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James

In: Philosophy and Psychology

Submitted By bmksmoke
Words 2090
Pages 9
James was born James Ambrose Johnson Jr. in Buffalo, New York, in 1948. He was one of eight children in a family headed by an abusive father who left when James was just seven. From his mother, once a Katherine Dunham dancer who had worked at some of Harlem's most prestigious nightclubs, James learned at an early age about the possibilities show business offered. But with eight kids in her single-parent household in Buffalo, Mabel Johnson's glamorous days were long over--instead of dancing, she worked as a cleaning woman and ran numbers on the side for a local organized crime racket. Through this she was able to clothe and feed her children, and was also able to send some to private school. James went to a Catholic school for a time--even serving as an altar boy--but its strict rules and his love of sports could not keep him out of trouble by the time he entered his teens. His formative years were marked by an increasing penchant for cutting class, petty crime, and a burgeoning relationship with juvenile authorities.
Though James seemed on the road to a dead-end future, it was a talent show he entered in high school that finally provided him with the focus his life needed. When he took the stage, "I started off with a bongo beat," James wrote in the manuscript for his autobiography, Memoirs of a Super Freak, reprinted in a 1996 Rolling Stone interview with Mike Sager. "Then I began to sing out this chant. I asked the crowd to sing along, and they did. The feeling of the crowd singing, the people dancing in the aisles cast a magic spell on me. ... I made a pact with myself from that day on--music was my life."
When James was not yet sixteen, he dropped out of school permanently; to skirt the draft, he signed up with the Naval Reserves. The part-time military duty required James to report for training two weekends out of every month, but before long he was unable to meet this stipulation because of increasing success with his first band, the Duprees. They were a harmonizing group that covered Motown songs, and James had also started drumming with another band, a jazz act. When his military superiors reached the point of exasperation, James was told to report for active duty in 1964. Instead he fled to Canada.
James found himself wearing a Navy uniform walking down the streets of Toronto, a city growing increasingly countercultural in nature by dint of the American draft-dodgers arriving daily. That free spirit translated into a hostility toward American military uniforms, and James was immediately harassed; a fight broke out. Three sympathetic men came to his rescue, among them up-and-coming musicians Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, who would go on to form the lauded Sixties rock ensemble known as The Band. They took James to a coffeehouse, and by the end of the night they were performing together on its stage. A band was formed, which they called the Sailor Boys, and James went underground using an alias, Ricky James Matthews.
The Sailor Boys were the predecessor to James' next band, the Mynah Birds, formed with Nick St. Nicholas, who would later go on to become part of the successful California rock band Steppenwolf. Canadian guitarist Neil Young was also a Mynah Bird for a time, and the group became well-known on the Canadian rock scene. The fledgling band was financed by an ambitious British rock impresario, and eventually they secured a contract with Motown Records. After recording an album, the Mynahs were dropped when the label found out James was a wanted man in the United States because of his AWOL status. Realizing his judgment day had arrived, James gave himself up to authorities, but then escaped from a naval brig after reading in a magazine how successful all his former bandmates were becoming. He eventually served out his sentence and returned to Toronto, where Canadian authorities then arrested him on stolen- property charges. He served more jail time there before being deported.
Despite his problems with the law, Motown recognized James' talent and hired him as a songwriter in the early 1970s. He grew unhappy with the "hit factory" nature of the process, however, and quit. For some time after that, James indulged his growing taste for illicit substances by working as a drug courier. Eventually he was able to record an album on his own, and took it to Motown, who re- signed him as a recording artist immediately. That LP, Come Get It, and its first single, "You and I," established James as a solid singer/songwriter able to mine the basics of funk into a catchy pop tune. At the height of the disco era, "You and I" was the No. 1 R&B single, and the album achieved double-platinum status.
Motown again put its faith in James' talents and gave their new star carte blanche. He put together a massive back-up ensemble, the Stone City Band, and became famous for his live shows. His band members were all over six feet tall, like James, and wore their hair in braids like him as well. At the time, James was considered a bit outrageous in appearance with his spandex stage gear, a bare chest, and long braids--a style which he admitted to borrowing from two dissimilar elements: Masai dancers and the rock act Kiss. James followed up the success of Come Get It with Bustin' Out of L7 in 1979 and Fire It Up a year later; the sound he created during this era helped establish him as the historical link between George Clinton's funkadelic sound and the "Controversy" years of Prince.
As the money poured in, James lived well. He moved into a Hollywood mansion and built a recording studio there, and also bought a large property closer to his roots outside Buffalo in 1980. His band, and his back-up singers, the Mary Jane Girls, all moved with him, along with other members of an increasingly larger entourage. The ranch served as a playground, with numerous luxury cars, horses, snowmobiles, a pool, and an arcade room. A large amount of cocaine, the drug of the era, was also involved; for fun, James would speed through New York State to New York City--sometimes driven by a cop he kept on his payroll--and used Manhattan's priciest hotels as his base for jaunts to exclusive discos such as Studio 54 and Xenon.
Part of the largesse for such a lifestyle came from James' success as a recording artist and producer for Motown. He helped craft hits for numerous other Motown acts, but it was his 1981 hit "Super Freak" that earned him millions. The song sold 4 million copies and crossed over to the white pop audience as well. The album, Street Songs, sold 3 million copies, and another single, "Give It to Me Baby," was also wildly successful. James was tagged the King of Funk Punk, and enjoyed the appreciative social company of stars like Mick Jagger and David Bowie.
Yet it was a 1981 encounter with rock legend Sly Stone that changed James' life irrevocably. He and a bandmate witnessed the former Seventies star freebasing, or smoking cocaine--a practice which had severely injured comedian Richard Pryor just a year before. Sly Stone appeared so unaware of his surroundings that James and his horn player were shocked at how far he had fallen, and vowed never to try freebasing, which was known to be extremely addictive. A few days later, James visited Stone again in San Francisco and the pair spent a week locked in a recording studio, freebasing.
Soon James was spending $10,000 a week on drugs--but continued to have a moderately successful career as a recording artist and producer. He even became involved with other African American musicians to pressure the fledgling MTV to integrate its playlist. Street Songs was followed by Throwin' Down in 1982 and a successful solo effort he produced for the Mary Jane Girls a year later. He had a hit on his own in 1983 with the song "Cold Blooded," a song he wrote about actress Linda Blair, whom he had dated, and a year later with the raunchy "17." In 1985 he produced the record launching comedian Eddie Murphy's singing career, with the ill- advised "Party All the Time"; though it reached No. 2 on the charts, Murphy would eventually direct his ambitions to acting in feature films. For his extensive production work for these and other artists, James received Grammy nominations, despite the increasing turmoil in his personal life.
Over time, however, the drugs began to undermine James' creativity. He became withdrawn, had aluminum foil mounted on his home windows to keep out the daylight, would stay awake for ten days at a time, and simply stopped writing music when the passion finally disappeared. His 1986 LP for Motown, The Flag, sold less than 100,000 copies, though a single, "Sweet and Sexy Thing," did well. James sued the label to be released from his contract, and the label countersued, saying The Flag was a dismal effort since James was using such massive quantities of drugs at the time of its recording. The federal judge in the case said that given James' past history of drug abuse--along with what he called "the reportedly widespread drug use in the music industry," according to Rolling Stone--such charges of drug use were irrelevant to Motown's suit against James.
James emerged from the legal troubles of the late 1980s relatively well and signed with Warner/Reprise. His creative career, however, appeared on the skids. A review in People of his 1988 effort for the label, Wonderful, was less than kind; critic David Hildebrand declared "the grooves are stale and the instrumentation clamorous." The death of Mabel Johnson sent James into a tailspin of self- destructive behavior, and his drug use grew increasingly ruinous. In 1991, he and his girlfriend Tanya Hijazi were accused of assaulting a woman in their Hollywood home--a woman they befriended, then accused of stealing drugs--and faced a trial; a year later, another woman also filed assault and torture charges.
Los Angeles prosecutors combined the two cases, and James faced three life sentences for a total of fifteen felony counts. Yet the Los Angeles Times uncovered prosecutorial misconduct--someone in their office had been supplying drugs to one of the witnesses against James and Hijazi--and a deal was cut in which James received a prison sentence of five years and four months. The judge at the sentencing called James "the luckiest man on earth," and said, "{If I'd} had my way, I'd have thrown away the key," according to Sager in Rolling Stone.
James served out his sentence in California's Folsom Prison, where he converted to Islam, joined Narcotics Anonymous, began writing his autobiography, and finally returned to songwriting again. He estimated that he had squandered over $400,000 a year on drugs over a decade, and considered his incarceration "a blessing in disguise," according to People magazine in 1996. "Otherwise I probably would have been dead by now." He was released in the summer of 1996. Though James had declared personal bankruptcy, there was still some money left in his music business to do another album, which was released in 1997 on Private I/Mercury. Jancee Dunn, reviewing Urban Rapsody for Rolling Stone, called it "a mellow, reflective, and intensely autobiographical affair"; she noted that his years of troubles seemed to have dulled the risque edge that had infused his earlier successes--but concluded, "we're glad you're still with us, Rick."
Works
Selective Discography * Bustin' Out of L7, Motown, 1979. * Fire It Up, Motown, 1980. * Street Songs, Motown, 1981. * Throwin' Down, Motown, 1982. * Cold Blooded, Motown, 1983. * The Flag, Motown, 1986. * Wonderful, Reprise, 1988. * Bustin' Out: The Best of Rick James, Motown, 1994. * Urban Rapsody, Private I/Mercury Records, 1997.
Further Reading
Periodicals
* Jet, August 26, 1991, p. 56; January 24, 1994, p. 51; August 8, 1994, p. 61. * People, August 8, 1988; June 17, 1996, p. 123. * Rolling Stone, May 18, 1989, p. 30; June 27, 1996; November 26, 1997.
Other
* Additional information for this profile was provided by the * Internet site at http://www.igc.apc.org and http://www.music.com
— Carol Brennan

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