20 May "The Rick James Legacy lives on; with a new CD and his memoirs arriving on store bookshelves, Buffalo's 'King of Punk Funk' continues to stir up the music world"Â
May 20, 2007
by Anne Neville
Nearly three years after Rick James died of a heart attack in his sleep in his Hollywood home, a new CD and his autobiography have been released.
“Just when you thought the dance floors were safe comes a tidal wave of funk from the super freak himself,” says the press release announcing the publication of the CD “Deeper Still,” recorded in 2003-04, and his autobiography, “The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak,” which he wrote in prison in the 1990s.
Buffalo has always had a fascination with its native son, who was born here in 1948, raised in the Perry Projects and lived or visited here throughout his life. But will the larger world of music and words be interested in his musings and late-career creative productions?
Absolutely, says Robby Takac of the Goo Goo Dolls. “Rick was at the crest of a musical movement, and amplified his sounds with a public and private personality that was always larger than life,” he says. “His contribution to entertainment will always be a large part of the artistic legacy of our city.”
Jake Brown, who owns and operates Versailles Records and has written biographies of Suge Knight, Jay Z, 50 Cent, Biggie Smalls, R. Kelly and Motley Crue’s Nikki Six, agrees.
“This is the ideal era to be exploring Rick’s relevance because, even in the midst of his tragic passing, his songs and sound are alive as ever,” says Brown. James’ music, he says, provides “influence over modern day hip hop, R&B, funk, and the subgenres in which those styles blend in a cross-over sense via artists like Ne- Yo, Justin Timberlake and Akon, among others.”
The innovations in music that began with James flowed through Prince, who toured as James’ opening act in the early 1980s. “Because all of those millenniupop artists credit Prince as a central influence in shaping their sounds and styles — and Prince in turn readily and repeatedly credits Rick James for his sonic and stylistic impressions — the impact of Rick James’ sound is now finally coming full circle in legacy terms,” Brown says.
In addition to his own music, says Brown, “James was among the first superstar producer-performer, who, aside from Prince, also influenced hip-hop pioneers like Dr. Dre, Timbaland, Jermaine Dupri, Pharrell, and a multiplatinum host of others.”
This means that “Rick’s musical fingerprints are everywhere,” says Brown, “as he had a hand in pushing all of the latter- mentioned legends to their own creative and commercial forefronts.”
Because of his influence on the music world, as well as his iconic image, James never quite left the spotlight. His 1981 hit “Super Freak” was sampled so heavily nine years later in M.C. Hammer’s Grammy-winning song, “U Can’t Touch This” that James was credited as a co-author. And in 2003, Dave Chappelle brought James back to the forefront of pop culture with a recurring sketch on his Comedy Central show in which the comedian, wearing shoulder-length beaded braids, embodied the hedonistic “Super Freak” lifestyle.
In his own words
There’s a lot of name-dropping in Rick James’ autobiography, “The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak,” ranging from the improbable (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot) to the impressive (Eddie Murphy, Jim Brown) to the nearly impossible to believe (Linda Blair, Christopher Reeve).
But for local readers, some of the most absorbing chapters in James’ detailed story of his amazing life are the early ones, where he discusses growing up in Buffalo as James Ambrose Johnson Jr.
The Jazz and Rhythm & Blues clubs swung all night and into the morning, which is probably one reason I chose to be a musician. On any given night you could walk the streets of Buffalo, and hear some of the greatest Blues and Jazz entertainers in the world — I mean cats like Miles, Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Arthur Prysock, Etta James and Jimmy Smith, all playing at the many night spots of Buffalo. God, it was fantastic, and the old-timers said the scene echoed that of New York City during the Harlem Renaissance.
James, the third of eight children, adored his mother, Mabel “Betty” Gladden, who was born in Ohio but lived in Buffalo until her death from cancer in 1991. Her son maintained homes in the area and often recorded here.
After dropping out of Bennett High School in the early ’60s, James joined the Naval Reserve to avoid being sent to Vietnam, but, needless to say, military life didn’t agree with the free-spirited musician who had already started using heroin.
The Toronto years
When he fled his military responsibilities, James went to Toronto, where he burst into a burgeoning music scene. His first group, “The Mynah Birds,” was named after a local shop, and the members were dressed in yellow turtlenecks, black leather jackets, black pants and yellow boots. In the group at various times were Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, later of Buffalo Springfield, and Goldie McJohn and Nick St. Nicholas, who later belonged to Steppenwolf.
From 1978, when he released “Come Get It!” until the present, with this month’s release of “Deeper Still,” James wrote, recorded, arranged and produced hundreds of songs and launched the careers of several others, including the Mary Jane Girls, Process and the Doo Rags, Teena Marie and Val Young. James topped the charts with “Super Freak,” which introduced James to a whole new generation of fans when it was sampled for M.C. Hammer’s 1990 Grammy-winning song, “U Can’t Touch This.”
In his heyday, James partied with everyone from Timothy Hutton to Timothy Leary, from Rod Stewart to Chaka Khan. Many of the names are mentioned in passing, like a Who’s Who of the California music and movie scene in the 1980s and 1990s. But some of James’ stories are a bit more detailed — and mesmerizing.
Early in his first trip to California, James stayed at Stephen Stills’ house. “I was crashed out on the floor and I felt someone staring at me,” he writes. “When I jumped up here’s this dude with his wrist cut, just watching the blood, going, ‘Wow, isn’t this beautiful?’ I called Stephen . . . He screamed, ‘What . . . happened?’ I said, ‘I just woke up and there he was sitting in the lotus position watching his blood, going, ‘Wow!’ His name was Jim Morrison.”
James also writes in detail about his friendship with Eddie Murphy, which included producing Murphy’s song “How Could It Be (Party All the Time)” in 1985. But some of the most entertaining writing in the book is about Prince.
James had Prince open for him on tour in the early ’80s, and, he writes, “The first time I saw Prince and his band, I felt sorry for him. Here was this little dude wearing high heels, playing this New Wave Rock & Roll, not moving or anything on stage, just wearing this trench coat. Then at the end of his set he’d take off his trench coat and he’d be wearing little girl’s bloomers. I just died. The guys in the audience just booed the poor thing to death.”
As the tour continued, James writes, he began to notice Prince watching James’s shows closely and a few weeks later he notices, “Here’s Price doing my chants. Not only that, he was stalking the stage just like me, doing the funk sign, flipping the microphone and everything. The boy had stolen my whole show. . . . It got to the point I couldn’t do the stuff I had always done cuz Prince was doing it before I came on. It started to look like I was copying him.”
After a meeting between Prince and James, the bands and their manager, James writes, “things went back to normal — me kicking his a– every night.”
Drugs were the enemy
Despite his popularity and dominance as “the King of Punk Funk,” drugs were an enemy James could not overcome. On the tour after recording “Super Freak,” he freebased cocaine for the first time, and despite a few periods of sobriety, he chased that high for the rest of his life.
And as his fame grew, so did his debauchery and drug abuse. In the mid-’80s, he writes, “If I wasn’t locked in my room (where my housekeeper would leave food by my bedroom door) I was flying here and there in private planes geting high in the clouds. I was slowly but steadily losing control. I had turned into a nocturnal monster who existed solely on the smoke from a freebase pipe. I’d wake in the night and begin. It got so bad I had my staff put aluminum foil on all my windows so no sunlight could get in.”
When James fell, he fell hard. In 1991 James and his then- girlfriend, Tanya Hijazi, were accused of imprisoning, drugging, sexually assaulting and torturing a woman in his Hollywood Hills home.
James wrote this 400-page biography while he was serving almost three years in Folsom State Prison on those charges, and on unrelated charges that the two beat a different woman a few months afterward.
James describes the first woman as “this not too attractive blonde, but she was OK. She was dressed like a hoe . . .” After she spent a month at his house, he writes that she returned to her pimp, who “was furious at her for being at Rick James’ and not coming back with any money. This pimp had a way of punishing the b—— who he felt double-crossed him, burning them with a pipe and so on. That’s what happened to Courtney. But because Tanya [Hijazi] ended up taking Courtney to the hospital, the police came after me and Tanya. . . . It was all a . . . conspiracy.”
While James was out on bail, he got word that his mother was in Roswell Park, losing her battle with cancer. He writes: “As deeply as I loved her, I really didn’t want to go to see her. I didn’t want to face that music. I couldn’t deal with seeing my mother suffering or even dying while I was there and I couldn’t face seeing even more pain on her face because of what was happening to me.”
He visits while she is slipping in and out of consciousness, and she dies while he is outside the room. “I went back in to see her one last time and finally found some solace in her peaceful expression,” he writes.
Life in prison
In prison, James says, the guards made bets “who was going to be the first to write me up, send me to detention, shoot me accidentally.” But eventually they “were growing fond of me, so I was pretty safe.” He says he was allowed to play guitar in the back room of the prison library, had a tape recorder smuggled in so he could record songs, and “I could get steak, escargot, champagne.”
The book ends in 1997, when James marries Tanya Hijazi, the mother of his third child. James’ last sentences are: “I knew now that a new chapter in my life was beginning. A life of sobriety, but a life still filled with music and passion. I knew that whatever life held for me after this would have to be another book.”
Sadly, neither the marriage nor the sobriety would last. In the final chapter, James’ longtime housekeeper, Linda Hunt, gives her view of her dear friends and employer. In some ways, the brief character sketch from the woman who worked by James’ side for 25 years provides more insight than James’ own story. She reveals how he loved to visit the supermarket, swim, gossip (he “could out- gossip any woman on this earth”), spend generously on his friends and enjoy his grandchildren.
After his death in 2004 at age 56, James was cremated and his ashes returned to Buffalo, where they are interred in Forest Lawn. His grave is marked with a black granite gravestone embossed with an image of James from the early 1980s and the words: “I’ve had it all/ I’ve done it all/I’ve seen it all/It’s all about love/God is love.”
“The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak”
By Rick James