One of the last international stars of the original Motown empire, Rick James, was a mere 56 when he was struck down by a heart attack on 6 August 2004.
The singer, writer, producer and punk-funk maverick from Buffalo, New York was an inveterate bad boy who indulged in all of the opportunities his stardom offered him. His private life may have been shadowed by controversy and excess, but more than a dozen years after his passing, James’ influence on modern R&B and hip-hop is palpable.
Equally tangible is his track record as a musician, both as an artist in his own right, as a producer for the likes of Motown stars he mentored like Teena Marie and the Mary Jane Girls, and on key records by the Temptations, Eddie Murphy and Smokey Robinson.
In an article in Jet magazine in July 1979, Rick’s mother described him as “a hard-working son who deserves his fame,” while Motown founder Berry Gordy affectionately called him a “spoiled brat.” Later in the feature, Gordy added: “He’s a beautiful person and certainly talented — and that’s even better than being beautiful.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that James was the engine behind Motown’s commercial and critical upswing of the early ‘80s, and at the peak of his powers, around 1981’s platinum-selling Street Songs, James was commanding sales of close to four million albums worldwide. It was Rick himself who coined the term “punk funk” for his music, which also won him US gold certifications with the albums Come Get It!, Throwin’ Down and Cold Blooded.
He had burst onto the scene with the infectiously funky 1978 hit ‘You And I,’ the first of four R&B No. 1s over the next decade. That run included nine more top ten singles, including the exhilarating 1982 track that in turn revived the fortunes of the Temptations, ‘Standing On The Top.’ Rick did that and burned a little too brightly, but he’s a much-missed influence on the soul and funk scene.