, which is likely to have been recorded in LA.
In 1976, James and South African guitarist Aidan Mason co-wrote, "Get Up and Dance," which was released as a single but failed to chart.
In 1977, he returned to Motown as a songwriter/producer. He soon began recording for Gordy's Motown label, first with the Hot Lips and then with a new version of the Stone City Band.
James's breakthrough was "You and I", an eight-minute single from his 1978 debut album Come Get It!. The album also featured his ode to marijuana, "Mary Jane".
In 1981 he recorded a concept album entitled Street Songs, which included James's signature song "Super Freak". The song featured guest vocals by The Temptations, and was sampled for MC Hammer's 1990 Grammy Award-winning song "U Can't Touch This", as well as Jay-Z's "Kingdom Come", released in 2006. Other hits from Street Songs included "Give It to Me Baby", "Fire and Desire" with prot?g? Teena Marie, and "Ghetto Life".
The stream of hits continued into the mid-1980s with "Teardrops", "Cold Blooded", "17", "You Turn Me On", "Can't Stop", and "Glow". His last R&B hit was "Loosey's Rap" in 1989, featuring a rap by Roxanne Shante. During this period, he also helped launch the Mary Jane Girls and produced and wrote Eddie Murphy's one hit, "Party All the Time".
While he is best known for his up tempo songs in pop circles, the R&B world also remembers him as one of the premier soul balladeers in the late seventies and early eighties. He recorded an early eighties hit with Motown legend Smokey Robinson entitled "Ebony Eyes" that captures his voice almost as well as "Fire And Desire".
During this time, he guest-starred on an episode of The A-Team entitled "The Heart of Rock N' Roll", in which he played himself and performed at a prison concert singing "Super Freak". Isaac Hayes also guest starred in this episode.
The start of the 90's brought with it a string of bizarre and sometimes horrific incidents for Rick James. He was a known drug user, mainly addicted to crack cocaine, which he often smoked; he later admitted to spending about $7,000 a week on drugs for five years straight. In 1991, a coked-up James assaulted music executive Mary Sauger, at the St. James Club and Hotel in West Hollywood. Sauger claims she met James and his future wife Tanya Hijazi for a business meeting, but claims the two kidnapped and beat her over a 20-hour period.
In 1993, while out on bail for that earlier incident, he and Hijazi were accused of holding 24-year old Frances Alley hostage for up to 6 days (accounts vary on how long she was actually held), tying her up, forcing her to perform sexual acts, and burning her legs and abdomen with the hot end of a crack cocaine pipe during a week long cocaine binge. He was found guilty of both offenses, but was cleared of a torture charge in the crack-pipe incident that could have put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
Serving two years in Folsom Prison, as well as losing $2 million in a civil suit to one of the women, did not stop him from writing new songs, even if he did it behind bars. He was released in 1996, and during interviews for a segment of the VH1 series Behind The Music, he spoke openly about his life and his battle with drugs for the first time. Rick's life changed for the better when he met and befriended John Kistler. Kistler helped Rick get off drugs and the two were close friends until Rick's death.
James attempted a comeback with a new album and tour in 1997, but suffered a mild stroke during a concert in Denver, Colorado, effectively ending his musical career. In 1999 he appeared on Judge Joe Brown as a plaintiff suing Jerome Turner (J.T.) for a guitar and amp. His last song recording was a re-collaboration with his prot?g? Teena Marie with the song "I Got You" on her 2004 album La Do?a, which was Teena's first studio release after a 10-year hiatus in her music career.
At the time of his death, he was working on an autobiography, The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Superfreak, as well as a new album. The book was finally published toward the end of 2007 by Colossus Books. It is quite comprehensive and features a picture of his tombstone. He was also supporting Teena Marie's tour of her album La Do?a.
I'm Rick James is a documentary about the life and career of Rick James is scheduled to be released in 2008. James' daughter, Ty James, is a co-executive producer of the film. Originally scheduled to be finished and released in 2006, the filmmakers spent over an additional year tweaking and adding scenes to the film. After almost three years of production, it was completed in December 2007. The film is the only documentary authorized by the estate and family of James. Music producer David Tickle is the Executive Producer, Perry Santos (once an assistant to James Cameron on Titanic) is the producer/director, and HiddenDoor Documedia is the production company. Eddie Griffin, Charlie Murphy, George Clinton, Janice Dickinson, family and close associates also appear in the film. Noticeably absent are Eddie Murphy, Freda O'Neal and Teena Marie, who declined to appear in the documentary.
On the morning of August 6, 2004, Rick James was found dead in his Burbank, California, home at the Oakwood apartment complex on Barham Boulevard by his caretaker. James had died from pulmonary failure and cardiac failure with his various health conditions of diabetes, stroke, a pacemaker, and a heart attack. Through his autopsy it was discovered he was under the influence of Alprazolam (Xanax), Diazepam (Valium), Bupropion (Wellbutrin), Citalopram (Celexa), Hydrocodone (Vicodin), Digoxin, Chlorpheniramine, methamphetamine and cocaine. However the coroner would go on to say; "None of the drugs or drug combinations were found to be at levels that were life threatening in and of themselves. The cause of death was ruled acute cardiac dysfunction due to idiopathic cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged heart." And that, "He didn't die of a drug overdose."
The Dave Matthews Band played a partial version of James' "Super Freak" in a concert the day after his death.
In The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror X Halloween special in 1999, Rick James is shown singing "Super Freak" during a parody of Dick Clark's New Year's Eve special. As he finishes the song, he is promptly arrested by the police, saying, "Aw man! What I do now?"
In The Simpsons episode The Great Money Caper, Chief Clancy Wiggum says I'll show you the Rick James cell. It's superfreaky!.
In The Simpsons episode Sweets and Sour Marge, lawyer Gil Gunderson says I've made too many enemies selling suckless vacuum cleaners and Rick James bibles.
James's drug-fueled behavior ? as remembered by Charlie Murphy ? was featured prominently in a popular skit from the sketch comedy program Chappelle's Show. This skit gave rise to the catch phrases "I'm Rick James, bitch!", and Cocaine's a hell of a drug.
In an episode of The Surreal Life, James made an appearance surprising rapper Vanilla Ice who cited James as a musical influence.
In popular music, the album Comfort Eagle, by American rock band Cake, features a song entitled "Meanwhile Rick James..."; the album Come on Feel the Lemonheads, by The Lemonheads, features a song called "Rick James Style" (on which James himself plays).
On the track "Chi-City" on Common's album "Be," Rick James is referenced in the line "What you rappin' for? To get fame? To get rich? I slap a nigga like you, and tell 'em "Rick James, bitch."" Common also references James on the remix of Jadakiss's song "Why", saying "Why ain't Rick James remembered for classic hits? / Why do we remember Rick for smackin' a bitch?"
In the British show The Mighty Boosh, an episode named The Legend of Old Gregg has a character named Old Gregg, which is based on James.
In the 213 Album The Hard Way, Rick James is imitated on the "MLK" track in the end of the song.
In the 2000 album, Sell Your Dope by Afroman, he references James on the song "Bacc 2 School": "Full of alcohol at the football games. / Doin' more drugs than my nigga Rick James."
In the Jude album No One is Really Beautiful, the song "Rick James" includes the line "Rick James was the original Superfreak."
In the Hurricane Chris song "The Hand Clap" where Chris states "Now Rick James wit it" once each chorus.
The opening track to Swedish pop singer Robyn's 2005 self-titled album begins with the line "She sucker-punched Einstein, outsmarted Ali and even out-super-freaked Rick James."
The song "U Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer is based on a looped sample from James's song "Super Freak".
The song "Get Up" by 50 Cent contains the line "Rick James would have said she a Brick House". The song Brick House is actually by The Commodores, not Rick James.