17 Aug "Rick James: Outrageous, talented, one of a kind"
August 17, 2004
by Steve Holsey
Rick James, who died on Friday, Aug. 6, in his Los Angeles home at the age of 56, was not the first bad boy of R&B. There had been plenty of those. But James put his own spin on the bad boy concept.
The Good Book says there is “nothing new under the sun,” but those wise scribes never encountered anyone like Rick James. For that matter, neither had the public. The self-professed king of a hard-hitting, in-your-face style of R&B that he called “punk funk” took listeners to a lot of new places during the years of his greatest impact, 1979 through 1984.
It was evident from the start that James, born James Johnson Jr. on Feb. 1, 1948, in Buffalo, N.Y., was different. Armed with talent as singer, composer, musician and producer, augmented by fierce determination and what one journalist described as “strutting arrogance,” he seemingly couldn’t miss. “You and I” was only the beginning.
It was clear, too, that James was in every way unlike any other artist ever signed by Motown. To put it mildly, he was not one to be regimented. The relationship was reportedly strained when the now-legendary “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” television special was taped. James chose to not participate. The show aired on May 16, 1983, but James was only seen briefly in a video clip.
Clearly, no subject matter was too daring for Rick James, who was sometimes accused of male chauvinism by some of his detractors. “Give It to Me Baby,” of his best songs, was a virtual demand for sexual gratification. “Mary Jane” extolled the pleasure to be derived from smoking marijuana. “Super Freak” was about the kind of girl “you don’t take home to mother,” one for whom threesomes were okay. “17” found James excited about a girl who was “almost jailbait” but “was sexy.” (It was a true story, he readily admitted.)
M.C. Hammer used the rhythm track from “Super Freak” for the biggest hit of his career, “U Can’t Touch This.” As the song’s composer, James made a lot of money from Hammer’s recording, but still complained about rappers sampling the songs of others rather than writing their own.
Among James’ other hits were “Fire and Desire,” a still-popular duet with longtime friend Teena Marie, with whom he was closely associated, “Bustin’ Out (On Funk),” “Dance Wit’ Me,” “Cold Blooded,” “Hard to Get” and a
collaboration with the Temptations, “Standing on the Top.”
Although he was known for R&B/funk, James had a wide-ranging appreciation for music, including jazz, rock, pop and vintage R&B. “Etta James taught me power,” he once said. “The woman is so real.” He got his first break in a rock ‘n’ roll band called the Mynah Birds. He recalled, “I got some flak for my hippie threads, but so what?” The group recorded an album for Motown but it was never released. At that time his professional name was Ricky Matthews.
James was no stranger to trouble. He faced a judge on more than one occasion, in one case receiving a jail sentence for assaulting two women. By the late 90s, he was having health problems as well, suffering a stroke in 1997. The following year he had hip replacement surgery.
Rick James managed to retain much of his following despite personal issues and the passage of time. He also attracted the attention of much of the hip-hop generation.
“My journey has taken me through hell and back,” James said in an interview for his “Anthology” album. “It’s all in my music — the parties, the pain, the oversized ego, the insane obsessions. When I look back, I see how the discipline of music was one of the things that saved my undisciplined life.”