Rick James, 1948-2004

07 Aug Rick James, 1948-2004

The Cincinnati Post
August 7, 2004

Funk legend Rick James, best known for the 1981 hit “Super Freak” before his career disintegrated amid drug use and violence that sent him to prison, died Friday. He was 56.

James died in his sleep at his residence near Universal City, said publicist Sujata Murthy. James lived alone and was found dead by his personal assistant, who notified police, she said.

Police and Murthy believe James died of natural causes. The exact cause was not immediately released. “There’ll be an autopsy and we’ll find that out shortly,” Murthy said.

Publicist Maureen O’Connor, speaking on behalf of James’ three children, said they believed he died of heart failure.

“I think he was really fantastic, he was a creator,” singer Little Richard told MSNBC.

“He made a lot of people happy, he made a lot of friends and a lot of people got famous through his music,” he said, referring to sampling by hip-hop artists such as MC Hammer, who used the “Super Freak” bass line in his hit “U Can’t Touch This.”

The song earned James and Hammer the Grammy for best R&B song in 1990.

“Today the world mourns a musician and performer of the funkiest kind,” said Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. “Grammy winner Rick James was a singer, songwriter and producer whose performances were always as dynamic as his personality. The Super Freak of funk will be missed.”

James was honored in June by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers with the Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award. Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. presented the award.

“His creative abilities, his instincts about music and production were just awesome,” Gordy said Friday, calling James “a pioneer who took Motown in a whole new direction.”

With long hair elaborately styled in braids or Jheri curls, James had hit songs and albums from the 1970s into the ’80s, but by the following decade his fame began to fade as he became embroiled in drugs as well as legal problems and health troubles.

He had lately enjoyed a bit of a revival among a younger generation. Dave Chappelle recently portrayed James as violent and arrogant in a series of darkly humorous skits on his Comedy Central show. James himself also appeared on the “Chappelle’s Show” skits, which have become often-quoted cult hits.

James was born James A. Johnson Jr. in Buffalo, N.Y. He was not married, Murthy said.

He is survived by daughter Ty, sons Rick Jr. and Tazman, and granddaughters Jasmine and Charisma.