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James, Rick 1948–

Rick James 1948

Vocalist, songwriter, producer, musician

At a Glance

Draft Dodger

Bustin Out

Instant Stardom

Super Freak

Descended into Drug Stupor

Folsom Prison Blues

Selected discography

Sources

The very name Rick James seems to ring synonymous with his biggest hit, the Eighties dance-funk classic Super Freak. During the height of his career, James was putting out successful albums for Motown as well as producing the work of a roster of other talent, names that included Teena Marie, the Temptations, and Eddie Murphy. Yet James drug addiction eventually spiraled so far out of control that he simply lost his abilityand desireto write songs, then ran afoul of the law in a pair of disturbing incidents. With a prison term behind him and a young son to raise, Jamesthough he turned fifty in 1998still enjoys a respectable career in music and is writing his autobiography.

James was born James Ambrose Johnson Jr. in Buffalo, New York, in 1948. He was one of eight children in a family headed by an abusive father who left when James was just seven. From his mother, once a Katherine Dunham dancer who had worked at some of Harlems most prestigious nightclubs, James learned at an early age about the possibilities show business offered. But with eight kids in her single-parent household in Buffalo, Mabel Johnsons glamorous days were long overinstead of dancing, she worked as a cleaning woman and ran numbers on the side for a local organized crime racket. Through this she was able to clothe and feed her children, and was also able to send some to private school. James went to a Catholic school for a timeeven serving as an altar boybut its strict rules and his love of sports could not keep him out of trouble by the time he entered his teens. His formative years were marked by an increasing penchant for cutting class, petty crime, and a burgeoning relationship with juvenile authorities.

Though James seemed on the road to a dead-end future, it was a talent show he entered in high school that finally provided him with the focus his life needed. When he took the stage, I started off with a bongo beat, James wrote in the manuscript for his autobiography, Memoirs of a Super Freak, reprinted in a 1996 Rolling Stone interview with Mike Sager. Then I began to sing out this chant. I asked the crowd to sing along, and they did. The feeling of the crowd singing, the people dancing in the aisles cast a magic spell on me.I made a pact with myself from that day onmusic was my life.

At a Glance

Born James Ambrose Johnson Jr., c. 1948, in Buffalo, NY; son of an autoworker, James, Sr., and Mabel (Gladden) Johnson; married Tanya Hijazi, c. 1996; children: Tazman.

Career: Singer, producer, songwriter, and musician. Member of the Sailor Boys with Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, mid-1960s; member of the Mynah Birds, mid-1960s, with Neil Young; hired by Motown Records as a staff songwriter, early 1970s; turned in a finished album, c. 1977, to Motown and was signed as a recording artist; first single You and I, released in 1978; first LP, Come Get It, released on Motown in 1978; achieved biggest success with 1981 single Super Freak; released several albums for Motown until the 1980s; contractual disputes led to a switch to Warner/Reprise, c. 1988; released Urban Rapsody on Private I/Mercury Records, 1997.

Addresses: Officedo Mercury Records, 825 8th Ave,, New York NY 10019.

Draft Dodger

When James was not yet sixteen, he dropped out of school permanently; to skirt the draft, he signed up with the Naval Reserves. The part-time military duty required James to report for training two weekends out of every month, but before long he was unable to meet this stipulation because of increasing success with his first band, the Duprees. They were a harmonizing group that covered Motown songs, and James had also started drumming with another band, a jazz act. When his military superiors reached the point of exasperation, James was told to report for active duty in 1964. Instead he fled to Canada.

James found himself wearing a Navy uniform walking down the streets of Toronto, a city growing increasingly countercultural in nature by dint of the American draft-dodgers arriving daily. That free spirit translated into a hostility toward American military uniforms, and James-was immediately harassed; a fight broke out. Three sympathetic men came to his rescue, among them up-and-coming musicians Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, who would go on to form the lauded Sixties rock ensemble known as The Band. They took James to a coffeehouse, and by the end of the night they were performing together on its stage. A band was formed, which they called the Sailor Boys, and James went underground using an alias, Ricky James Matthews.

Bustin Out

The Sailor Boys were the predecessor to James next band, the Mynah Birds, formed with Nick St. Nicholas, who would later go on to become part of the successful California rock band Steppenwolf. Canadian guitarist Neil Young was also a Mynah Bird for a time, and the group became well-known on the Canadian rock scene. The fledgling band was financed by an ambitious British rock impresario, and eventually they secured a contract with Motown Records. After recording an album, the Mynahs were dropped when the label found out James was a wanted man in the United States because of his AWOL status. Realizing his judgment day had arrived, James gave himself up to authorities, but then escaped from a naval brig after reading in a magazine how successful all his former bandmates were becoming. He eventually served out his sentence and returned to Toronto, where Canadian authorities then arrested him on stolen-property charges. He served more jail time there before being deported.

Despite his problems with the law, Motown recognized James talent and hired him as a songwriter in the early 1970s. He grew unhappy with the hit factory nature of the process, however, and quit. For some time after that, James indulged his growing taste for illicit substances by working as a drug courier. Eventually he was able to record an album on his own, and took it to Motown, who re-signed him as a recording artist immediately. That LP, Come Get It, and its first single, You and I, established James as a solid singer/songwriter able to mine the basics of funk into a catchy pop tune. At the height of the disco era, You and I was the No. 1 R&B single, and the album achieved double-platinum status.

Instant Stardom

Motown again put its faith in James talents and gave their new star carte blanche. He put together a massive back-up ensemble, the Stone City Band, and became famous for his live shows. His band members were all over six feet tall, like James, and wore their hair in braids like him as well. At the time, James was considered a bit outrageous in appearance with his spandex stage gear, a bare chest, and long braidsa style which he admitted to borrowing from two dissimilar elements: Masai dancers and the rock act Kiss. James followed up the success of Come Get It with Bustin Out of L7in 1979 and Fire It Up a year later; the sound he created during this era helped establish him as the historical link between George Clintons funkadelic sound and the Controversy years of Prince.

As the money poured in, James lived well. He moved into a Hollywood mansion and built a recording studio there, and also bought a large property closer to his roots outside Buffalo in 1980. His band, and his back-up singers, the Mary Jane Girls, all moved with him, along with other members of an increasingly larger entourage. The ranch served as a playground, with numerous luxury cars, horses, snowmobiles, a pool, and an arcade room. A large amount of cocaine, the drug of the era, was also involved; for fun, James would speed through New York State to New York Citysometimes driven by a cop he kept on his payrolland used Manhattans priciest hotels as his base for jaunts to exclusive discos such as Studio 54 and Xenon.

Super Freak

Part of the largesse for such a lifestyle came from James success as a recording artist and producer for Motown. He helped craft hits for numerous other Motown acts, but it was his 1981 hit Super Freak that earned him millions. The song sold 4 million copies and crossed over to the white pop audience as well. The album, Street Songs, sold 3 million copies, and another single, Give It to Me Baby, was also wildly successful. James was tagged the King of Funk Punk, and enjoyed the appreciative social company of stars like Mick Jagger and David Bowie.

Yet it was a 1981 encounter with rock legend Sly Stone that changed James life irrevocably. He and a band-mate witnessed the former Seventies star freebasing, or smoking cocainea practice which had severely injured comedian Richard Pryor just a year before. Sly Stone appeared so unaware of his surroundings that James and his horn player were shocked at how far he had fallen, and vowed never to try freebasing, which was known to be extremely addictive. A few days later, James visited Stone again in San Francisco and the pair spent a week locked in a recording studio, freebasing. Soon James was spending $ 10,000 a week on drugsbut continued to have a moderately successful career as a recording artist and producer. He even became involved with other African American musicians to pressure the fledgling MTV to integrate its playlist. Street Songs was followed by ThrowinDown in 1982 and a successful solo effort he produced for the Mary Jane Girls a year later. He had a hit on his own in 1983 with the song Cold Blooded, a song he wrote about actress Linda Blair, whom he had dated, and a year later with the raunchy 17. In 1985 he produced the record launching comedian Eddie Murphys singing career, with the ill-advised Party All the Time; though it reached No. 2 on the charts, Murphy would eventually direct his ambitions to acting in feature films. For his extensive production work for these and other artists, James received Grammy nominations, despite the increasing turmoil in his personal life.

Descended into Drug Stupor

Over time, however, the drugs began to undermine James creativity. He became withdrawn, had aluminum foil mounted on his home windows to keep out the daylight, would stay awake for ten days at a time, and simply stopped writing music when the passion finally disappeared. His 1986 LP for Motown, The Flag, sold less than 100,000 copies, though a single, Sweet and Sexy Thing, did well. James sued the label to be released from his contract, and the label countersued, saying The Flag was a dismal effort since James was using such massive quantities of drugs at the time of its recording. The federal judge in the case said that given James past history of drug abusealong with what he called the reportedly widespread drug use in the music industry, according to Rolling Stone such charges of drug use were irrelevant to Motowns suit against James.

James emerged from the legal troubles of the late 1980s relatively well and signed with Warner/Reprise. His creative career, however, appeared on the skids. A review in People of his 1988 effort for the label, Wonderful, was less than kind; critic David Hildebrand declared the grooves are stale and the instrumentation clamorous. The death of Mabel Johnson sent James into a tailspin of self-destructive behavior, and his drug use grew increasingly ruinous. In 1991, he and his girlfriend Tanya Hijazi were accused of assaulting a woman in their Hollywood homea woman they befriended, then accused of stealing drugsand faced a trial; a year later, another woman also filed assault and torture charges.

Folsom Prison Blues

Los Angeles prosecutors combined the two cases, and James faced three life sentences for a total of fifteen felony counts. Yet the Los Angeles Times uncovered prosecutorial misconductsomeone in their office had been supplying drugs to one of the witnesses against James and Hijaziand a deal was cut in which James received a prison sentence of five years and four months. The judge at the sentencing called James the luckiest man on earth, and said, [If Id] had my way, Id have thrown away the key, according to Sager in Rolling Stone.

James served out his sentence in Californias Folsom Prison, where he converted to Islam, joined Narcotics Anonymous, began writing his autobiography, and finally returned to songwriting again. He estimated that he had squandered over $400,000 a year on drugs over a decade, and considered his incarceration a blessing in disguise, according to People magazine in 1996. Otherwise I probably would have been dead by now. He was released in the summer of 1996. Though James had declared personal bankruptcy, there was still some money left in his music business to do another album, which was released in 1997 on Private I/Mercury. Jancee Dunn, reviewing Urban Rapsody for Rolling Stone, called it a mellow, reflective, and intensely autobiographical affair; she noted that his years of troubles seemed to have dulled the risqué edge that had infused his earlier successesbut concluded, were glad youre still with us, Rick.

Selected discography

Bustin Out of L7, Motown, 1979.

Fire It Up, Motown, 1980.

Street Songs, Motown, 1981.

Throwin Down, Motown, 1982.

Cold Blooded, Motown, 1983

The Flag, Motown, 1986.

Wonderful, Reprise, 1988.

Bustin Out: The Best of Rick James, Motown, 1994.

Urban Rapsody, Private I/Mercury Records, 1997.

Sources

Periodicals

Jet, August 26, 1991, p. 56; January 24, 1994, p. 51; August 8, 1994, p. 61.

People, August 8, 1988; June 17, 1996, p. 123.

Rolling Stone, May 18, 1989, p. 30; June 27, 1996; November 26, 1997.

Other

Additional information for this profile was provided by the Internet site at http://www.igc.apc.org and http://www.music.com

Carol Brennan

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James, Rick

Rick James

Singer, songwriter, music producer

The very name Rick James seems to ring synonymous with his biggest hit, the 1980s' dance-funk classic "Super Freak." During the height of his career, James was putting out successful albums for Motown as well as producing work by a roster of other talent, names that included Teena Marie, the Temptations, and Eddie Murphy. Yet James's drug addiction eventually spiraled so far out of control that he simply lost his ability—and desire—to write songs, then ran afoul of the law in a pair of disturbing incidents. With a prison term behind him and a young son to raise, James had begun an attempt to clean up his life, but died of a heart attack in 2004.

James was born James Ambrose Johnson Jr., in Buffalo, New York, in 1948. He was one of eight children in a family headed by an abusive father who left when James was just seven. From his mother, once a Katherine Dunham dancer who had worked at some of Harlem's most prestigious nightclubs, James learned at an early age about the possibilities show business offered. But with eight kids in her single-parent household in Buffalo, Mabel Johnson's glamorous days were long over—instead of dancing, she worked as a cleaning woman and ran numbers on the side for a local organized crime racket. Through this she was able to clothe and feed her children, and was also able to send some of them to private school. James went to a Catholic school for a time—even serving as an altar boy—but its strict rules and his love of sports could not keep him out of trouble. His formative years were marked by an increasing penchant for cutting class, petty crime, and a burgeoning relationship with juvenile authorities.

Though James seemed on the road to a dead-end future, it was a talent show he entered in high school that finally provided him with the focus his life needed. When he took the stage, "I started off with a bongo beat," James wrote in the manuscript for his autobiography, Memoirs of a Super Freak, reprinted in a 1996 Rolling Stone interview with Mike Sager. "Then I began to sing out this chant. I asked the crowd to sing along, and they did. The feeling of the crowd singing, the people dancing in the aisles cast a magic spell on me…. I made a pact with myself from that day on—music was my life."

When James was not yet 16, he dropped out of school permanently; to skirt the draft, he signed up with the Naval Reserves. The part-time military duty required James to report for training two weekends out of every month, but before long he was unable to meet this stipulation because of increasing success with his first band, the Duprees. They were a harmonizing group that covered Motown songs, and James had also started drumming with another band, a jazz act. When his military superiors reached the point of exasperation, James was told to report for active duty in 1964. Instead, he fled to Canada.

James found himself wearing a Navy uniform walking down the streets of Toronto. He was immediately harassed, and a fight broke out. Three sympathetic men came to his rescue, among them up-and-coming musicians Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, who would later go on to form the lauded 1960s' rock ensemble known as The Band. They took James to a coffeehouse, and by the end of the night they were performing together on its stage. They formed a band called the Sailor Boys, and James went underground using an alias, Ricky James Matthews.

The Sailor Boys were the predecessor to James's next band, the Mynah Birds, formed with Nick St. Nicholas, who would later go on to become part of the successful California rock band Steppenwolf. Canadian guitarist Neil Young was also a Mynah Bird for a time, and the group became well-known on the Canadian rock scene. The fledgling band was financed by an ambitious British rock impresario, and eventually they secured a contract with Motown Records. After recording an album, the Mynahs were dropped when the label found out James was a wanted man in the United States because of his AWOL status.

Landed in Jail

Realizing his judgment day had arrived, James gave himself up to authorities, but then escaped from a naval brig. He eventually served out his sentence and returned to Toronto, where Canadian authorities then arrested him on stolen-property charges. He served more jail time there before being deported.

Despite his problems with the law, Motown recognized James's talent and hired him as a songwriter in the early 1970s. He grew unhappy with the "hit factory" nature of the process, however, and quit. For some time after that, he indulged his growing taste for illicit substances by working as a drug courier. Eventually he was able to record an album on his own, and took it to Motown, who re-signed him as a recording artist. That LP, Come Get It, and its first single, "You and I," established James as a solid singer/songwriter able to turn the basics of funk into a catchy pop tune. At the height of the disco era, "You and I" was the number one R&B single, and the album achieved double-platinum status.

Under Motown's aegis, James put together a massive backup ensemble, the Stone City Band, and became famous for his live shows. The band members were all over six feet tall, like James, and wore their hair in braids as he did. At the time, James was considered a bit outrageous in appearance with his spandex stage gear, a bare chest, and long braids—a style which he admitted borrowing from two dissimilar elements: Masai dancers and the rock act Kiss. James followed up the success of Come Get It with Bustin' Out of L7 in 1979 and Fire It Up a year later; the sound he created during this era helped establish him as the historical link between George Clinton's funkadelic sound and the "Controversy" years of Prince.

As the money poured in, James lived well. He moved into a Hollywood mansion and built a recording studio there, and also bought a large property closer to Buffalo in 1980. Part of the largesse for such a lifestyle came from James's success as a recording artist and producer for Motown. He helped craft hits for numerous other Motown acts, but it was his 1981 hit "Super Freak" that earned him millions. The song sold four million copies and crossed over to the white pop audience. The album Street Songs sold three million copies, and another single, "Give It to Me Baby," was also wildly successful. James was tagged the King of Funk Punk, and enjoyed the appreciative social company of stars like Mick Jagger and David Bowie.

For the Record …

Born James Ambrose Johnson Jr., on February 1, 1948, in Buffalo, NY; died on August 6, 2004, in Los Angeles, CA; son of James Sr. (an autoworker) and Mabel (Gladden) Johnson; married Tanya Hijazi, c. 1996; children: Tazman.

Singer, producer, songwriter, and musician; member of the Sailor Boys with Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, mid-1960s; member of the Mynah Birds, mid-1960s, with Neil Young; hired by Motown Records as a staff songwriter, early 1970s; turned in a finished album, c. 1977, to Motown and was signed as a recording artist; first single "You and I," released in 1978; first LP, Come Get It, released on Motown in 1978; achieved biggest success with 1981 single "Super Freak"; released several albums for Motown until the 1980s; contractual disputes led to a switch to Warner/Reprise, c. 1988; released Urban Rapsody on Private I/Mercury Records, 1997; toured, 1997-98.

Spiraled Out of Control

Yet a 1981 encounter with rock legend Sly Stone changed James's life irrevocably. He and a bandmate witnessed the former 1970s star freebasing, or smoking cocaine, a practice that had severely injured comedian Richard Pryor just a year before. Sly Stone appeared so unaware of his surroundings that James and his horn player were shocked at how far he had fallen, and vowed never to try freebasing, which was known to be extremely addictive. A few days later, however, James visited Stone again in San Francisco, and the pair spent a week freebasing, while locked in a recording studio.

Soon James was spending $10,000 a week on drugs, even though he continued to have a moderately successful career as a recording artist and producer. Street Songs was followed by Throwin' Down in 1982. He had a hit in 1983 with "Cold Blooded," a song he wrote about actress Linda Blair, whom he had dated, and a year later scored with the raunchy "17." In 1985 he launched the record career of comedian Eddie Murphy, producing the ill-advised "Party All the Time"; though it reached number two on the charts, Murphy would soon direct his ambitions to acting in feature films. James received Grammy nominations for his extensive production work for these and other artists.

Over time, however, James's drug abuse began to undermine his creativity. He became withdrawn, and finally stopped writing music. His 1986 LP for Motown, The Flag, sold fewer than 100,000 copies. James sued the label to be released from his contract, and the label countersued, saying The Flag was a dismal effort, due to the extent of James's drug abuse. A federal judge in the case finally ruled that the charges of drug use were irrelevant in the company's case against James.

James emerged from the legal troubles of the late 1980s relatively unscathed, and signed with Warner/Reprise. His creative career, however, seemed on the skids. A review in People of his 1988 effort for the label, Wonderful, was less than kind; critic David Hildebrand declared, "The grooves are stale and the instrumentation clamorous." The death of Mabel Johnson sent James into a tailspin of self-destructive behavior, and his drug use grew increasingly ruinous. In 1991 he and a girlfriend were accused of assaulting a woman in their Hollywood home, and faced a trial; a year later, another woman also filed assault and torture charges.

Los Angeles prosecutors combined the two cases, and James faced three life sentences for a total of 15 felony counts. Yet the Los Angeles Times uncovered prosecutorial misconduct—someone in their office had been supplying drugs to one of the witnesses against James and his girlfriend—and a deal was cut in which James received a prison sentence of five years and four months. The judge at the sentencing called James "the luckiest man on earth," and said, "[If I'd] had my way, I'd have thrown away the key," according to Sager in Rolling Stone.

Attempted a Comeback

James served out his sentence in California's Folsom Prison, where he converted to Islam, joined Narcotics Anonymous, began writing his autobiography, and finally returned to songwriting. He estimated that he had squandered over $400,000 a year on drugs over a decade, and considered his incarceration "a blessing in disguise," according to People. He was released in the summer of 1996. Though James had declared personal bankruptcy, there was still some money left from his music business to do another album, which was released in 1997 on Private I/Mercury. Jancee Dunn, reviewing Urban Rapsody for Rolling Stone, called it "a mellow, reflective, and intensely autobiographical affair."

Although Urban Rapsody was both a commercial and critical success, James disappeared from the music scene once again shortly after the album's release. The tour following the album was only sporadically successful, with slow ticket sales responsible for the cancellation of a show in Buffalo. Making a comeback after a two-year prison sentence was also difficult for James personally. He told Anthony Violanti in the Buffalo News, "I feared going into the studio and I feared going on stage again. I had a lot of anxiety, but getting back has been great. The crowds have been amazing." The tour, however, was brought to a halt on November 6 during a show in the Mammoth Event Center in Denver. While performing, James felt something pop in his neck, then reported feeling pain and numbness. After being admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the doctors diagnosed the singer as having suffered a stroke.

James faced more legal difficulties in 2002 when he was accused of sexually assaulting a 26-year-old woman, a charge he denied. James died on August 6, 2004, at his Los Angeles home, and although the coroner's report found the presence of nine different drugs, the cause of death was officially listed as a heart attack. Despite his legal and drug problems over the years, James told Aidin Vaziri in the San Francisco Chronicle that he had few regrets about the highlights of his career. "No, there's not a whole lot of things I would change…. I was at such a high point, what would I change?."

Selected discography

Bustin' Out of L7, Motown, 1979.

Fire It Up, Motown, 1980.

Street Songs, Motown, 1981.

Throwin' Down, Motown, 1982.

Cold Blooded, Motown, 1983.

The Flag, Motown, 1986.

Wonderful, Reprise, 1988.

Bustin' Out: The Best of Rick James, Motown, 1994.

Urban Rapsody, Private I/Mercury Records, 1997.

Sources

Buffalo News, November 22, 1998, p. E1.

Jet, August 26, 1991, p. 56; January 24, 1994, p. 51; August 8, 1994, p. 61.

People, August 8, 1988; June 17, 1996, p. 123.

Rolling Stone, May 18, 1989, p. 30; June 27, 1996; November 26, 1997.

San Francisco Chronicle, January 6, 2002, p. 51.

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James, Rick

Rick James

Singer, songwriter

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

Funk star Rick James has been hailed as the cornrow-braided sultan of street music by Eric Levin of People. Perhaps best known for his 1981 dance hit Superfreak, he has been writing songs professionally since the early 1970s and recording since the later years of that decade. Street Songs, the album that includes Superfreak, has sold over four million copies; his combined album sales are in the area of ten million copies. James has also received attention for his secondary vocals on comedian Eddie Murphys singing debut, the hit single Party All the Time, and is credited with the discovery of pop singer Teena Marie.

James, whose original surname was Johnson, was born into a poor family. His father, James, worked in a foundry in Buffalo, New York, but left his wife and seven children when Rick was six years old. According to Levin, Betty, the singers mother, then became a numbers runner to support her family. She made quite a bit of money at this illegal undertaking, enough so that by the time Rick was eight she was able to buy a house in a white neighborhood. There, the black family suffered from racial prejudice. James told Levin: We had to fight our way home from school every day.

When James was in high school, he was active in sports, lettering in both basketball and football. But he was also beginning to write songs, and he liked this better than the more structured pastimes of team athletics, so he spent much of his time singing in bands. In 1966, however, though he was only fifteen, James began to worry about being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Thinking to evade this fate, he lied about his age and entered the U.S. Navy reservesreserve members usually being the last to see active duty. But his attendance at reserve meetings was irregular at best, and as punishment he was assigned to a ship headed for Vietnam. James decided to run away to Canada.

He wound up in Toronto, where he again became involved with music. In the various groups he sang for, he met fellow artists who would become members of bands like Steppenwolf and Buffalo Springfield. Because James feared the Navy would catch up with him, he sometimes performed under the alias Ricky James Matthews, Matthews being the surname of one of his girlfriends at the time. James also met rock musician Neil Young during his stint in Toronto, and together they started a group called the Mynah Birds. In 1971 the Mynah Birds signed a contract with Motown Records, but the company insisted that James come back to the United States and turn himself in to the Navy before he began recording.

The result was that James spent approximately eight months in a Navy prison. He escaped once with three

For the Record

Name originally Rick Johnson; born c. 1951; son of James (a foundry worker) and Betty (a numbers runner) Johnson; married once (divorced); two children. Religion: Born-again Christian.

Singer, songwriter, 1971. Formed the Mynah Birds with Neil Young, 1971; wrote songs for Motown Records, c. 1972-78; recording artist and concert performer, 1978.

Awards: Two platinum albums.

Addresses: Office c/o Mary Jane Productions, 104 Chapin Parkway, Buffalo, N.Y., 14209.

others, but returned to finish his sentence two months later. James told Levin that prison strengthened him: I went in there a pitiful form of human being, and I came out 180 pounds of rock. While he was incarcerated, the Mynah Birds deal fell through, but he still had a job writing songs for Motown. James spent several years in this position, but in 1978 he recorded his debut album, Come Get It, along with his first hit single, You and I.

James was unable to handle his overnight success. He confided to Levin: In 1978 I spent $1 million on cars, wine, women and booze. He also did hard drugs, and though he continued producing successful albums, he wound up with hepatitis and large debts due to his abusive lifestyle. As of 1982 James told Levin he had given up all drugs except marijuana; as of 1987 Jet magazine reported that James had become a born-again Christian. In that article James was quoted as saying, God has saved me from overdosing and all kinds of different experiences, but God has not told me to stop rocking. Critic David Hiltbrand of People, however, complained that on the singers 1988 release, Wonderful, his usual creativity [had] deserted him. But James came back with a different style in 1989, trading in his long braids for a 1950s-era pompadour on the video for his medley remake of This Magic Moment/Dance with Me, from the album Rock, Rhythm, and Blues.

Selected discography

Come Get It (includes You and I), Motown, 1978.

Street Songs (includes Superfreak), Motown, 1981.

Throwin Down, Motown, 1982.

Wonderful (includes Wonderful, Judy, Sexual Luv Affair, I Believe in U, Tight, and Looseys Rap), Reprise, 1988.

Rock, Rhythm, and Blues (includes This Magic Moment/Dance with Me), Warner Brothers, 1989.

Sources

Jet, February 9, 1987.

People, November 22, 1982; August 8, 1988.

Elizabeth Thomas

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