Music News

Happy Birthday... and RIP, Rick James!

It seems there was a certain inevitability that doomed James Ambrose Johnson Jr., AKA Rick James, from the start. Despite his phenomenal success in the late '70s and early '80s, including no fewer than four number-one hits on the R&B charts (among them, "Super Freak," "Mary Jane," and "You and I"), a penchant for bad behavior made his destructive downslide all the more inevitable. 

Born February 1, 1948, James adopted an extreme lifestyle that gained him notoriety but ultimately undercut his musical ambitions.

Growing up, he idolized Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and the Temptations, a group that also happened to include his uncle, Melvin Franklin. However, run-ins with the law, even as a teenager, eventually led him to drop out of school and join the Naval Reserve. 

After failing to report for active duty, he fled to Canada, where he put together his first band, Sailor Boyz, with a future member of Steppenwolf, Nick St. Nicholas. After changing their name to the Mynah Birds, they recruited a young Neil Young and secured a recording contract with Motown. 

Unfortunately, when it was revealed that James had gone AWOL, their album was shelved indefinitely. James was subsequently arrested and sentenced to a year in jail, the first of several times he would find himself incarcerated throughout his career.

Still, in 1978, James reinvented himself as a solo performer, re-signed to Motown, and released the album Come Get It! on which he played most of the instruments single-handedly. It gave him his first real hit in the single "You and I," which, in turn, paved the way for further success with the song "Mary Jane." 

His next two albums, Fire It Up and Bustin' Out of L Seven, were even more successful and helped ensure his status as a bankable star. But it was his fifth album, Street Songs, that made him a verified superstar, thanks to the single "Super Freak," a song that not only became his biggest hit but also a signature song. The album went on to sell 3 million copies and helped endear him to an R&B audience. 

He was a much sought-after producer and soon found himself behind the boards, at the helm of Diana Ross' and the Temptations' efforts and a woman that became his protégé, Tina Marie. Still, James became disenchanted with Motown, although it took three more albums before he left the label to sign a lucrative deal with Warner Bros. 

By that time, however, James' personal and professional problems were overtaking his creative energies. His fondness for marijuana and harder drugs, especially cocaine and, later, crack spun him out of control. He claimed that at one point, he was spending $7,000 a week on his vices, a practice that continued unabated for five years. 

Those problems were further exacerbated following a stroke suffered while on tour in 1998. At the same time, James' penchant for the bizarre found him involved in a series of strange incidents. He spent more time in the slammer in the '90s -- Folsom Prison, to be exact. He and his future wife apparently kidnapped, tortured, and raped a woman, and while he was out on bail, he kidnapped again. 

The whole sad saga came to an end on August 6, 2004, when he was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment, having succumbed to cardiac failure aggravated by diabetes. A number of drugs were found in his system, although the coroner maintained that none of those substances was responsible for his demise. Inevitably, though, it was clear that his abusive habits had ultimately done him in. 

In the end, James became the superfreak he celebrated in his song. Only this one was willing to squander his life and his talent in exchange for a crack pipe and a warped sense of worth.

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Lee Zimmerman