James, Rick (originally, Johnson, James Jr.)

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James, Rick (originally, Johnson, James Jr.)

James, Rick (originally, Johnson, JamesJr.), a punk funk pioneer; b., Buffalo, N.Y., Feb. 1, 1948. James and his seven brothers and sisters were brought up by their mother, who made her living primarily as a numbers runner. At 15, James joined the Navy. He went AWOL soon after, landing in Toronto. There, he formed The Mynah Birds, a band of future all-stars including Neil Young and Bill Palmer, who would shortly thereafter join Buffalo Springfield, and Goldie Mcjohn who would join Steppenwolf. To keep a low profile in a high profile position, he changed his name to Rick James. His uncle, Melvin Franklin of The Temptations, helped get the band signed to Motown in the mid- 1960s, though nothing ever was released. When the rest of The Mynah Birds went to L.A., James—still in trouble with the Navy—went to London where he formed a blues band. He also remained on the Motown payroll as a songwriter. He stayed there for seven years, at which point military amnesty allowed him to return to the States. He formed The Stone City Band, using a mixture of Parliament and Kiss as a blueprint, creating a funk rock hybrid. They recorded an entire album, which he brought to Berry Gordy. Gordy was impressed with the effort and signed James once again. The record, Come and Get It, came out during the summer of 1978, and the first single, “You and I,” topped the R&B chart, rising to #13 pop. His ode to pot, “Mary Jane,” followed it to #3 on the R&B charts. The album went gold and hit #13 as well.

Bustin’ Out of L Seven came out the next year, spawning the R&B hits “Bustin’ Out” (#8) and “High on Your Love” (#12). He went out on tour with The Mary Jane Girls (his answer to Parlet and the Brides of Funkenstein) and Prince. The tour generated a great deal of excitement on the two newcomers’ often decadent stage shows and new funk and roll sound. They frequently played to sell-out houses. The album hit #16 on the pop charts. Less then ten months later, he followed that with Fire It Up, which produced the R&B

hit “Love Gun” (#13) and hit #34 on the pop album chart. He changed direction, recording Garden of Love, an album primarily of ballads including the R&B hit “Big Time” (#17).

In 1981, James released Street Songs, a hard core funk record that generated the chart topping R&B hit “Give It to Me Baby,” (#40 pop). His follow-up, “Super Freak,” went to #3 R&B and #16 pop. Both songs were sexy, funky, and slightly sleazy, in keeping with the sex-and-drugs attitude that James was projecting and actually living. When the album went platinum, he moved into a Calif, mansion previously owned by William Randolph. Hearst. Tales of his excess became legend. One thing that kept him from crossing over more completely was MTV’s concentration on rock, largely ignoring bands like P-Funk and James at this time. Yet James retained his musical prowess, producing hits for The Mary Jane Girls (”In My House,” #7 pop 1995); Eddie Murphy (”Party All the Time” #2 & platinum, 1985); Teena Marie; Carl Carlton; and Uncle Melvin’s band, The Temptations (”Standing on the Top”). His 1982 album Throwin’ Down hit #13 on the charts and went gold on the strength of his past performances, his live show, and the minor R&B hit “Dance wit’ Me.” Similarly, 1983’s Cold Blooded went gold, rising to #16 pop as the title track topped the R&B album chart, but like “Give It to Me Baby,” could get no higher than #40 pop. The song “17” reached #36 on the pop charts in 1984.

With the release of The Flag in 1985, James’s contract with Motown ended—and none too happily. He took some time away from his own career to produce Eddie Murphy’s debut album, finally signing to Reprise in 1988. The label debut, Wonderful, didn’t even crack the Top 100 albums, though the single “Loosey’s Rap” with Roxanne Shante topped the R&B charts. His decadence started to catch up with him, and by his own admission he spent a great deal of the next three years smoking crack, surfacing only when his debauchery got wild enough to make the papers. However, his music went on. MC Hammer heavily sampled “Super Freak” for his hit “U Can’t Touch This,” without clearing the sample. James sued, and in a settlement he became a co-writer of the song. Ironically, it was his only song to get MTV exposure and his only Grammy winner (he shared R&B Song of the Year with Hammer and Alonzo Miller).

In 1991, James and his girlfriend Tanya Hijazi were named in two instances of physically abusing women and drug possession. Both found themselves in jail. During his incarceration, James finally cleaned up his act. Out of prison, he went back into the recording studio and released Urban Rapsody[sic] in 1997, an album with guest appearances by Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, and even members of the Mary Jane Girls. He married Hijazi and settled down in L.A. While on tour supporting the album, James suffered a small stroke, but was soon on the road again.


This Magic Moment/Dance with Me (1971); Come Get It! (1978); Bustin’ Out of L Seven (1979); Fire It Up (1979); Garden of Love (1980); 3 Times in Love (1980); Street Songs (1981); Throwin’ Down (1982); Cold Blooded (1983); Reflections of Rick (1984); You (1985); Glow (1985); The Flag (1986); Wonderful (1988); Kickin’ (1989); Rick and Friends (1992); Urban Rapsody (1997).

—Hank Bordowitz

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James, Rick (originally, Johnson, James Jr.)

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