Through his music and mercurial personality, James Ambrose Johnson Jr. yes, that's Rick James from Buffalo in upstate New York, helped to change and make a difference in many people's lives, fans and fellow musicians alike, before his premature death in 2004.
Teena Marie is one, but there are others: for instance, Neil Young. Rick, Neil and bassist Bruce Palmer were part of the Mynah Birds, an interracial Canadian band signed to Motown in 1966. They recorded several songs in Detroit, including a single, 'It's My Time,' but when their manager told the company that James (known then as Ricky Mathews) was a draft-dodger, things changed.
"Neil and I called Motown and they told us they were holding back on releasing the single because of my military obligations with the Navy. They also told me that when the obligations were over, I'd be welcomed back to Motown." While Rick was in jail, Young and Palmer left for California, for a changed future with Buffalo Springfield and beyond.
Decades later, the life of M.C. Hammer was changed by 'U Can't Touch This,' sampling James' 1981 smash, 'Super Freak.' The track was the centrifugal force which spun Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em into one of the biggest selling albums of 1990. According to The Billboard Book Of Number One Albums, Hammer cleared the sample with James' lawyers, even though Rick generally nixed sampling. At least three lives were affected by its success and income, including that of the 'Super Freak' co-writer, Alonzo James. 'U Can't Touch This' collected a Grammy as best R&B song of 1990.
'Super Freak' was contained in Rick's own all-time biggest-selling album, Street Songs: 20 weeks at No. 1 on the R&B charts, but more significantly, 74 weeks on the mainstream Billboard best-seller listings, peaking at No. 3: "When we had started recording the album, I had said that I wanted to put something on it for white folk, just as a joke, something that they could dance to. 'Super Freak' was that song." He added, "My whole life changed drastically after Street Songs. I was no longer a Black artist, I had officially crossed over."
Another sure sign of his crossover status, albeit years later: 'Super Freak' was prominently featured in a TV commercial for Visa credit cards.
The sheer locomotive force of Rick James' "punk-funk" was stoked in 1978, when Rick had returned to Motown as a solo artist with the album Come Get It! and 'You And I,' its lead-off track. "I never ever thought that record was going to be a hit," he said. "I had been in the business since the '60s, so you can imagine how long I'd been trying to make records and when it happened, I was totally dazed. I said once I got one hit, once I got one foot in the door, then I would be unstoppable." And he was correct: the momentum continued with 1979's Fire It Up (1979) and Garden Of Love (1980).
Motown's investment in Rick paid off for the musician in other respects, too. He mentored Teena Marie to her breakthrough, as well as his backup players, the Stone City Band; a female black vocal quartet, the Mary Jane Girls; and a retro-funk combo from Buffalo, Process & the Doo Rags. At one point in 1985, Rick claimed to have 75 people on his payroll at Mary Jane Productions and Stone City Inc.
"When I was drinking and doing drugs," James confided to Billboard, "there was a sap on my musical energies. If I hadn't been getting high a lot, I probably would have had more energy to write more songs." But he knew the power of lawyers, retaining Los Angeles capo John Branca and Irv Shulman from his Buffalo hometown to look after his business interests. At one stage, even the onetime manager of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra was on board. "My new pimp was named Jerry Weintraub," Rick wrote in his book.
During the first half of the 1980s, the Rick James bandwagon was a powerful force on the road - his '81 tour was reckoned to gross at least $10 million - and on the charts. He followed Street Songs with four further albums for Motown. Throwin' Down was notable for the hit tracks 'Dance Wit' Me' and 'Standing On The Top.' The latter famously featured a cameo appearance by a quintet from Motown's beginnings. "Temptations sing," he commanded, and they did.
Of that session, he later recalled, "I can't believe we're sitting here with the Temptations, and I'm actually telling Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin what to sing."
On 1983's Cold Blooded, Rick changed up, playing all the instruments. "No horns, no moving basslines, none of that," he told Fred Bronson in The Billboard Book Of Number One R&B Hits. Â Another ten-week reign at the top, fronted by the album's title track. More importantly, his bravura and bold music started building a road for rap and hiphop performers to cross into the heart of American entertainment. "I was one of the first people to use rap with singing when I did 'P.I.M.P. The S.I.M.P.' with Grandmaster Flash," he said, citing a track on Cold Blooded.
In 1988, Rick returned to Buffalo to cut a duet with rapper Roxanne Shante. "I didn't have a lot of respect for rappers until that happened - [but] when they start rapping from the top of their heads, it's amazing. I told her to go for it, and she did."
More rappers went for it, too: DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Salt-N-Pepa and Jay-Z sampled 'Give It To Me Baby,' while Ol' Dirty Bastard looped in 'Cold Blooded.' Others who dug into the RJ catalogue included the Snoop Dogg-endorsed Eastsidaz, Ashanti, EPMD, Kriss Kross, Candyman and Busta Rhymes. Snoop himself appeared on James' 1997 album, Urban Rapsody, as did Teena Marie, Bobby Womack and Charlie Wilson.
Maintaining his reputation for mischief, Rick collaborated with Ike Turner for 'Love Gravy,' a track on Chef Aid: The South Park Album. "That was a thrill," he told the Los Angeles Times. "The highlights of my life were working with Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Chaka Khan or Stevie Wonder."
The lowlights would have included the moment that Rick was found guilty in a drug-fuelled 1991 assault incident; he was called a danger to the community by a judge, and incarcerated for two years. "I always used to tell people that a few years in jail would probably sober me up," he wrote in his memoirs, "so all in all, it seemed like an OK deal to me. Divided Soul by Marvin Gaye was one of the autobiographies James read in prison, which encouraged him to write his own. "It was therapeutic, the act of writing helped me to deal with and exorcise the demons of my addiction and desires." Probably as influential was the fact that Rick was banged up in Folsom, the oldest, most hardcore prison in California.
"My journey has taken me through hell and back," Rick confessed to David Ritz, who helped Marvin Gaye to pen the autobiography which Rick consumed in prison. "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. Now I've been blessed with the gift of recovery."
Rick James died at age 56 on August 6, 2004, from cardiac arrest, one month after performing 'Fire And Desire' (from Street Songs) with Teena Marie on a TV music awards show. He had finished an album, subsequently released as Deeper Still on Stone City Records. Among the tracks was his version of 'Guinnevere,' a song written by David Crosby - compadre of one of Rick's former Mynah Bird bandmates, Neil Young.
These days, 'Give It To Me Baby' can be heard every weeknight (and Wednesday matinees!) at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Manhattan's West 47th Street. It is to the producers' credit that the song isn't airbrushed out of the history dramatised in Motown: The Musical, the show currently playing on Broadway. That's several hundred miles south of Buffalo, New York, where James Ambrose Johnson Jr. was finally laid to rest.<
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Disappointed because Garden of Love wasn't as well received as it should have been, Rick James made a triumphant return to defiant, in-your-face funk with the triple-platinum Street Songs. This was not only his best-selling album ever, it was also his best period, and certainly the most exciting album released in 1981. The gloves came all the way off this time, and James is as loud and proud as ever on such arresting hits as "Super Freak," "Give It to Me Baby," and "Ghetto Life." Ballads aren't a high priority, but those he does offer (including his stunning duet with Teena Marie, "Fire and Desire") are first-rate. One song that's questionable (to say the least) is the inflammatory "Mr. Policeman," a commentary on police misconduct that condemns law enforcement in general instead of simply indicting those who abuse their authority. But then, the thing that makes this hot-headed diatribe extreme is what makes the album on the whole so arresting -- honest, gut-level emotion. James simply follows what's in his gut and lets it rip. Even the world's most casual funksters shouldn't be without this pearl of an album.
Words – Alex Henderson
After returning to the U.S. from London, where he fronted the blues band Mainline, Rick James cut one album with White Cane before he turned to his own solo venture. By 1977, he'd begun working with the Stone City Band, emerging at the end of the year with an album's worth of delicious funk-rock fusion. Released in spring 1978, Come Get It! was a triumphant debut, truly the sum of all that had gone before, at the same time as unleashing the rudiments of what would become not only his trademark sound, but also his mantra, his manifesto -- his self proclaimed punk-funk. Packed with intricate songs that are full of effusive energy, Come Get It! is marvelously hybridized funk, so tightly structured that, although they have the outward feel of funk's freewheeling jam, they never once cross the line into an uncontrolled frenzy. This is best demonstrated across the monumental, eight-plus-minute "You and I." With enough funk bubbling under the surface to supplant the outward disco sonics of the groove, but brought back to earth via James' vocal interpolations, "You and I" became James' first R&B chart hit, effortlessly slamming into the top spot. "Mary Jane," meanwhile, was James' homage to marijuana -- honoring the love affair through slang, it dipped into the Top Five in fall 1978. More importantly, though, it also offered up a remarkable preview of his subsequent vocal development. With nods to Earth, Wind & Fire on "Sexy Lady," Motown sonics on "Dream Maker," the passionate "Hollywood," and the classic club leanings of "Be My Lady," it's obvious that James was still very much in the throes of transition, still anticipating his future onslaught of hits and superstardom. Many of the songs here have a tendency toward the disco ethics that were inescapable in 1978, and have been faulted as such; nevertheless, what James achieved on this LP was remarkably fresh, and would prove vitally important to funk as it grew older during the next decade.
Words - Amy Hanson
Part of the Rarities Edition series, which Universal distribution used as a way to spin off the second discs of its Deluxe Edition series, this disc, apart from an informational wraparound strip, looks identical to the original Street Songs. Unfortunately, the packaging masks the significance of the disc’s content, which amounts to the lone legitimate Rick James live set. A dynamite performance, it’s worthy of its own artwork and detachment from a catalog series. Technically taken from two Long Beach gigs that went down on July 30 and 31, 1981, as Street Songs was the number one R&B album in the U.S. -- while opener Teena Marie held up the second spot with It Must Be Magic -- the set is rather evenly spread between Street Songs and each of James’ earlier albums. James, backed by his Stone City Band, Punk Funk Horns, and Mary Jane Band, proficiently delivers everything (even “Mary Jane”) with a high level of energy. There’s plenty of stage-crowd interaction, with James acknowledging the Atlanta child murders, the killing of anti-racism activists in Greensboro, NC, and the death of Bob Marley, all recent events, yet without bringing down the party. A middle stretch features Teena Marie performing “I’m a Sucker for Love” (albeit with Levi Ruffin, Jr. taking James’ place) and “Square Biz” (which had just entered the R&B chart’s Top Ten). Of course, the remastered Street Songs itself, released in 2002 with the 12” mixes of “Give It to Me Baby” and “Super Freak,” is absolutely essential, but this release -- for any Rick James freak -- is pretty close to it.
Words - Andy Kellman
This excellent Rick James collection includes his Motown hits like "You and I," "Give It to Me Baby," "Cold Blooded," and "Love Gun."
The release of the Rick James Anthology completes a set of James best-ofs at various price points. 20th Century Masters -- The Millennium Collection: The Best of Rick James is a discount-priced album, Ultimate Collection is a full-priced single-disc set, and Anthology is a two-and-a-half-hour, two-CD version of the Rick James story. Eighteen of the 23 Top 40 R& B hits that James scored between 1978 and 1988 are included (the most notable omission is the 1985 R&B Top Ten and pop chart entry "Can't Stop" from the movie Beverly Hills Cop) along with some key album tracks, two of them, "Fire and Desire" and "Happy," duets with James’ protege Teena Marie. His other collaborators include Smokey Robinson ("Ebony Eyes") and the Temptations (with a 12" remix of "Standing on the Top" that runs nearly ten minutes). Included for the first time on a James compilation is his final major hit, "Loosey's Rap," featuring Roxanne Shante which appeared originally on Reprise Records in 1988. James' influence on popular music remains apparent on these tracks, largely in his grooves -- the rhythm pattern on "Give It to Me Baby" was borrowed by Michael Jackson for "Thriller," for example, and of course MC Hammer created "U Can't Touch This" by rapping over the musical track of "Super Freak" -- but also in his unabashedly lascivious lyrical content. "I led the life I was singing about in my songs," James tells David Ritz in the excellent liner notes, and that may help explain why he had such a hard time in the 1990s. But the best of his '70s and '80s material is to be found here.
Words - William Ruhlmann