12 Aug "Rick James Gone at 56; 'Super Freak' to the End; "Bad Boy of Motown" and "King of Punk Funk" Memorial Set for Today"
August 12, 2004
by Kathy Williamson
Rick James, 56, was found dead Friday, at his residence in the Oakwood apartments near Universal City. James reportedly died in his sleep. An autopsy, Saturday, failed to determine the exact cause of death and a toxicology report is pending. He was found in bed at about 9:00 a.m. by his personal assistant and was pronounced dead at 9:20 a.m. when paramedics arrived. His initial cause of death was determined to be pulmonary/cardiac failure with his various health conditions of diabetes, stroke, and pacemaker being listed as attributing factors.
He is survived by his children (Ty, Rick, Jr., and Tazman) and his grandchildren (Jasmine and Charisma). James married Tanya Hijazi in December, 1977, after an 11-year relationship. The union produced their son, Tazman.
James had been touring and performing up until the time of his death. He appeared to be in great health and his untimely passing was a shock to his family, friends and fans.
Born James Ambrose Johnson, Jr. on February 1, 1948, he was the third oldest child in a family of eight in Buffalo, New York.
“It was my mother who raised us,” he said. “She was a small elegant woman of great dignity and strength. She always had two jobs. Sometimes she worked as a maid, but her main income came from running numbers for the Italian mob. She raised us as strict Catholics.”
He joined the navy at the young age of 15 and went AWOL soon after. He fled to Toronto, Canada, where he became Rick James and founded his first group, the Mynah Birds. Other members of the group included Neil Young, Bruce Palmer (who later formed Buffalo Springfield), and Goldie McJohn (who later joined Steppenwolf).
The nephew of the Temptations’ Melvin Franklin, James was no stranger to Motown, and he and his band were signed to the label in the mid ’60s. Although the group recorded a couple of tracks, nothing was ever released. Probably because James (relocated to Detroit) was in trouble with the military, and because the rest of the band moved to Los Angeles.
He then went to London where he formed the blues band “The Main Line.” He commuted between London and North America (where he was a staff songwriter for Motown in the late ’60s) for the next seven years. In 1977 he finally returned to the U.S. completely, forming a band (the Stone City Band) with which he experimented at mixing rock and funk – creating “funk ‘n’ roll.”
In 1978, Berry Gordy re-signed James to Motown. He released “Come Get It” and two of its songs immediately hit the charts. “You and I” went gold in September and “Mary Jane,” a thinly-disguised ode to marijuana hit U.S. R&B charts as #3 in October.
His next album, “Bustin’ Out of L Seven” launched his first U.S. “Fire It Up” tour. Joining him were the Mary Jane Girls (a group that he created), and a young singer named Prince. It was a big break for Prince and the two artists continued to be compared for a long time, which seemed to nourish an on-going rivalry.
“Street Songs” achieved double-platinum status, stayed in the Top 100 Album chart for 54 weeks, and was nominated for a Grammy Award. He also received a Grammy Nomination for “Super Freak.” James said, “‘Super Freak’ came about after ‘Street Songs’ was complete. I was listening to the tracks, just riffing on my bass, when I hit on this punky-funky sounding line. Reminded me of how punkers look funny when they try to dance. I heard it as a goof and never dreamed it’d take off. The lyrics were silly. The line about ‘she’s the kind of girl you don’t take home to mother’ was jive. I could take any girl home to mother. Anyway, the song came together, I had the Temps singing behind me, and next thing I know it’s a smash.”
In 1983 “Cold Blooded” hit #1 on the US R&B charts, and later that year James collaborated with Smokey Robinson on “Ebony Eyes.”
As an icon of drug use and eroticism, Rick James went further than anyone had gone before. But before long, his lifestyle started to catch up with him. “During the “Throwin’ Down” tour he went to see Dizzy Gillespie at the Blue Note in New York. “Man, I loved Dizzy. He was a guru, a beautiful man filled with the spirit of compassion, the father I never had. Diz was never judgmental. He used to say I was too serious and warned me not to look at life so black and white. He saw I was wild. ‘Rick,’ he said, ‘you remind me of Bird. Boy, you better slow down.’ But even Dizzy, for all his wisdom, couldn’t change my reckless ways.”
His album, “The Glow,” reflected James’s decision to abandon drugs. He cancelled plans to star in an autobiographical film called “The Spice Of Life” in the wake of the overwhelming commercial impact of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” After releasing “The Flag” in 1986, James ran into serious conflict with Motown. James left the label, signing to Reprise Records, where he immediately achieved a #1 hit with ‘Loosey’s Rap’, a collaboration with Roxanne Shante.
“Super Freak” was sampled by MC Hammer for his hit single, “Can’t Touch This.” Other artists that sampled his music include Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu.
Like many older musicians, he had strong reservations about rappers using his music. “I wanted to sue them. But then I saw what kind of money I was making from Hammer and LL Cool J and Will Smith and on and on with the people sampling Rick James music. And I said, ‘Never mind.'”
James returned to the music scene with “Urban Rapsody,” his first new album since 1988’s “Wonderful.” Snoop Dogg and Charlie Wilson contributed to the single, “Players Way.”
James had a history of cocaine addiction that led to two assault convictions in the 1990s and a two-year stretch in prison. In 1991 and 1992, he was arrested for assaults on two young women; one victim claimed that James and his girlfriend had imprisoned her in a West Hollywood hotel room and burned her with a hot crack pipe. During his trial, James admitted he was addicted to cocaine. In 1993, he was sentenced to five years and four months in jail; he was released in 1996. “Mama’s Eyes,” a painful recollection of James’s mother, who died of cancer while he was in prison reflected his struggle for direction and meaning.
His style was a natural progression of his fore-funkers, James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton, the Rolling Stones and Kiss. James played at least five different instruments and wrote/produced songs for Eddie Murphy, Mary Jane Girls, Temptations, Smokey Robinson and Teena Marie.
He recently performed “Fire and Desire” with Teena Marie at the BET Awards.
James was most recently seen in June at the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) at the Beverly Hilton Hotel where he was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award. He ended his acceptance speech with a phrase, made memorable by comedian Dave Chappelle, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” Chappelle is credited with igniting James’ popularity with his skits and may portray James in an upcoming film.
He recently completed a double-album of songs commemorating his 25 years in the business. Efforts are underway to have the set available by the end of the year.
He also recently completed his memoirs “Confessions of a Super Freak,” a full account of his childhood and Catholic school upbringing; the talent show at age 15 that led him to performing; his descent into cocaine; the infamous crack pipe assault; the penitentiary; his stroke and lengthy recovery; and his struggle to put his life back on track. Talks will continue as planned regarding his book and film on his life.
A public viewing was held Wednesday evening at Forest Lawn Memorial Park-Hollywood Hills, followed by a private family service today at 10:00 a.m. and a public memorial service at 11:00 a.m.
“Rick wanted everyone who loved him to be with him at the end and to celebrate his life,” said Sujata Murthy, his label’s spokeswoman.
Cards can be mailed to: Rick James Sympathy Cards, c/o Kramer Accountancy Corporation, 12300 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 310, Los Angeles, CA 90025
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the American Cancer Society.