Happy Birthday to Rick James – born February 1, 1948 – August 6, 2004!
Rick James was an American musician, composer and actor.
Influenced by singers such as Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, James started singing in doo-wop and R&B groups as a teenager in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. After entering the U.S. Navy to avoid being drafted, he deserted to Toronto, where he formed the rock and R&B band, The Mynah Birds, whose lineup included Bruce Palmer, Neil Young, and Nick St. Nicholas. James’ tenure with the group was interrupted after he was discovered recording a record for Motown Records in 1966. Surrendering to military authorities, he served a one-year prison term. Upon release, James moved to California to resume his career with the Mynah Birds until the group disbanded. James began a series of rock bands in California, and worked for Motown as a songwriter under the alias “Ricky Matthews.”
In 1977, he signed with a Motown imprint, Gordy Records, as a recording artist, releasing his debut, Come Get It!, in April 1978. The album sold over two million copies, and launched his career as a funk and soul artist. His most popular album, 1981’s Street Songs, launched him into superstardom thanks to the hit singles, “Give It to Me Baby” and “Super Freak”, the latter song becoming his signature song, and the basis of MC Hammer’s biggest hit, “U Can’t Touch This.” James eventually sued for back royalties. After being credited as writer of the song, James became the 1991 recipient of a Best R&B Song Grammy for composing the song. Due to this success, James was often called the “king of punk funk”, for his mix of funk, soul and underground-inspired rock music. In addition to his own success, James emerged as a successful songwriter and producer for other artists, such as Teena Marie, The Mary Jane Girls, The Temptations, Eddie Murphy and Smokey Robinson.
A drug addiction hampered his career in the late 1980s. In the 1990s, his legal troubles, including kidnapping and torturing two women while under the influence of crack, led him to serve a three-year sentence at California’s Folsom State Prison. James was released on parole in 1996, and resumed his musical career releasing the album, Urban Rapsody, in 1997. A mild stroke suffered during a concert in early 1998 interrupted his career for a brief time. James received new notoriety in 2004, when he appeared (as himself) in an episode of Chappelle’s Show, in a Charlie Murphy “True Hollywood Stories” segment that satirized James’ wild lifestyle. James died later that year from heart failure at age 56.
Early life and career
James Ambrose Johnson, Jr. was born on February 1, 1948, in Buffalo, New York, to Mabel (née Sims) and James Ambrose Johnson, Sr. 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. James claimed later in the autobiography, Glow, that he lost his virginity at “age 9 or 10” to a 14-year-old local girl, claiming his “kinky nature came in early”.James eventually attended Orchard Park High School and Bennett High School prior to dropping out. James was introduced to drugs at an early age and, as a young teen, was busted for burglary..Due to his stints in jail for theft, James entered the United States Navy at 14 or 15, lying about his age, to avoid the draft. During that time, he also became a drummer for local jazz groups in New York City. Due to him missing his twice-monthly Reserve sessions at the USS Enterprise, 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. In 1965, 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.