Rick James

'Super Freak' originator of Punk Funk
Click to follow

James Ambrose Johnson (Rick James), singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist: born Buffalo, New York 1 February 1948; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Los Angeles 6 August 2004.

The outrageous bassist and vocalist Rick James was one of the biggest artists on Motown throughout the late Seventies and early Eighties. A charismatic figure and risqué performer with trademark long braided hair, given to wearing a black leather jacket, tight PVC trousers and thigh-high red boots, he certainly stood out among more mainstream talent like Diana Ross, Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder. James made lascivious, sensual, sensuous music, influenced the likes of Prince and Imagination and originated the Punk-Funk genre so beloved of the current chart-toppers Red Hot Chili Peppers.

"I meant it as a joke," he later admitted:

Punk rock was going on. I was a poor black kid. White people have always taken black music and labelled it and I wanted to label my music before a white person took and labelled it. So I called it Punk Funk. It was a word I used to describe freedom. I could sing about anything, the government, the police killing friends of mine, sex, whatever. When people started to take Punk Funk seriously, I knew it would happen.

A veritable one-man hit machine, James topped the US dance and rhythm 'n'blues charts with "Give It To Me Baby" (1981) and "Cold Blooded" (1983) but also wrote and produced hits for his Motown label mates the Temptations, Mary Jane Girls, Teena Marie and Smokey Robinson as well as the actor Eddie Murphy. However, his hedonistic life style, fuelled by sex and drugs, got the better of the musician, who spent two years in jail in the Nineties for assault and drug offences. By then, his slam bass riffs had become staple samples for rap stars like MC Hammer, whose worldwide 1990 smash "U Can't Touch This" was built around "Super Freak", the Rick James 1981 hit.

Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1948, James Johnson Jnr was the third child in a family of eight. Mostly raised by his jazz-loving mother who combined cleaning jobs with running numbers for the mob, the young James was good at sports but also something of a teenage delinquent, stealing cars and a city bus because "it was big and there were keys in it". He also realised he could play not only drums, but pretty much any instrument he turned his hand to.

In the mid-Sixties, he enlisted in the US Naval Reserve but went Awol rather than go to Vietnam and ended up in Toronto. While in Canada, he formed a group called the Mynah Birds with his flatmate Neil Young and Bruce Palmer (who later teamed up with Stephen Stills in Buffalo Springfield) and Goldy McJohn (subsequently the organist in Steppenwolf of "Born to be Wild" fame). "It wasn't really rock. It was a combination of folk and rhythm'n'blues. We did a lot of original stuff," recalled James, who took up the name Ricky James Matthews on the advice of a witch:

We signed with Motown but, once they found out I was Awol from the navy, they told me to go back and face the music and then I could come back. I did but, by that time, Neil and Bruce had sold all the equipment and gone

to California to form Buffalo Springfield. I went back to Motown as a writer and producer.

The nephew of the Temptations main man Melvin Franklin, James worked with Tamla acts such as Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers - most notably on "Malinda" - and with the Spinners and the Marvelettes. He was considered as a possible addition to the folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash but turned them down and, in 1970, came to London to form a blues group called the Main Line. Two years later, he was leading a band called White Cane and issued "My Mama", a solo single, on A&M in 1974.

Rick James kept in touch with Motown but was unsure about stepping up to the microphone and fronting his own project. "I never thought I had a great voice. I was always very shy with my voice," he told interviewers. "But, after I heard Bootsy Collins, I thought: 'Oh my God, if this guy can be a star, I know I can do it.' "

Indeed, James soon put his own spin on the Seventies funk of George Clinton's Parliament and Bootsy Collins's Rubber Band and created his own Punk-Funk variation on the James Brown-originated grooves:

I was trying to change the root of funk, trying to make it more progressive, more melodic and more lyrically structured. More honest, as opposed to putting riffs together, saying "get up and get down" and "boogie" and all that redundant bull.

The multi-instrumentalist recorded an album in a small eight-track studio in Buffalo before shopping it around to get a record deal. James was wary of further exploiting his family connections with Motown but Berry Gordy loved the demo of "You and I" and signed him to a worldwide deal in 1977.

The following year, "You and I" charted on both sides of the Atlantic, much to the surprise of Rick James:

I never ever thought that record was going to be a hit. I'd been in the business since the Sixties, so you can imagine how long I'd been trying. When it happened, I was totally dazed. I always thought that, once I got one hit, I would be unstoppable. And "You and I" gave me that foot in the door.

He explained the genesis of the song:

It was written about my wife. After we separated, I finally decided that I could write love songs. It was an up-tempo love song. The disco era was happening and I didn't want to do Van McCoy-type stuff. I'm really into simplicity. I came up with it from a bass line. There were a lot of sexual double entendres. I was into Motown writers and lyricists like Holland/Dozier/Holland and Smokey Robinson. I always felt I could use innuendoes and double entendres to say the things I wanted to say. When I wrote music, I wanted to be able to say sexual things, but not blatantly.

James's début album, Come Get It!, also charted in the US in 1978 but the bassist struggled with the follow-up single "Mary Jane", an obvious ode to the delights of marijuana. He released Bustin' out of L Seven, his second album, and toured with his Stone City Band, drawing rave reviews for his over-the-top stage appearances and risqué interplay with the Mary Jane Girls, his trio of backing vocalists. Prince was the support act and would be compared to the headliner for the next five years.

In 1979, Rick James began collaborating with Teena Marie (née Mary Christine Brockert) after meeting her in the Californian offices of Motown. "I heard this girl singing her ass off. I walked in and here's this little short munchkin white girl," remembered the musician, who duetted with her on the club hit "I'm a Sucker for Your Love" and produced Wild and Peaceful, Teena Marie's début album:

Working with her was my first chance to teach someone all the things I knew. I taught her guitar, bass and piano and I taught her how to produce. I showed her how to carry her vocals where she wouldn't exploit the song too fast but use her range. I taught her everything I could, I was her mentor and then I let her go. It was probably the greatest experience I've ever had working with a vocalist. In my heart, I always felt responsible for bringing this out.

Something of a workaholic, James also produced two albums by Stone City Band, his backing group, before following his own Fire It Up (1979) and the ballad-heavy Garden of Love (1980) with the Street Songs album in 1981. A career and creative high, recently reissued on CD in a de luxe edition, Street Songs went double platinum in the US, won a Grammy and stayed in the charts for over a year while "Give It To Me Baby" and "Super Freak" became worldwide hits, the latter especially, defining his image and character.

"I was just riffing on my bass when I hit on this punky-funky sounding line. The lyrics were silly," he conceded:

The whole Rick James persona was a creation. I played him very well. But there's a craziness and lunacy in everyone. I wanted to live my fantasies of lunacy legitimately. Not to say Rick James is insane, or anything like that. Quite the contrary. He knew what he was doing when he was doing it.

On a roll, James, who had used the Temptations as background vocalists on "Super Freak", helped the legendary Motown group celebrate the return of the prodigal members Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin on the Reunion album, writing, producing and guesting on the lead-off single "Standing on the Top" in 1982. The same year, he released Throwin' Down, his sixth album, and the singles "Dance wit' Me" and "Cold Blooded". The latter was inspired by his relationship with the actress Linda Blair (famed for The Exorcist) and showed the musician moving away from his bass lines into a more synthesiser-driven, sparser, Spartan sound.

In 1983, Rick James scored the biggest British hit of his career when he wrote and produced the infectious "All Night Long" for his protégées the Mary Jane Girls. The next year, he wrote the gorgeous US Top Forty ballad "Ebony Eyes" which he recorded with Smokey Robinson.

James worked with the comedian turned actor Eddie Murphy on the How Could It Be album and "Party All the Time" single, which made no 2 in the US in 1985, but spent the rest of the Eighties embroiled in a lawsuit with Motown over unpaid royalties. A collaboration with the foxy rapper Roxanne Shante, entitled "Loosey's Rap", took him back to the top of the R&B charts in the US but the Wonderful album, his first for Reprise in 1988, flopped. By then, James's extravagantly decadent life style was taking its toll. The jazzman Dizzy Gillespie told him to slow down but James was too far gone to change his ways.

"I would just smoke dope and have sex. I never knew if it was day or night," admitted the bassist, who was spending up to $7,000 a week on cocaine and had been in and out of rehab:

I saw it coming and, subconsciously, I asked for it. I started sinking to a point where I didn't care who I got high with, whether it was whores, or gangsters or pimps. All those kind of people found their way into my space. And, when that happens, anything can happen.

In 1991, James was arrested for holding one woman - Frances Alley - against her will, burning her with a crack pipe and forcing her to engage in sex with his girlfriend Tanya Hijazi. In 1992, while on bail, he was charged with hitting another woman - Mary Sauger - during a crack-fuelled binge. Originally sent to the California Rehabilitation Center in 1993, James was convicted of assault, imprisonment and furnishing cocaine but cleared of several other charges. He was sentenced to five years and four months in jail but eventually served two years in Folsom State Prison before being paroled in 1996.

Even before James came out of jail, he had become one of the most sampled artists in music history. At first, he was inclined to sue rappers like MC Hammer, LL Cool J and Will Smith. "That was just me going through an artistic ego trip," he reflected:

I didn't want rappers touching my shit. But then I saw what kind of money I was making with the people sampling Rick James music. Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Lopez, you name it.

In 1997, he released Urban Rapsody, a comeback album recorded with a host of collaborators including the hip-hop star Snoop Dogg and soul legend Bobby Womack.

In a recent interview, Rick James claimed he was

a good songwriter, not a bad singer. But a genius? No. Mozart was a genius, Stevie Wonder is a genius. Rick James was an alter ego I created a long time ago. He was meant to be a person who could wear braids and teach blacks about their history and their legacy. That was my plan, to teach using dance music.

Pierre Perrone