James Ambrose Johnson, Jr, later to be known as Rick James, was born February 4, 1948 in Buffalo, New York and is the nephew of the late great Temptations basso profundo Melvin Franklin. Early on in life James developed a tendancy towards doing things his way. Dropping out of school at the age of 15, he began singing on the street corners with friends. In order to avoid being drafted, he enlisted in The U.S. Naval Reserve. Weekend training and a fledgling musical career proved to be a poor mix as James began to skip training more and more until finally going AWOL. Fully aware that the armed forces took a particularly dim view of such activities, James relocated north to Toronto, Canada in the summer of 1964 and formed his first band with future Steppenwolf bassist Nick St. Nicholas. The band was called The Sailor Boyz and later renamed The Mynah Birds. This group also included at different times future members of The Buffalo Springfield, Bruce Palmer and Neil Young. After a successful audition for Motown Records, the band fired its manager for pocketing the advance money. The manager responded by outing James as an AWOL sailor. This prompted Motown to turn James in to the authorities and the Mynah Birds project was shelved. After a year in a naval prison, he returned to Toronto, formed a new line-up of The Mynah Birds during the summer of 1967, which broke up shortly after. In early 1968, he returned to Motown as a writer and producer working with Smokey Robinson, The Spinners and Canadian band Bobby Taylor And The Vancouvers. Yet another change of residence, this time to Los Angeles, resulted in James Being involved with a number of failed band projects. So it was back to Detroit and Motown, where he finally released his first solo album, Come Get It! , which featured the funk hit "You And I".
This album, released in 1978, on which James played most of the instruments, launched his solo career and was followed up with Fire It Up. At this point he embarked on his first tour as a headliner with an up-and-coming artist named Prince as the opening act. The two artists' relationship began cordially, then became strained as James began to accuse Prince of stealing elements of his act. The situation became unmanageable and James finally cancelled the remainder of the tour. Early in 1979 his third album, Bustin' Out Of L Seven was released.
Rick James' fourth LP release, 1980's Garden Of Love was heavily pop-RnB flavored. It tanked. The next album was Street Songs, a much grittier hard funk collection which was also contained rock and new wave influences. This would prove to be his most successful outing featuring James' signature song "Super Freak" which went to #16 on the Billboard Top 100 and earned a Grammy Award nominaton. The album itself went to #1 on the RnB charts and #3 on the pop charts. My personal favorite on this album is "Ghetto Life", which along with "Super Freak" features backing vocals by The Temptations.
James, along with his touring and studio group The Stone City Band, rode the tidal wave that Street Songs generated well into 1983 when his next LP Cold Blooded was released, the title track of which became yet another hit. The relationship between James and Motown remained lucrative until business conflicts of one type or another led James to leave the label and sign with Warner Brothers in 1986.
During his Motown heyday James was in demand as a writer and producer. He was asked to produce and provide songs for singer Teena Marie's much-anticipated debut Wild And Peaceful, an album that not only launched Marie's career but began a long-running personal and professional relationship between the two. The album's stand-out track was a hit duet with James called "I'm A Sucker For Your Love"
For The Temptations Reunion LP, James wrote and performed on the top 10 track "Standing On The Top". These tracks were saturated with the distinctive style James developed through the years.
In 1983 A collaboration with Smokey Robinson resulted in the top 30 RnB hit "Ebony Eyes", a finely crafted throwback soul ballad. His first Warner Bothers album release was Wonderful, which featured "Loosey's Rap", another RnB chart hit with guest artist Roxanne Shante. The video for the song was banned on MTV and BET for sexual content, Rock Roots however, has no such restriction.
Rick James' fortunes began a downward slide as the 1990s came in. By this time his drug abuse, mainly with marijuana and cocaine, dating back to the 60s, was publicly known. In 1993 he was convicted of two separate assault charges and served two years in Folsom Prison. He also lost $2 million in a civil suit brought by one of the women he assaulted. He was released in 1996. His drug addiction finally overtook him as he suffered a stroke in 1998. He ended up needing a pacemaker and battling health problems from obesity.
On the morning of August 6, 2004, Rick James was found dead in his Los Angeles by his caretaker, having succumbed to cardiac and pulmonary failure due to complications of his deteriorating health. He was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetary in Buffalo, New York. He had lived an all-too-brief life...always on his own terms.