Rick James was an American singer-songwriter, produder and musician who popularized funk music particularly in the 70s. He had been in the group The Mynah Birds, which also included Bruce Palmer and Neil Young. James’ solo career began in 1977 when he released his debut album Come Get It!, which became successful and went double platinum. James was later dubbed “The Father Of Punk Funk.” His biggest smash came with the 1981 single “Super Freak,” whose catchy riff was later popularly sampled by MC Hammer’s hit “U Can’t Touch This.” But James’ drug addictions went out of control; aside from that, he also had serious run-ins with the law. His intended comeback in 1997 was hampered by a stroke – his career never recovered from then on. James died of pulmonary and cardiac failure in 2004.
Rick James’ early life, his struggles and making a name in the music business
Rick James was born James Ambrose Johnson in Buffalo, New York on February 1, 1948. When he was younger James ran off from New York and became a US Naval reserve; it greatly interfered his early musical pursuits, so he went on AWOL and fled to Toronto, Ontario in Canada in 1964. While in Toronto, James formed his first band, The Mynah Birds, which included future stars Bruce Palmer and Neil Young as well as Goldy McJohn (who would later join Steppenwolf). The Mynah Birds soon formed a new lineup and were later signed to Motown Records. They spent some time at the recording session. But James was later found and arrested for his AWOL status and spent some time at a naval prison. Because of this, The Mynah Birds didn’t get to release an album; the group split eventually up.
In early 1968 James was signed up again to Motown, this time as a songwriter and producer; around that time he assumed the pseudonym “Rickie Matthews.” He worked alongside Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers and the Spinners. Along the way, James still contined his journeyman days, playing with other musicians acts such as Salt and Pepper (James’ own group together with bassist Greg Reeves); he also appeared on Palmer’s solo album The Cycle is Complete.
In 1978 James launched himself as a solo artist. He released his debut album Come Get It! wherein he played almost all the instruments (as he would do for his second album Bustin’ Out L Seven, released in 1979). Come Get It! was issued on Motown’s Gordy label, and featured the first single “You and I” which was written by James. This funky disco number became a Top 20 pop hit at #13. It also became an R&B chart-topper as well as crept into the the Top 10 dance chart at #3. The album’s follow-up single “Mary Jane” just missed the Top 40 pop, while it peaked at #3 R&B. Come Get It! eventually went gold.
Later releases such as Bustin’ Out L Seven, Fire It Up and Garden of Love were not as successful although these albums spawned several R&B and dance hits.Garden of Love was a shift from James’ earlier funk offering to more pop-flavored R&B.
James’ breakthrough hit with “Super Freak”
James’ breakthrough hit came in 1981 when his album Street Songs was released. The album incorporated elements of funk, rock, electronica and new wave elements that gave birth to the new musical called “punk funk.” All of his three singles — “Give It to Me Baby,” “Ghetto Life” and “Super Freak” all became dance chart-toppers. “Super Freak,” written by James and Alonzo Miller, came with a catchy riff. It also went on a big hit on the pop charts at #16, and #3 on the R&B singles chart in 1981. The album Street Songs was his most successful ever in his career, reaching #3 on the Billboard 200 and #1 on the R&B albums chart; it has also sold three million copies to date, garnering triple platinum certification.
The flashy and flamboyant artist’s success brought back Motown much of its glory; the label had been suffering flagging fortunes for some time. James helped the label update its sound as well. He followed Street Songs with another gold-selling hit Throwin’ Down (1982), which produced the dance and R&B hit “Dance Wit’ Me.” Another album Cold Blooded (1983) produced the title track which became a Top 40 pop hit and yet another R&B #1 for James. The album also featured his duet with Robinson, “Ebony Eyes.” His best-of album Reflections (1984) gave another R&B top 10 hit “17,” and Glow (1985) spawned off yet another #1 dance hit with “Glow.”
In the late 1980s James left Motown for Reprise label, where he released a couple of albums Wonderful (1988) and Kickin‘ (1989), the first and only album of his that failed to make a dent on either pop or R&B charts.
“Super Freak” sampled in MC Hammer’s hit “U Can’t Touch This”
In the 1990s, rapper MC Hammer sampled the riff off James’ biggest hit “Super Freak” into his own single “U Can’t Touch This.” Hammer’s single became a worldwide smash. Upon hearing this, James sued Hammer for copyright infringement, but the lawsuit was dropped when Hammer agreed to credit James as the co-writer of “U Can’t Touch This.” As a result James had a quite a share of the millions of dollars from the record’s sales.
It could have revived his career, but James was plagued with drug problems and troubles with the law. He got often arrested and seemed to spend more time in jail than in the recording studio or the stage. When he finally came clean and was released from prison, James came out what would be his last album during his lifetime, Urban Rhapsody (1997). While the album didn’t yield any hits, it garnered favorable reviews from fans and critics. His comeback trail was, unfortunately, cut by a stroke, and neither his career nor his health recovered from that.
On August 6, 2004 James died of cardiac and pulmonary failure in his Los Angeles home. He was 56 years old. Three years after his death, an album Deeper Still was released.