Ray Charles is dead and now, Rick James. What the hell is going on? Why are our musical heroes leaving us so soon?
A Tribute To a "Super" Star: Rick James (1948-2004)
Rick James was indeed a "super" star who brought us his punk-funking style and street-worthy attitude to R&B and soul. A cross between George Clinton and Prince; Rick was able to get your booty shaking on the dancefloor and help you get your romantic groove on in the bedroom with his seductive ballads. His trademark long cornrowed and beaded hair and sequined costumes often categorized him as a funk artist, but Rick didn't want to be called just a "funk artist", he thought his music elevated beyond limited catagorizations. "I hate to have people call me a funk artist. I always get upset when I hear that," he says. "I'm so much more than a funk artist. I love lyrics. I like to consider myself a good lyricist. My love for music ranges, and it's so deep. To call me a funk artist really undermines me, and everything that I've done."
Sadly, Rick James, who was best known for his '80s hits "Super Freak" and the timeless love ballad "Fire and Desire (his duet with R&B songbird Teena Marie), died in his sleep on Friday (Aug. 6). His assistant found the multi-talented musician dead in his Hollywood home. He was 56. An autopsy Saturday failed to determine the cause of death for Rick, authorities said. The singer was a diabetic and also had a pacemaker. He also suffered a stroke in 1998. "It's a great loss to music," said rhyme-slinger/beatmaker Kanye West, who recently worked with Rick on a song featuring Kayne's rap protégé Bumpy J. "He was just an amazing talent, and it was a privilege just to be in the studio with a legend like that."
Born James Ambrose Johnson Jr. on Feb. 1, 1948 in Buffalo, N.Y., Rick was the nephew of Temptations singer Melvin Franklin. The third of eight children, Rick's mom ran numbers for the Mafia, while his father deserted his family when he was still young. Rick began his musical career at age 15 when he won a talent show at Bennett High School by beating out a song on the bongos while chanting.
He never finished high school. Instead, Rick enlisted in the Naval Reserve, but later went AWOL, ending up in Toronto, Canada where he met up with Neil Young and Bruce Palmer (who later formed Buffalo Springfield) -- under the alias Ricky James Matthews -- and played with them in a band called the Mynah Birds. They were signed to Motown Records and recorded an album that was never released. Soon thereafter, the group disbanded.
In 1978, Rick return to the United States and form a group called the Stone City Band and developed a rock/funk style he dubbed "punk funk." Impressed by his demo tapes, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. re-signed Rick to a worldwide deal with Motown's publishing company, Jobete.
Throughout the late '70s and early '80s, Rick notched a bevy of hits for Motown, as a soloist, songwriter and producer. Among a numbered of Rick's greatest songs included "You and I," "Bustin' Out," "Give It to Me Baby," and "Super Freak," which later was sampled by MC Hammer for his 1990 hit "U Can't Touch This." (Rick eventually sued Hammer for royalties-owed and won.) He also produced songs for Mary Jane Girls, Teena Marie, Carl Carlton, The Temptations and for his own group, Stone City Band. He was also responsible for Eddie Murphy's lone solo hit -- now Karaoke favorite -- "Party All the Time."
"Everything that I have written, is stuff that comes from me, like George Clinton he writes sci-fi Funk, and he is great at it," said the funk lord in his last interview with AllHipHop.com. "My musical intake is so much that it is hard for me to be new wave, because I come from so many different areas, every song that I have ever written came from my heart. I am not Prince, I don't write stupid [lyrics]. I talk about the streets, love affairs, a fire [and] desire."
While the '90s started off promisingly for Rick, his legendary self-indulgent lifestyle and insatiable appetite for women and cocaine caught up with him. He was convicted in 1993 of assaulting two women. The first attack occurred when he restrained and burned a young woman with a hot crack pipe during a cocaine binge at his home. He was free on bail when the second assault occurred in 1992, this time in a hotel room. James was sentenced to more than two years at Folsom State Prison in California. His bizarre tirades while on drugs became comedy fodder for funnyman Dave Chappelle who impersonated Rick in his infamous skit on Chappelle's Show.
This past June, Rick received the Heritage Award at ASCAP's 17th annual Rhythm & Soul Awards for his outstanding songwriting career in R&B/soul music.
Rick had recently been working with rapper Kanye West on a double CD that would feature 30 songs. The crooner believes that the project would help bring racial harmony to the masses. "Music is a universal language, every color, every creed, every race," he says. "I want everybody to enjoy my [music]. That means [I want them to enjoy] all the music that is inside of me."
Recently Rick spoke of his relief at being drug-free and offered his advice to the younger generation of musician's who have been influenced by his music. "I'm so proud of all the youngsters [to whom] we old-school people passed along the torch," Rick said. "It's like something [Motown founder] Berry Gordy told me a long time ago. He said, 'You'll come and go, [but] music will stay here forever, no matter what you do.'"
Rick James is survived by a daughter, Ty; two sons, Rick Jr. and Tazman; and two granddaughters.
Celebrities and friends remembered late funk crooner Rick James at a memorial service Thursday (Aug. 12) in Los Angeles. Stevie Wonder performed at the ceremony, while other attendees included Teena Marie, Nona Gaye, Jermaine Jackson, Jamie Foxx, Chaka Khan and Berry Gordy Jr. "This is his moment of glory," said Rick's daughter, Ty James. Rick was finally laid to rest on Saturday (Aug. 14) in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. Some 6,000 people attended the memorial to view Rick's open casket. "Rick was cool. He was very generous," said Ivan Winn Sr., of Buffalo, who knew Rick since 1977. "As long as you knew somebody in the band or in security, he opened his house up to you."
Cremation followed the service, according to funeral director Vincent Amigone.
Rest in peace Rick, you will be missed.
In honor of Rick James, I invite you to listen to Trader Mike's musical tribute to Rick James.