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Super Freaky: The Unbelievable Life Of Punk-Funk Badass Rick James

His insane lifestyle might have risked overshadowing the music, but Rick James was a talented musician whose work speaks for itself.

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Rick James Motown press shot 1000 CREDIT Motown Records Archives
Photo: Motown Records Archives

Rick James? Aw, man! The guy was a super freak. He invented punk-funk. What a dude! He was badass. Yet history kinda let this pioneer of brittle, bruising good-time groove slip from its memory. Look here, he even had a huge influence over Prince – so Rick James said, anyway. Repeatedly! It’s about time we paid the guy some respect. Because while his life may have been troublesome, even horribly brutal at times, musically he was great, OK?

Listen to the best of Rick James on Apple Music and Spotify.

When all those little kids were popping and locking to ʻU Can’t Touch This’, they didn’t realise it was Rick James’ masterly, butt-kickin’ bassline that was shakin’ ’em. (And yes, he did play that mutha of a b-line personally.) When the mature mellow groovers were trying to show they still had what it takes on the dancefloor to Mary Jane Girls’ ʻAll Night Long’, they didn’t know that the man with a masterplan who created it was Rick James. When the jazz-funkers felt the rumble of Teena Marie’s ʻBehind The Groove’ and pushed it into the charts, they didn’t have a clue that one Ricky James was behind her first success. Rick had a finger in many pies, and as a super freak who admitted to “a kinky nature”, he probably licked those fingers clean afterwards.

Super freak

Let’s not get too absorbed by the other artists he helped turn into stars, however, because Rick ruled in his own right. It took him more than a decade to find fame; he’d been in bands in his teens, playing guitar and bass, and drummed in jazz groups, first in Buffalo, then in New York City. His first notable outfit was The Mynah Birds, formed when he moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1965, while a Navy reserve on the run from a posting to Vietnam. They mixed musical styles, offering bits of rock, soul and even some hippy-dippy folk. Neil Young was a member for a while, and the group recorded a single for Columbia and sessions for Motown that didn’t see the light of day until much later.

Motown remained interested in James – but balked at signing him as an artist while he was being chased by the law – and he wrote songs for their artists Bobby Taylor, David Ruffin and The Spinners. A meet-up with Stevie Wonder didn’t produce musical results, but Wonder did bestow on the former Ricky James Matthews (real name: James Ambrose Johnson, Jr; born on 1 February 1948) the shorter title Ricky James. In 1974, now simply Rick James, he released the funky rock single ʻMy Mama’ for A&M but had to wait four years for fame to hit with a return to Motown. And once he was hot, he was hard to stop.

The single ʻYou And I’, cut with his Stone City Band, broke him big and introduced James’ deceptively simple, buoyant, funk-with-a-skip sound to a wide audience. After a mellow, Latin-influenced opening, the tune kicked in with horns as tight as gritted teeth and backing vocals that somewhat resembled Parlet, the original P-Funk female vocalists. The brittle, pinging sound caught a mood and went Top 20 in the US. What’s more, it was a formula that was repeatable. The slower ʻMary Jane’ was a smaller hit, but strong sales of James’ debut album, Come Get It!, rapidly followed by Bustin’ Out Of L Seven and Fire It Up, made it clear that this new star with his braided hair, glitzy phonk suits and sassytude would be with us some time. What’s more, he was productive: in 1981, the platinum-awarded Street Songs became his fifth album in three years and delivered the massive ʻSuper Freak’ and the nearly-as-monster ʻGive It To Me Baby’, both built on James’ hypnotic bass licks and with grooves that were a call to the dancefloor. They still sound totally crisp.

Rick James was not a one-trick pony. While he branded his style “punk-funk”, any punk content was more in his street attitude than musical content. He was a decent soul singer (he was delighted to work with his Motown idols The Temptations, who sang back-up on several of his records) and ʻFire And Desire’ and ʻHappy’, duets with the young Motown star he’d championed, Teena Marie, were as powerful as soul ballads could be in the glitzy early 80s. His ʻEbony Eyes’ (1983), recorded with Smokey Robinson, was another romantic tour-de-force. Like Prince, who caught a break when Rick had him as tour support at the start of the 80s, he played an array of instruments, though Rick was usually pictured with a bass draped over his slim frame. He was a fine producer, working on hits for Eddie Murphy (ʻParty All the Time’), The Temptations (ʻStanding On The Top’) and the act most closely associated with him, Mary Jane Girls, for whom he delivered seven hits. But the name of the latter act suggested more than the title of one of his earlier singles.

Give it to me, baby

Mary Jane is a synonym for marijuana. No biggie: one or two musicians have enjoyed the occasional spliff without it affecting their careers. But drugs were a weakness for Rick James. He started using during his teens, took heroin, and, when crack arrived, he found it moreish. He estimated he spent $7,000 a week on cocaine – for five years. In 1984 he was taken to hospital when he was discovered out cold on a friend’s floor. In 1994 he served two years in Folsom Prison (it wasn’t his first spell behind bars: he’d been confined three times during his time on the run from the US Navy). Oh yes, he really was badass.

When James died of heart failure, on 6 August 2004, he was found with nine different drugs in his system. Not his best idea: he was a diabetic, had a pacemaker and had previously survived a minor stroke and a heart attack. But James never said die until he actually did. Four months before he passed, he’d mocked his own drug taking on the TV comedy Chappelle’s Show, and was working on an album – music was his biggest addiction of all.

Rick had one last major payday when he successfully sued for royalties from MC Hammer’s ʻU Can’t Touch This’, for its use of ʻSuper Freak’, an action that brought about a change in the way hip-hop was made when artists realised they could no longer sample any song without paying for it. Hammer’s record may sound nostalgically cheesy today, but James’ records have worn far better: ʻSuper Freak’ fills floors, his spacious 1985 smash ʻGlow’ remains uplifting. Oh, and before you say that the bassline of ʻGlow’ sounds like ʻThriller’, you’re right, but it was almost identical to another Rick James classic, ʻGive It To Me Baby’, released in 1981, two years before Jacko’s funky horror show.

He may no longer be around to explain, or even laugh off, his insane lifestyle, but Rick James’ music speaks for itself. Let it glow, baby.

Listen to the best Motown songs on Apple Music and Spotify, and scroll down for 10 mad facts about Rick James.

Super Freak: 10 Mad Facts About Rick James

1

Rick nearly didn’t release ʻSuper Freak’, the record that earned him millions when it was sampled by MC Hammer. The punk-funker reckoned it was too cheesy to put out.

2

He loved to parrrrtaaay. One night in 1981, Rick came home feeling horny but was too drunk to get it on with his partner. So he made sweet music with his piano instead – and came up with his R&B chart No.1, ʻGive It To Me Baby’.

3

One party he missed was at Sharon Tate’s Beverly Crest, California, home in 1969. He was invited, but had got wrecked the night before and didn’t feel up to it. Charles Manson’s “family” turned up and killed Tate and four guests.

4

Despite rising to fame at the peak of the disco era and getting plenty of club play, Rick was never disco – funk and soul were his forte. It’s not well-remembered today, but Rick was Motown’s only major star of the 80s who hadn’t made their name in the label’s classic 60s and early 70s era. He was massive, and it was all down to the phonk.

5

As the hot new star in the Motown firmament, Rick was earmarked to produce Diana Ross in the late 70s. But when James discovered he was only working on half an album, he said, “Funk that, I’m outta here”. But one of the songs he had written for Ross became a foundation stone of another career: the superfunkin’ ‘I’m A Sucker For Your Love’, released in ’79, was Teena Marie’s first hit, and opened her album Wild And Peaceful.

6

Salvador Dalí once sketched Rick on a dinner table napkin. Later, Rick forgot he had it in his pocket and dived into a pool. Bye-bye, Dalí sketch.

7

Linda Blair, star of The Exorcist, called him “the world’s sexiest man”. Rick read the interview, got in touch, and set about proving it. He later said, “She could freeze my blood,” writing the song ʻCold Blooded’ about it.

8

Rick was gutted when he introduced his pal Greg Reeves to Neil Young, who promptly hired Reeves to play bass in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. An astounding bass player himself, Rick had hoped to get the gig.

9

Rick loathed Prince. He reckoned The Purple One stole his act after supporting the punk-funker on his first major tour.

10

Rick and his co-writer Alonzo Miller sued MC Hammer for publishing royalties for ʻU Can’t Touch This’ – and won. All three won the Grammy Award for best Rhythm And Blues Song in 1990. Awkward. Rick claimed he’d never have authorised the sample if he’d been asked first.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Peter Benjaminson

    February 1, 2019 at 4:57 pm

    Excellent column on the great Rick James! Except you say that Rick and Alonzo Miller sued MC Hammer for the publishing royalties for “U Can’t Touch This” and won that suit. The truth is, however, that neither Rick nor Alonza ever sued, and therefore, they never won. Hammer asked permission from Rick’s organization to use the bass line of the song before recording it and paid royalties to Rick for doing so, so there was never any need to sue him. But Rick kept the rumor of the suit alive to increase publicity for the song. A smart move. You can read all about it in my book, “Super Freak: The Life of Rick James,” the latest and, IMHO, the best book about Rick, released by Chicago Review Press in 2017.

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