Rick James

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Rick James (James Ambrose Johnson, Jr.) (February 1, 1948August 6, 2004) was an African-American funk and soul musician, who worked as a singer, keyboardist, bassist, record producer, arranger, and composer during his long career. One of the most popular artists on the Motown label during the late 1970s and early 1980s, James was famous for his wild brand of funk music and his trademark cornrow braids, sporting them well before the style was popularized by the hairstylist Nantille Charbonnet, as worn by actress Bo Derek, and songstress, Donna Summer.



Early Life

Born in Buffalo, New York, James was the third of eight children; his father was an autoworker and his mother a former dancer. His uncle was Melvin Franklin, the bass vocalist of The Temptations.

At age 15, James joined the U.S. Naval Reserve. He began missing weekend training because it interfered with his musical career and was reported AWOL. Fleeing north to Toronto, Canada in the summer of 1964, James continued his musical career. His first band was called The Sailor Boys, which also featured future Steppenwolf member Nick St. Nicholas. By the end of 1964, the group had evolved into The Mynah Birds and recorded a single for the Canadian arm of Columbia Records. In early 1965, St. Nicholas left the band and was replaced by Bruce Palmer.

Shortly afterwards, James and Palmer formed a new Mynah Birds lineup with guitarists Tom Morgan and John Taylor, and drummer Rickman Mason. In early 1966, the Mynah Birds auditioned for the Motown label in Detroit, Michigan. 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' career continues

James spent a year in the Brooklyn Brig, after which he briefly returned to Toronto. He soon returned to Motown and became a songwriter and producer at Motown, working with Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers and The Spinners.

In the summer of 1969, he moved to Los Angeles, California and formed a band called Salt 'N' Pepper with Canadians Ed Roth (keyboards), Dave Burt (guitar), and Coffi Hall (drums). 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 recorded two singles in Toronto for RCA Records with Heaven and Earth, a band that also featured guitarist Stan Endersby, bass player Denny Gerrard, and drummer Pat Little. James left Heaven and Earth later that year; he, Roth, and Gerrard formed a new group called 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.

At the end of 1972, James and Roth formed the first version of the Stone City Band with Peter Hodgson (bass), Danny Marks (guitar) and Malcolm Tomlinson (drums/vocals). An album's worth of material was recorded in mid-1973 but was never released. James signed to A&M Records the following year and issued a single entitled "My Mama".

Return to Motown and stardom

In 1977, he returned to Motown as a songwriter/producer. He soon began recording for Motown's Gordy label, first with the Hot Lips and then with a new version of the Stone City Band. James' breakthrough single was "You And I", an eight-minute magnum opus from his 1978 debut album Come Get It. The album also featured his ode to marijuana, "Mary Jane".

1979 saw James release two albums: Bustin' Out Of L Seven, in January, and Fire It Up that fall. The latter included hits such as the title track and "Spacey Love" a ballad dedicated to singer Patti Labelle. After 1980's lackluster Garden Of Love album, he then recorded a concept album entitled Street Songs. The 1981 release included "Super Freak", James biggest hit. "Super Freak", which features guest vocals from The Temptations, was sampled for MC Hammer's 1990 Grammy award-winning song "U Can't Touch This". Other hits from Street Songs included "Give it to Me Baby", "Fire & Desire" with protege Teena Marie and "Ghetto Life".

The stream of hits continued into the mid-1980s with "Teardrops", "Cold Blooded", "17", "You Turn Me On" and "Glow", which was his last R&B hit in 1985. During this period, he also helped launch the careers of R&B singer Teena Marie and the Mary Jane Girls as well as producing actor Eddie Murphy's one-hit wonder "Party All The Time."

Personal problems and decline

As the 1980s segued into the 1990s, the dark side of James' life began to overpower his music. He was a recreational drug user, addicted mainly to cocaine. In 1993, James was convicted of assaulting two women, with the first assault during one of his cocaine binges. Serving two years in Folsom Prison did not stop him from writing new songs, even if he did it behind bars. He was released in 1995, 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 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.

"Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories"

On February 11, 2004, Dave Chappelle aired a Rick James-parodying sketch called "Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories" on his sketch comedy television program, Chappelle's Show. The three-part skit was an E! True Hollywood Story-style retrospective of the actual love-and-hate friendship between James and Eddie Murphy's older brother Charlie Murphy during James' early-1980s peak. The young James, played by Chappelle, was depicted as an egotistical, misogynistic cocaine addict who picked upon Murphy and constantly reminded people "I'm Rick James, bitch!" Charlie Murphy played himself in both the flashback sequences (complete with Jheri curl) and mock interview segments, which are contrasted with interview footage of the real James, who confirms most of Murphy's wild recollections and refutes others. Footage where James uses the expression "Cocaine's a hell of a drug" is edited into the skit a number of times to sum up his alleged behavior. The sketch was one of the most famous to come from the show, returning James to the public spotlight and making "I'm Rick James, bitch!" a popular catch phrase.

Rick James' last public performance was at the 2004 BET Music Awards on June 29, 2004. Part of the on-stage routine involved a crowd-pleasing recital of the Chappelle's Show catch phrase by the real James himself.


On August 6, 2004, Rick James was found dead in his Los Angeles home by his caretaker. James had died from pulmonary and cardiac failure with his various health conditions of diabetes, stroke, and a pacemaker being listed as attributing factors. A coroner's report released September 16, 2004 officially ruled his death as accidental, reporting nine drugs found in James' bloodstream:

"Toxicology revealed the presence of the following drugs: Alprazolam (Xanax), Diazepam (Valium), Bupropion (Wellbutrin), Citalopram (Celexa), Hydrocodone (Vicodin), Digoxin, Chlorpheniramine, methamphetamine, and cocaine," the statement said. "None of the drugs or drug combinations were found to be at levels that were life threatening in and of themselves."

Rick James was interred in Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. At the time of his death, he was working on an autobiography, Confessions Of A Superfreak, as well as a new album. Although he was married previously (and later divorced), he leaves behind three children, Tazman, Ty, and Rick James, Jr.; and granddaughters Jasmine and Charisma.

Scheduled for release in 2005 is the DVD Rick James: Rockpalast Live, which features a 1982 concert performance from Essen, Germany.

References in the media



External links

de:Rick James es:Rick James nl:Rick James pl:Rick James pt:Rick James tokipona:jan Rick James


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