When James Ambrose Johnson, Jr. — better known as Rick James — signed with Motown in 1977, he bore no similarity to any artists that had ever signed with the company before.
The singer, musician, songwriter and producer had no connection to the fabled Motown “machine,” nor was he part of “the family.” Rick James was a rebel who reveled in being outrageous and living out the flamboyant character he had created. Made a lot of exciting music, too.
James’ history is explored in great detail in a new book by Peter Benjaminson titled “Super Freak: The Life of Rick James.” Benjaminson is among the best in his field. It was he who wrote, among other things, the masterpiece, “Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar.”
Rick James epitomized the concept of “wretched excess,” thrived on taking his pleasures to the next level. Pushing buttons was almost a way of life. But, of course, with age (usually) comes maturity and “Father Time” makes slowing down a necessity.
When he was in his fifties, James commented, “Rick James was just the image I created…Rick James was wild and crazy, sex, drugs and rock and roll…I had always been a free spirit and always gotten what I wanted…and trying to live Rick James almost killed me.”
To assure thoroughness and accuracy, Benjaminson used “countless court records, newspaper archives, interviews with dozens of James’ family members, friends, band members and lovers.”
Buffalo, New York-born Rick James was rebellious dating back to childhood. His sister, Camille Hudson, recalled that her brother was “hyper,” “bad…real hard to handle…a real handful.”
In the mid-1960s, James, while living in Toronto, formed a band called the Mynah Birds. They traveled to Detroit and landed a contract with Motown. Things were looking up, but the euphoria didn’t last long because later the company dropped the Mynah Birds.
Eventually, that band was dissolved and James put together another one, the Stone City Band, that Motown was eager to sign. However, it was decided that Rick James would be a solo attraction, accompanied by the Stone City Band.
“Come Get It!” was released in the spring of 1978 and was well-received by radio programmers and the public. The lead single, “You and I,” climbed to No. 1 on the national R&B Singles chart and No. 13 on the Pop Singles chart. The hit “Mary Jane” was also featured on that album. The song alluded to marijuana.
When the follow-up album, “Bustin’ Out of L Seven,” was also a major hit, it was clear that a major new star — who labeled his music “punk funk” — had arrived. And the next album, “Street Songs,” featuring “Give it to Me Baby,” “Super Freak” and the sizzling duet with Teena Marie, “Fire and Desire,” sent James into the stratosphere.
By this time, James’ fondness for weed — and substances — had become well known, as had his love for the pleasures of the flesh.
“Rick loved getting high and having sex with two or three women at a time,” the author writes. “This was not exactly unusual among rock musicians during this area…He also enjoyed ordering an excited woman to…” (We can’t print what follows.)
“…Even years later, when Rick was out of shape, no longer making hit records and rarely touring, women would still migrate to his house wherever he was living and join the large party that was always going on (likely partly a result of the masses of cocaine Rick kept on hand). When Rick wanted one of the women, he would just step out of his bedroom and point at her. After he’d finished with her, he’d point at the next woman he desired.”
Benjaminson devotes a chapter — there are 76 short chapters — to the famous Rick James-Prince feud. The flames were ignited on the occasions that James hired newcomer Prince to be a part of his live shows.
“Despite their obvious dislike for each other, it became apparent that neither man covered his ears in the presence of the other man’s performances,” writes Benjaminson. “For the rest of Rick’s career, he and Prince competed intensely…”
Rick James was red-hot from 1979 to 1983, enjoying the massive success of the albums “Come Get It,” “Bustin’ Out of L Seven,” “Fire it Up,” “Street Songs,” “Throwin’ Down” and “Cold Blooded.” During this time, James also joined forces with the reunited Temptations (with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks) and had a Top 10 hit with “Standing on the Top,” written and produced by James.
In addition to the aforementioned Teena Marie, James also assembled the Mary Jane Girls, who had a string of hits from 1983 to 1986, the biggest of which was “In My House.” Teena Marie enjoyed Top 10 hits with “I’m a Sucker for Your Love,” “I Need Your Lovin’” and “Square Biz.” Both acts, like James, recorded for Motown.
James’ relentless drug use — marijuana, heroin, cocaine, freebasing — led to a series of health issues. At one point, he admitted to spending $7,000 per week on drugs for five years straight. There were also serious legal troubles, including holding a woman hostage for several days, doing all kinds of disgusting things to her. And he ended up spending two years in prison, for kidnapping another woman and beating her, assisted by a woman who later became his wife.
In 2003, comedian Dave Chappelle’s began parodying Rick James on “Chappelle’s Show” that aired on Comedy Central. It proved to be hugely popular although it presented a completely negative and over-the-top image of James. There was plenty to justify that negativity, but Rick James was also an outstanding artist with a long list of achievements, having made a major, lasting impact and influencing other artists.
Rick James was, in many ways, a “super freak,” but he was not “just” a super freak.