(born James Ambrose Johnson, Jr.
; February 1, 1948 – August 6, 2004) was an American musician and composer.James started his singing career fronting doo-wop and rhythm and blues bands in his hometown of Buffalo, New York in the early 1960s, with his vocal style influenced by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and David Ruffin. He entered the United States Navy to avoid conscription after dropping out of high school; James deserted and relocated to Toronto, Canada where he resumed his music career. While there, James formed the rock-soul fusion band Mynah Birds, whose lineup once included a young Neil Young. James' tenure with the Mynah Birds was interrupted after he was discovered recording with the group in Motown in the 1960s, and surrendered to military authorities. He served a one-year prison sentence in Buffalo. Afterwards, James returned to Canada, where he resumed the Mynah Birds, though the band eventually split; James moved to California where he started a series of rock bands. He also had a period where he served as a staff writer with Motown (under a pen name) before he left the label.In 1977, he signed with the Gordy Records subsidiary of Motown as a recording artist where in 1978, he recorded his first album, Come Get It!
, which sold over a million copies at the time of its release. He would go on to score several popular hits on the pop and R&B charts, including four number-one hits on the latter chart. James became noted not only as a hit maker on his own recordings but also produced successful recordings for the likes of Teena Marie, the Mary Jane Girls, the Temptations, Eddie Murphy and Smokey Robinson. His best-selling recording, 1981's Street Songs,
sold over three million copies, helping to renew sagging fortunes in Motown.Addictions to cocaine and crack, however, hampered his career by the late 1980s; in the 1990s, his legal troubles, which would include assaulting two women while under the influence of crack, led him to serve a three-year sentence at California's Folsom State Prison. James was released on parole in 1996 and resumed his musical career releasing the album, Urban Rapsody,
in 1997. A mild stroke suffered during a concert in early 1998 interrupted his career for a brief time. James received new notoriety in 2004 when he appeared on an episode of Dave Chappelle's Chappelle Show
in the Charlie Murphy "True Hollywood Stories" segment of the show, in which James' past wild lifestyle was satirized. James died later that year from heart failure at the age of 56.Early career (1964–1977)After failing to report for active duty on the USS Enterprise
and in fear of arrest, James fled north to Toronto in the summer of 1964. Now using the stage name Big Jimmy, he formed his first band with future Steppenwolf member Nick St. Nicholas, initially called the Sailor Boyz. The band soon changed their name to the Mynah Birds, bassist Bruce Palmer took over for St. Nicholas in early 1965, and the group soon released their first single, "Mynah Bird Hop"/"Mynah Bird Song" for Columbia Records of Canada.James and Palmer soon formed a new Mynah Birds lineup with guitarists Tom Morgan and Xavier Taylor, and drummer Rick Mason. In early 1966, the Mynah Birds auditioned for the Motown label in Detroit. Morgan was unhappy with the label's attitude towards the musicians and left, with Neil Young taking his place. With Young on board, the Mynah Birds returned to Motown to record an album, but their manager pocketed the advance money the label had given the band. The band fired their manager, who in turn told the label that James was actually a seaman who had gone AWOL. Motown told him to give himself up to the FBI, and the Mynah Birds' album was shelved. James spent a year in a naval prison, after which he briefly returned to Toronto. During the summer of 1967, he formed a new version of the Mynah Birds (sometimes spelled "Myna Byrds") with Neil Merryweather. The band returned to Detroit and recorded a new version of James and Neil Young's "It's My Time", but the band broke up soon afterwards. During early 1968, James returned to Motown and became a songwriter and producer, writing under the assumed name "Rickie Matthews" and working with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Canadian band Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers and the Spinners.In late 1968, James and Greg Reeves moved to Los Angeles, California and formed a rock band called Salt and Pepper (under the Rick Matthews alias) with drummer Steve Rumph from T.I.M.E and Michael Rummans from the Yellow Payges. A later version consisted of Coffi Hall from Mama Lion and Merryweather and guitarist Dave Burt and Keyboardist Ed Roth from Merryweather. Former Buffalo Springfield roadie Chris Sarns played bass for a while, before Ron Johnson from Kaleidoscope stepped in the following year. The group recorded a demo for Atlantic Records, and played at the Fillmore West with Jethro Tull. In 1971, James and Roth both appeared on Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer's solo album, The Cycle is Complete
. Then they returned to Toronto, where they recorded two singles – "Big Showdown" and "Don't You Worry" – as part of Heaven and Earth, a band that also featured guitarist Stan Endersby, bass player Denny Gerrard, and drummer Pat Little. Heaven and Earth, minus Little, then merged with another local group, Milestone, to form Great White Cane with horn players Bob Doughty and Ian Kojima, drummer Norman Wellbanks, Nickolas Balkou on Guitar. and keyboard player John Cleveland Hughes. The group recorded an album for Lion Records in Los Angeles in March 1972, but by that summer, they had disbanded. Following this, Hot Lips was re-erected with new band members Michael Doherty (keyboards/vocals), John Erdman (bass), David Moyles (guitar), John Trojan (drums) & Simon Stone (reeds/vocals). This band was an entity for only 18 months.In 1973, A&M Records released the first Rick James single, "My Mama," which is likely to have been recorded in Los Angeles. In 1976, James and South African guitarist Aidan Mason co-wrote "Get Up and Dance!" which was released as a single but failed to chart. In 1977, he returned to Motown as a songwriter/producer. He soon began recording for Motown's Gordy label, first with the Hot Lips and then with a new version of the Stone City Band.
Solo career (1978–1995)
In 1978, James released his debut solo album, Come Get It!
, in which he played most of the instruments on the album (as he would for his next two albums afterwards before including members of his Stone City Band to back him in the studio). The album launched his solo career, thanks to the funky disco hit, "You and I", and the much smoother, soulful "Mary Jane." In early 1979, he released his second album, Bustin' Out of L Seven,
which like his previous album, focused on producing a concept project. "L Seven" was named after a street on which James grew up in Buffalo. Referring to himself as "one of the baddest and best looking mother-fuckers of all time," he followed this success with Fire It Up,
and headlined his first tour in support of the album, which saw then rising former artist Prince opening for him. James' cordial relationship with Prince coined his catchprases "THE MILKS GONE BAD!" causing the tour to become strained after Prince, according to James, stole all the biscuits from his act to hype the audience. He got so fed up with this that he canceled the rest of the tour.After a setting fire to his fourth album, Garden of Love,
in 1980, in which he traded most of his disco/funk origins for a more pop-R&B flavored project, he returned to the top with the grittier Street Songs
, which was also the first to include rock and new wave elements, particularly in the album's leading single, "Super Freak", which became James' biggest pop hit, reaching number-sixteen on the Billboard Hot 100 and later winning him a Grammy Award nomination. Due to this single, the follow-up top 40 smash, "Give It to Me Baby", the Teena Marie duet "Fire and Desire", and "Ghetto Life", Street Songs
peaked at number-one on the R&B album chart and number-three on the pop chart, going on to sell more than three million copies; this became James' biggest-selling album and made James famous. In 1982, just as the hype from Street Songs
dropped, he released the gold-selling Throwin' Down
album, and followed that up with another hit album, Cold Blooded
(1983), which included the hit title track. James continued to score hits with Motown into 1985 but by the end of that year he had begun to have struggles with the label.Following the release of The Flag
in 1986, James left Motown and signed a lucrative deal with Warner Bros. Records, releasing the album, Wonderful
, in 1988, which yielded the R&B hit, "Loosey's Rap". The video for the song was banned on MTV and BET for sexual content, which James labeled hypocritical. After the release of the UK-only 1989 album, Kickin'
, James' recording career slowed as he struggled with personal and legal problems. In 1997, a year following his release from prison for assault charges, James released his first new album in eight years, Urban Rapsody
. Though James returned to live performances to promote the album, he stopped performing for a while after suffering a stroke following a show in Denver in 1998. Prior to the concert, James was interviewed on VH-1's Behind the Music
, where he openly talked about his life and career and also mentioned his drug use, which he said was behind him.During James' Motown heyday in the late 1970s and early '80s, James, in demand, was asked to produce Teena Marie's long-awaited debut album. James originally had planned to produce a full album for Diana Ross but when Motown told him they only wanted four songs from James, he gave the songs up to Marie, including the duet, "I'm a Sucker for Your Love", for her debut album, Wild and Peaceful
. The album launched not only Marie's career but a personal and professional relationship between James and Marie, which continued until James' death. In 1982, he was asked to produce a song for the Temptations' upcoming album, Reunion
, after former members Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin returned to the group for their ill-fated reunion. The song, "Standing on the Top", became a top ten R&B hit and James was credited in the song not only as a writer but as a duet singer, as well.In 1983, he collaborated with longtime idol Smokey Robinson on their hit song, "Ebony Eyes", which became a top 30 hit on the R&B charts. That same year, he produced his longtime background vocal group the Mary Jane Girls, with their self-titled debut album, featuring the hits "All Night Long" and "Candy Man". The Mary Jane Girls originally consisted of Joanne "JoJo" McDuffie (lead/background vocals) and longtime session singers Julia Waters and Maxine Waters. The trio had long sung with James, who later included Kimberly "Maxi" Wuletich, Candice "Candi" Ghant and Cheryl Bailey (who used the stage name Cheri Wells) to join the group, though they didn't sing on the original records. After Wells left, she was replaced by Yvette "Corvette" Marine. In 1985, the group's second album, Only Four You
included their biggest hit, "In My House: "JoJo" continued to sing lead and contributed to the backgrounds with the Water Sisters, as the other group members could not sing at all or were extremely limited vocally. Rick's band sang for the group with JoJo for concert tours. James also produced a couple of albums for his Stone City Band, releasing material by the group in 1980 and 1982 respectively. Also in 1985, James produced and wrote the Eddie Murphy hit "Party All the Time"; he also sang on the track. Following James' descent into drug abuse and his exit from Motown, the Stone City Band and the Mary Jane Girls both dissolved in 1987. Both groups reunited following James' release from prison in 1996.
James had four children, sons Rick Jr., Trey Hardesty, and Tazman, and daughter Ty. James was very close with Teena Marie, whom he met in 1979 and began working with that same year. While James had denied that the two were romantically involved, Marie would say they were romantically involved and engaged "for two weeks." Their professional partnership lasted into 2004 when Marie released her comeback album, La Dona
, which included the James duet, "I Got You." When James died, Marie said she struggled to come to terms with her loss. James' longtime girlfriend, Alfie Davidson, was said to have been a hidden fixture in James' life and was dating him for nearly a decade, even as James had relationships with other women, including Marie.James became close friends with Eddie Murphy after the two met in 1981. Following his exit from the United States Navy in 1984, Murphy's older brother Charlie Murphy, whose first post-Navy job was working as security for his famous brother, began hanging out with James, bonding with the singer. Murphy would later recall the two's sometimes-strained relationship on Chappelle's Show,
which helped to revive James' name in the public eye after years of seclusion following his mild stroke in 1998. James also appeared in the episode recounting his memory of the experiences shared by Charlie, such as starting impromptu fights with him and staining Eddie Murphy's couch with mud.James was friends with fellow Motown acts Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, though his friendship with the latter artist was tested after James began dating Gaye's former wife, Janis Gaye. James became godfather of Gaye's daughter Nona. In his biography, James called Gaye "a crazy motherfucker" but said he loved him to death. Gaye was one of the singers James idolized as a teenager. James' relationship with Robinson began shortly after James signed with Motown and in 1983, the duo recorded the hit "Ebony Eyes". James also idolized former Temptations lead singer David Ruffin and his uncle, bass vocalist Melvin Franklin and grabbed at the chance to produce the hit "Standing on the Top" for them in 1982. Before that, the then-current lineup of the group recorded background vocals on two James-associated projects – James' Street Songs
and Teena Marie's It Must Be Magic
, singing on "Ghetto Life" and "Super Freak" on the former, and the title track on the latter. In "Super Freak", "It Must Be Magic" and "Standing on the Top", James famously shouted out Temptations sing!
In 1989, James met 17-year-old party goer Tanya Hijazi. The two began a romance in 1990. In 1993, the couple welcomed the arrival of their only child and James' youngest, Tazman. Following their releases from prison for their involvement in assaulting Mary Sauger and Frances Alley, the couple married in 1996. The couple's marriage dissolved in 1997.James' lifelong drug abuse began in his teens. A longtime marijuana user, he began using cocaine in the late 1960s. Cocaine use became an addiction for James by the 1980s and he began freebasing by the end of the decade. James recalled smoking crack cocaine in his Beverly Hills mansion and often had aluminum foil on the windows to escape onlookers. James claimed he quit cocaine when he entered prison. Though cocaine would later be found in James' bloodstream following his autopsy, it was reported that the drug wasn't at a life-threatening level at the time of his death.
The start of the 1990s brought with it a string of bizarre and sometimes horrific incidents for Rick James. His drug use was by this time public knowledge, as he was mainly addicted to cocaine; he later admitted to spending about US $7,000 per week on drugs for five years straight. In 1993, he and future wife Tanya Hijazi were accused of holding 24-year-old Frances Alley hostage for up to six days (accounts vary on how long she was actually held), tying her up, forcing her to perform sexual acts, and burning her legs and abdomen with the hot end of a crack cocaine pipe during a weeklong cocaine binge. In 1993, while out on bail for that earlier incident, Rick James, under the influence of cocaine, assaulted music executive Mary Sauger at the St. James Club and Hotel in West Hollywood. Sauger claims she met James and Hijazi for a business meeting, but said the two then kidnapped and beat her over a 20-hour period.He was found guilty of both offenses, but was cleared of a torture charge in the crack-pipe incident that could have put him in prison for the rest of his life. He served two years in Folsom Prison, and lost US $2 million in a civil suit to one of the women. He was released in 1996. In 1998, James was accused of sexually assaulting a 26-year-old woman though charges were later dropped.
In early 2004, James was a part of a skit on Chappelle's Show
called "Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories". He, along with Charlie Murphy recounted humorous stories of their experiences together during the early 1980s. During the skit, Rick James' character, played by Dave Chappelle, utters the now famous catchphrase, "I'm Rick James, bitch!" The skits were punctuated by James, as himself, explaining his past behavior with the phrase, "Cocaine is a hell of a drug!"At the time of his death, he was working on an autobiography, The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak,
as well as a new album. The book was finally published toward the end of 2007 by Colossus Books. It features a picture of his tombstone. He was also supporting Teena Marie's tour of her album La Doña
, and toured with her in May 2004, playing with her at the KBLX Stone Soul Picnic, Pioneer Amphitheatre, Hayward, California.
On the morning of August 6, 2004, Rick James was found dead in his Los Angeles home at the Oakwood apartment complex on Barham Boulevard by his caretaker. James had died from pulmonary failure and cardiac failure with his various health conditions of diabetes, stroke, a pacemaker, and a heart attack. Through his autopsy, alprazolam, diazepam, bupropion, citalopram, hydrocodone, digoxin, chlorpheniramine, methamphetamine and cocaine were found in his blood. However the coroner also stated, "None of the drugs or drug combinations were found to be at levels that were life-threatening in and of themselves." He is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York. James' two-ton, jet black headstone is engraved with the following lyrics to an unreleased song: