Rick James had the world on a string. The boy from Buffalo’s music career spanned over three decades until his passing on August 6, 2004.
Today we spotlight this amazing artist’s talent in a classic concert along with all his greatest hits on demand for you to listen to and share on your social networks so we can keep this man’s work alive. You’re bound to hear some of those songs here on The Beat.
So let’s get this episode started with a classic concert from back in the day in Los Angeles below featuring his Stone City Band, Teena Marie and more.
Born James Johnson, Jr., in Buffalo, New York, he was connected to the music world at birth as the nephew of Temptations singer Melvin Franklin.
In an impulsive moment, at age 15, he joined the Navy; justifiably overwhelmed, he went AWOL and took refuge in Canada. It was there that he formed his first band, a rock-soul collective called The Mynah Birds, which at one point featured Neil Young.
Changing his name to Rick James, he landed a deal for the band with Motown Records – but upon returning to the U.S. was tossed in the brig for deserting his Navy training. After his release he relocated to Detroit, and though the Mynah Birds dissolved, he maintained a relationship with Motown as a staff songwriter; he developed R&B band The Main Line in England and spent much of the ’70s traversing the Atlantic as he developed various projects.
1977 saw him assemble his mighty Stone City Band and step into the spotlight as a solo artist. His debut LP, “Come and Get It,” released by the Motown imprint Gordy in 1978, launched the R&B smashes “You and I” (#1) and pot paean “Mary Jane” (#3). He capitalized on the popularity of the latter tune by assembling a girl group, The Mary Jane Girls, who accompanied him as a warm-up act (as did a young firebrand named Prince) during his tours for subsequent releases “Bustin’ Out of L Seven” and “Fire It Up.” More R&B hits ensued, notably “Bustin’ Out” (#8), “Love Gun” (#13) and “Big Time” (#17). And though his barnstorming jams built his reputation, James demonstrated a mastery of silky balladry as well, showcasing the supple end of his powerful pipes.
While MTV was still run by ignorant racists, the video’s for James’ 1981’s “Street Songs” weren’t allowed but that didn’t stop him from calling them out on their ignorance. They were never into ‘tolerance’ or ‘diversity’ until they figured out they could profit from those terms so what it is today – is all based in phoniness, not reality. That’s a fact jack from an insider who’s been there since then. Anywho… James’ vision – booty-rocking bass, bulletproof horn charts, rock-tinged guitar riffs, new-wave synthesizer blasts and strutting, lascivious vocals – could at last be fully apprehended.
The multi-platinum release’s “Give It to Me, Baby,” became a #1 R&B and #1 Dance hit and reached the Top 40, while “Fire and Desire,” featuring his young protege Teena Marie, “Ghetto Life,” a formative influence on the “gangsta” style that would evolve later in the decade, was instantly enshrined as an inner-city classic.
But it was the unstoppable “Super Freak” that made James a household name. The frisky funk anthem about a girl “you don’t bring home to mother” made it up to #16 at pop, held back from hitting #1 due to the ignorance of programmers in radio at the time who are today’s consultants
The song dominated clubs, wedding parties, parties and more. It was massive. The song became so big that Rick played himself on the hit TV series The A-Team and performed the song in the episode. Unlike many a chart stomp, “Super Freak” never really went away – it became a pop perennial and a must for any hedonistic playlist not to mention the massive foundation for MC Hammer’s 1990 smash “U Can’t Touch This”
Unfortunately, the hedonism that catapulted Rick James into the global limelight became his worst enemy. Success prompted him to party like a Roman emperor and to overextend himself – in addition to mounting his own lavish tours, he produced the Mary Jane Girls, worked with The Temptations and wrote and produced Eddie Murphy’s hit single, “Party All the Time.”
He continued to churn out plenty of his own hits during the early ’80s, however, including “Cold Blooded” (#1 R&B, #17 Dance, #40 Pop), “Glow” (#1 Dance, #5 R&B), “Dance Wit’ Me” (#3 R&B, #7 Dance), “Standing on the Top (Part 1)” with The Temptations (#6 R&B), “Sweet and Sexy Thing” (#4 Dance, #6 R&B), “Can’t Stop” (#9 Dance, #10 R&B, #50 Pop), “Hard to Get” (#15 R&B), “U Bring the Freak Out” (#16 R&B), “Ebony Eyes” with Smokey Robinson (#22 R&B, #43 Pop) and several others. His last big hit as a solo artist was 1988’s “Loosey’s Rap,” featuring distaff MC Roxanne Shanti, which vaulted to the top of the R&B chart.
Enjoy all of Rick’s biggest hits, interviews, documentaries and more, on demand below