Credit: Alamy

The troubling life of funk pioneer Rick James

Few names can cast as much duality on the faces of his fans than Rick James. Born James Abros Johnson Jr. the singer, multi-instrumentalist and searing songwriter made a name for himself as the unanointed king of funk. Born in Buffalo, New York, James was never far away from controversy and while that started out as rock ‘n’ roll rebellion — the kind we witness across the board — James’ own demons soon saw him become a nightmare.

The singer died in 2004 and left behind a legacy permanently tarnished by out of control behaviour, swirling drug addictions and the abhorrent kidnapping of two women. What could have been a career littered with the exuberance, enthusiasm and enigmatic dynamism that James emitted, will forever be remembered as some of the most shocking uses of power on record. But, looking back, maybe it was always on the cards.

One’s teenage years are often filled with rebellious moments we look back on and regret. Usually, it involves cursing at our parents, playing music too loud, staying out late and just generally being a bit embarrassing. For the New Yorker Rick James, things were a little bit more heated. Though his mother worked as a dancer for Katherine Dunham, she also worked as a numbers-runner to make ends meet. It did give a young James the chance to see acts like John Coltrane, Etta James and Miles Davis, but it also introduced him to the underbelly of society more quickly than most.

It wasn’t the only thing James experienced at a young age. In his autobiography Glow, the singer also claimed that he lost his virginity at “age 9 or 10” to a local girl of 14. He suggests in the book that his “kinky nature came in early.” Sex would go on to be a permanent fixture in the themes of James’ songs and would supercharge his releases like a few artists could match. However, before he would spread out on his own, he would end up performing alongside Neil Young in the Mynah Birds.

James joined the Navy at age 14 or 15, lying about his age to avoid the draft for the Vietnam war. The singer had already picked up a penchant for narcotics and theft by this time in his life, and there was hope the Navy could go some way to straighten him out. However, that was soon dashed as he failed to turn up to his fortnightly reserve session aboard USS Enterprise. It also gained him a ticket to Vietnam.

Seeing the devastation of the war effort, James fled the US and made his way north of the border. Arriving in Toronto, the singer was viciously beaten during his first moments in Canada. Luckily, his life was saved by a trio of men, one of them being Levon Helm who intervened in the beating. They invited him to watch them perform as part of Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band, and a young James caught the bug for performing.

In Toronto, he made friends with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and began to set in stone his vision for a musical career. He founded the Mynah Birds, the group which fused together soul, funk and rock ‘n’ roll and quickly became a known face around the city, sparking the kind of wild audiences he would become famed for. After moving to Los Angeles, James became a key member of the growing counter-culture movement and was more than friendly with the rock set at the front of that particular charge, Jim Morrison even gave the singer his first acid trip.

Remembering Rick James and Neil Young's 1960’s Motown band 'The Mynah Birds'
(Credit: Album Cover / Discogs)

In 1973, James finally broke out as a solo star having toiled with bands and being a silent songwriter for some years. He signed with A&M where he released his debut single under the name Rick James, ‘My Mama’. After forming the Stone City Band, James released his debut album Come Get It! in 1978 which included a top 20 hit in ‘You and I’ as well as ‘Mary Jane’ a James classic. He continued to release music at an alarming rate and, by 1981’s Street Songs, James’ most commercially driven record hit the shelves, he had already produced five albums of astounding funk jams.

It was on this album that James enacted his own musical ethos “punk funk” and produced his biggest song ever ‘Super Freak’. The single sold over one million copies and it saw James release two more gold albums. But, throughout it all, James maintained a troublesome image and, looking back, what was once deemed as provocative now feels closer to predatory. The singer’s overtly sexualised songs and his insatiable thirst for sex made him a difficult entity for the mainstream to ever fully embrace, but he found countless fans on the wrong side of the railway tracks.

Things started to go wrong in a truly harmful way in 1989 following the release of the singer’s 11th album Kickin’. The record flopped in the UK, the only place it was released, and James lost his deal with Warner Bros. the following year. By this stage in his career, James’ drug abuse had grown from marijuana in his teens to heroin and cocaine. By the end of the eighties, the musician was freebasing crack cocaine in his Beverly Hills mansion, even using tin foil to block out onlookers in a move that one can only describe as “cracky”.

Things took a decidedly darker turn when, in 1991, James and his girlfriend Tanya Hijazi were accused of kidnapping and holding 24-year-old Frances Alley as their sexual hostage for up to six days. They tied her up, forced her to perform sexual acts and burned her legs and abdomen with the hot end of their always-in-use crack cocaine pipe. It is the kind of accusation that one expects to hear in a horror movie, not the repertoire of one of the finest funk musicians modern music had ever known.

James was looking at a long stretch too. The singer was arrested and faced a maximum prison sentence of life behind bars if he was convicted of all charges that included assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated mayhem, torture, forcible oral copulation, false imprisonment and kidnapping. Usually, when faced with such serious allegations, one would keep their head down and try to straighten up. For James, it was quite the opposite.

While out on bail in 1993, he would assault music executive Mary Sauger while under the influence of cocaine. He had met the executive alongside Tanya Hijazi for a business meeting when Sauger claimed the two then kidnapped and beat her over a 20-hour period. James was found guilty of both offences but managed to avoid life imprisonment after being cleared of the torture charge. He served two years of his five-year sentence in Folsom Prison, during which he lost a civil suit to Sauger and was ordered to pay her $1 million.

Rick James in court. (Credit: Alamy)

It would appear, for the most part, James spent the majority of his life trying to stay under the radar. That is until 1998 when he was once again accused of sexual assault, this time the charges were dropped at a later date. Whether it was his name consistently being in the papers or just his incredible connection to Eddie Murphy and his brother Charlie, Dave Chappelle rejuvenated James’ career as par of his sketch comedy show.

James featured in the skit ‘Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories’ and saw Chappelle take on the role of James as he enacted Murphy’s stories, providing the now landmark line: “I’m Rick James bitch!” It saw James take up a role too, providing narration to the stories, usually punctuating them with the phrase “cocaine is a hell of a drug.” It was a humorous end to a career continually blighted by his character’s depravity.

Only last year, James’ estate was sued for $50 million by a woman who accused James of raping her when she was only 15-years-old at a home for troubled youths in New York, back in 1979. As of now, the case remains ongoing. James died August 6th 2004 and left behind a troubling legacy. Though he claimed to be free from cocaine following his prison sentence, the drug was found in his system during the coroner’s report.

There’s no doubt that we are a victim of our circumstances. One can easily point to the troublesome childhood James experienced, or the explosion of drugs as the root of the singer’s problems. That said, to solely do so would be to void James’ responsibility for his own actions. In the recording studio, he was a maverick, a singular visionary with an uncompromising attitude and a refusal to bend to others’ wishes. We must accept that, in his personal life, he was exactly the same way.

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