22 Nov "After the stroke, what's the future for Rick James now?"
November 22, 1998
By Anthony Violanti
Rick James is in Los Angeles recovering from a stroke and learning to walk again. It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the self- proclaimed Super Freak who had apparently kicked drugs and finally straightened out his life.
At 50, the Buffalo native finds himself once more in a battle for survival. This time the stakes are higher than even beating cocaine or doing time in prison. This time, James’ challenge involves his life.
“I think, if nothing else, this will be a spiritual awakening for Rick,” said Van Taylor, a local R & B musician who has known James since the early days. “Now Rick has to know what really matters.”
Lessons have always come the hard way for James, and this may be the hardest lesson of all. It comes at one of the most difficult junctures of his life.
About a week before his stroke, his younger brother, William “Head” Johnson, 44, died of cancer. Earlier this year, James had hip replacement surgery.
Despite the stroke, sources close to James indicate he wants to get back on tour as soon as possible. The tour hopes to continue in the coming weeks with James’ longtime co-singer, Teena Marie, as a headliner, sources say, with James possibly making an appearance in a chair to sing a duet.
It sounds far-fetched, but sources say James is determined to get back on the tour, which has about a dozen dates remaining. During the first week of November, when James was on the first leg of the grueling tour, the news came from Buffalo that his younger brother, William, who had worked as James’ security chief, had died.
James was due to play a concert date in Denver but flew home for the funeral. He looked tired. “We wanted him to stay and rest, but he had to get back to the tour,” said a family friend. “He didn’t even have time to mourn. We were worried about him.”
On the night of Nov. 6, he took the stage at the Mammoth Event Center in Denver. The crowd was into the show and James seemed energized. The stage has always been a refuge for the kid from the Perry Projects and Bennett High School, who used music to rise from poverty and gain world fame during the 1970s as the master of punk/funk. During the Denver performance, he felt something pop in his neck, and began to experience pain and numbness, it has been reported.
Somehow James finished the show, but collapsed backstage. Doctors examined him and discovered that a blood vessel had broken in his neck. James went back to his home in Los Angeles to rest for a few days, but was bothered by pain in his right side and was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. On Nov. 9, doctors determined that James had suffered a stroke.
He couldn’t walk but still had his recognition and comprehension skills. An angiogram showed the stroke was the result of blood clotting in the neck artery, according to Dr. William Young, his physician.
On a press release from James’ publicity office, Young said the test results did not yet show if the clot was caused by trauma, such as “rock ‘n’ roll neck,” the repeated whiplash motion of the neck. That was originally suspected as the cause of James’ stroke, but it also could have been caused by a narrowing of the artery, Young stated.
Regardless of the cause, Steve Levesque, a spokesman for James, stressed in a release and phone interview that it was not due to drug or alcohol problems.
Levesque also said that James’ physical recuperation would be a “long” one. James is learning to walk and has been assigned a rehabilitation doctor. That’s why his apparent hopes to soon get back on stage may be not only impractical, but also unhealthy.
“I just wonder if Rick has the stamina at this stage of his life to go through all this,” said Cheryl Littlejohn, a musician and local rap record company owner. “Things change when you get older. You can’t do what you did 20 or 30 years ago, especially on a tour. I don’t know if Rick understands that.”
Perhaps James’ current condition may serve a higher purpose. “I’ve always had sympathy for Rick, and I hope things turn out well for him, but there’s a lesson for young people in what happened to Rick James,” said Littlejohn.
“He used to brag about being a hustler and doing drugs. An ex- hustler is not a pretty sight. Everything takes a toll and there’s a price to pay. I hope kids will see that also. “Right now, Rick has an excellent opportunity to educate kids. He should warn kids not to let the kind of things that happened to him, happen to them. Rick James is a legend, and it’s better to be a live legend than a dead one.”
Littlejohn works with young people, and in Buffalo, she said, Rick James remains a legend, especially in the African-American community. His music has been sampled by artists ranging from Hammer to Mary J. Blige. Local hip-hop artists constantly sample James. “They all give Rick his props,” Littlejohn said. “Rick’s got a real street persona, and in hip-hop today, kids look up to that and he’s got real street credibility.”
One of those kids who lived in Buffalo and idolized James was Steve “Stevie J” Jordan, now a successful producer in rap music. “Rick James is real,” said Jordan, who won a Grammy Award for producing Puff Daddy, and has also worked with such artists as Mariah Carey and Notorious B.I.G. “Rick came from the streets, and the kids on the streets know what he’s all about,” Jordan said. “I just hope he gets better.”
James has motivation to recover. He lives near L.A. with his wife, Tanya, and their young son. The family was part of his motivation to stay away from drugs and alcohol. “I’ve enjoyed staying straight the last few years and my life has been really good,” James said during his last visit home. “I think I finally grew up and accepted the responsibility for being Rick James.” Such an attitude will help him through his latest crisis, because the future is once again a huge question mark for Rick James.