August 6, 2004 – Rick James was born James Ambrose Johnson, Jr on February 1st 1948 in Buffalo, New York. He was one of eight children. James’ father, an autoworker, left the family when James was ten. His mother was a dancer for Katherine Dunham, and later ran errands for the Mafia to earn a living. James’ mother would take him on her collecting route, and it was in bars where she worked that James got to see performers such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Etta James perform.
When he found himself ordered to Vietnam in 1965, he fled for Toronto, where he made friendships with then-local musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. To avoid being caught by military authorities, James went under the assumed name, “Ricky James Matthews”. That same year, James formed the Mynah Birds, a band that produced a fusion of soul, folk and rock music. The band briefly recorded for the Canadian division of Columbia Records, releasing the single, “Mynah Bird Hop”/”Mynah Bird Song”.
At one point, Nick St. Nicholas of later Steppenwolf fame was a member; eventually bassist Bruce Palmer replaced him by the time “Mynah Bird Hop” was recorded. James and Palmer would recruit guitarists Tom Morgan and Xavier Taylor and drummer Rick Mason to form a new Mynah Birds lineup, and soon traveled to Detroit to record with Motown. Before the group began recording their first songs for the label, Morgan left, unhappy about the label’s attitude towards the musicians. Neil Young eventually took his place. It was while in Detroit that James met his musical heroes, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. After meeting Wonder and telling him his name, Wonder felt the name “Ricky James Matthews” was “too long”, and instead told James to shorten it to “Ricky James”.
After James got involved in a fight with the group’s financial backer in Toronto, the Navy was given a tip regarding James’ whereabouts and the singer was soon arrested. Afterwards, Motown dropped the band from the label, and James spent a year in prison. After his release, James moved to California where he resumed his musical career. After forming a duo with musician Greg Reeves, Reeves was soon hired to work as a musician for the rock supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. James returned to Motown as a songwriter in 1968, under the assumed name “Rickie Matthews”, and worked with acts such as The Miracles, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, and The Spinners. According to James, he briefly got involved in pimp activity during this time, but stopped because he felt he wasn’t qualified for it due to the harsh activity and the abuse of women there. Returning to California from Toronto in 1969, James got involved with hair stylist Jay Sebring, who agreed to invest in James’ music.
In late 1968, James formed the rock band Salt and Pepper. James and S&P member Ed Roth later were included in Bruce Palmer’s solo album The Cycle is Complete. The duo also recorded as part of the group Heaven and Earth in Toronto. Heaven and Earth eventually changed their name to Great White Cane and recorded an album for Los Angeles label, Lion Records, in 1972, though it was later shelved. James formed another band, Hot Lips, afterwards. In 1973, James signed with A&M Records, where his first single under the name Rick James, “My Mama”, was released, becoming a club hit in Europe. In 1976, James returned to Buffalo, New York, and formed the Stone City Band and recorded the song “Get Up and Dance!“, which was his second single to be released. In 1977, James and the Stone City Band signed a contract with Motown’s Gordy Records imprint, where they began recording their first album in New York City.
In April 1978, James released his debut solo album, Come Get It!, which included the Stone City Band. The album launched the top 20 hit, “You and I”, which became his first number-one R&B hit. The album also included the hit single, “Mary Jane”. It eventually sold two million copies, launching James’ musical career to stardom, and helping out Motown Records at a time when label fortunes had dwindled. In early 1979, James’ second album, Bustin’ Out of L Seven, followed the previous album’s success, eventually selling a million copies. A third album, Fire It Up, was released in late 1979 going gold. Around that same period, James launched his first headlining tour, the Fire It Up Tour, and agreed to invite the then-upcoming artists Prince, as well as singer Teena Marie, as his opening act. James had produced Marie’s successful Motown debut album, Wild and Peaceful and was featured on the hit duet, “I’m a Sucker (For Your Love)”. James was credited with naming Marie, “Lady Tee”, on the song, a nickname that stuck with Marie for the rest of her career. The Fire It Up tour led to James developing a bitter rivalry with Prince, after he accused the musician for ripping off his act.
Rick was one of the most popular artists on the Motown label during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the fortunes of Motown Records seemed to be flagging, scoring 4 Platinum albums (Come Get It!, Bustin’ Out of L Seven, Fire It Up, Street Songs) between 1978 and 1981 with another 4 No.1 hits on the U.S. R&B charts. Among his best-known songs are “Super Freak” and “You and I”
James’ controversial and provocative image became troublesome over time. During his heyday, James had presented his songs to the then-fledging music video channel, MTV, only to be turned down because James’ music didn’t fit the network’s rock playlist. James accused the network of racism. When MTV and BET both avoided playing the video for “Loosey’s Rap” because of its graphic sexual content, James considered the networks hypocritical in light of them still playing provocative videos by Madonna and Cher.
In 1989, James’ eleventh album, Kickin’, was released only in the UK. By 1990, he had lost his deal with Warner Bros. and James began struggling with personal and legal troubles. That year MC Hammer released his hit signature song, “U Can’t Touch This”, which sampled the prominent opening riff from “Super Freak”. James and his co-writer on “Super Freak”, Alonzo Miller, successfully sued Hammer for shared songwriting credit and all three consequently received the 1990 Grammy Award for Best R&B Song. After spending time in jail for a series of criminal assault charges and drugs, James released Urban Rapsody In 1997 and he toured to promote the album. That same year, he discussed his life and career in interviews for the VH1 musical documentary series, Behind the Music, which aired in early 1998. James’ musical career slowed again after he suffered a minor stroke during a concert that year. In 1999, James accepted an offer by Eddie Murphy himself to appear in his film, Life.
At the time of his death, James was working on an autobiography, The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak, as well as a new album. The book was finally published toward the end of 2007 by Colossus Books and features a picture of his tombstone. He was also supporting Teena Marie’s tour of her album La Doña and toured with her in May 2004, playing with her at the KBLX Stone Soul Picnic.
Rick died of cardiac and pulmonary failure on August 6, 2004 at the age of 56.
Reprinted from Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, by Mike Sager. An excerpt of this piece originally appeared in Rolling Stone.