Rick James

  • R&B/Funk singer, musician and songwriter born James Johnson in 1948 in Buffalo New York. Died in 2004 from pulmonary and heart failure related to previous health conditions, including diabetes and a stroke.
  • Johnson was introduced to drugs in his early teens. He was arrested for theft, and chose to enter the U.S. Navy Reserve, lying about his age and ultimately hoping to avoid the draft. In 1964, he missed several of his required sessions in the Reserves, and his commander ordered him to Vietnam. He fled to Toronto instead. There, he was attacked one night outside of a club, and some men came to his aid. One of them was Levon Helm, who was a member of the band that was performing at the club. Johnson was invited to the show that night, and he ended up performing on stage. While in Toronto, he became friends with local musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.
  • While in Canada, Johnson used the name Ricky James Matthews as a pseudonym to try to evade the U.S. military authorities. He formed a soul/folk/rock band called The Mynah Birds. In 1965, the band released a single in the Canadian market called Mynah Bird Hop. Their manager had connections at Motown Records, and in October 1965 they traveled to Detroit and recorded several songs at Motown – by this time, the band’s guitarist had left and was replaced by Neil Young. At Motown, Matthews met his musical hero Stevie Wonder, and Wonder told Ricky James Matthews to shorten his name to Rick James.
  • Motown discovered James’ fugitive status, and the label refused to release songs recorded by The Mynah Birds until he resolved his dispute with the military. He surrendered to the FBI and the Navy sentenced him to five months hard labor in 1966. He escaped from military jail after six weeks, and surrendered again six months later. Legal counsel helped reduce his court-martial from a potential five years down to five months. In August 1967, he was released from detention.
  • In 1968 he landed again at Motown, writing songs for some of Motown’s artists. He befriended session musician Greg Reeves, and the two moved to Los Angeles, hoping to catch on with rising star Neil Young. James introduced Reeves to Young, and soon Reeves was hired to play bass guitar for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
  • Between 1969 and 1972, James worked with various artists in LA and Toronto, and he formed the bands Salt’N’Pepper and Hot Lips. In 1973, James was signed to a solo recording contract, and his first single, My Mama, was released the following year, becoming a dance hit in Europe. In 1976, he returned to Buffalo and formed a band called the Stone City Band. After James and the band released a single titled Get Up and Dance, he signed a recording contract with Motown in 1977.
  • His debut album Come Get It! was released in 1978, with James performing vocals, guitars, keyboards and bass, accompanied by over a dozen musicians and vocalists as part of the Stone City Band. The album was a success, reaching #13 on the Billboard 200 album chart and eventually attaining 2x platinum status. The singles You and I and Mary Jane reached #1 and #3 respectively on the R&B chart, with You and I peaking at #13 on the Hot 100.
  • Three albums released in 1979 and 1980 were successful, with four top 20 singles on the R&B chart, including Bustin’ Out, which peaked at #8. During these years, Prince toured as an opening act for James – the two would become bitter rivals  when James accused Prince of stealing his act. In 1981, James released his best selling album – Street Songs. It topped the R&B Albums chart and was certified 3x platinum, with Give It To Me Baby topping the R&B chart and his signature song Super Freak reaching #16 on the Hot 100 and topping the Hot Dance Club Play chart. Super Freak was ranked #153 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Songs of All Time list in 2021.
  • He released six more studio albums in the 80s, with eight singles reaching the top 10 of the R&B chart, including chart toppers Cold Blooded in 1983 and Loosey’s Rap in 1988. He also had success as a producer and songwriter during the 80s, particularly on two albums for Mary Jane Girls and an album by Eddie Murphy. Throughout this time, James was controversial due to his promotion of the use of marijuana and his overt sexuality. MTV refused to air several of his music videos, including Super Freak and Loosey’s Rap, deeming them to be too graphically sexual.
  • In 1990, MC Hammer released his hit U Can’t Touch This, which sampled the opening riff to Super Freak. James sued Hammer, and ultimately James received co-writer credit for the song. When U Can’t Touch This won the Grammy award in 1991 for Best R&B Song, James won his only Grammy award.
  • As the 90s began, James’ popularity declined. He was deeply addicted to cocaine. In 1991, he was arrested for kidnapping a woman, forcing her to perform sex acts while he was on a cocaine binge. In 1992, while out on bail, he was arrested for assaulting a female music executive. James was found guilty for both incidents, serving prison time for over two years. Released from prison in 1996, he released an album in 1997. During his tour to support the album, he suffered a mild stroke and he went into semi-retirement.
  • In 2004, James participated in a sketch on Dave Chappelle’s Chappelle’s Show that hilariously recounted stories of James and his days in the 80s with Eddie and Charlie Murphy. The sketch revitalized interest in James, but his rise was brief – less than six month after the show aired, James was found dead at his home, at 56 years old.
  • Do yourself a favor – watch the Rick James sketch on Chappelle’s Show – it’s one of the funniest television moments of all time, in my opinion (the “Prince” sketch which aired the following week is even funnier). Here’s the video of Super Freak – really, not nearly as provocative as some popular videos on MTV several years later.

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