Rick James lived a life that was of fictional proportions. His journey reads like a novel, with points that are so ridiculous it makes you wonder if they even happened at all. His autobiography, The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak, is one of the most enthralling memoirs ever released by a musician, filled to the brim with brilliant and bizarre anecdotes. Was he a flawed character? Undoubtedly. Was he talented? Of course. Did he once play in a band with Neil Young? Yes.
It seems as if James’ life was always a little bit mad. Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1948, he was introduced to drugs at a very young age, lost his virginity to a 14-year-old girl whilst only “age 9 or 10” and was arrested for burglary whilst only a young teen. Due to his criminal record and numerous stints in borstal for theft, James was entered into the US Navy Reserve at 14 or 15 but lied about his age to avoid the Vietnam War draft.
It was around this time that James started drumming for local jazz outfits in New York City and began to hone his musical ability. However, James would miss his twice-monthly sessions on the USS Enterprise and found himself ordered to Vietnam as punishment.
In 1964, as a response to the order, he fled across the border to Toronto, Canada. A magnet for trouble, not long after his arrival, three men attempted to assault him outside a nightclub, but another group arrived on the scene and came to his aid. This was to be the night where everything changed for Rick James. Two of the three people that helped James that night were Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, who were playing in Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band, The Hawks. In the not too distant future, they’d enjoy massive success with The Band.
After saving him from the beating, Helm invited James to a show they were playing that night, and somehow, he ended up playing on stage with the band. Following this fortuitous night, James would become good friends with two of the local music scene’s brightest lights; Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Interestingly, at this point, he was yet to assume the guise of Rick James, and was going by ‘Ricky James Matthews’.
That same year, James formed The Mynah Birds, a soul-folk-rock fusion outfit. They quickly made a name for themselves and, in 1965, recorded the single ‘Mynah Bird Hop’/’Mynah Bird Song’ for the Canadian wing of Columbia Records. Over their short life, the group had many different members, including Nick St. Nicholas, who would find his feet with Steppenwolf during the latter half of the decade. He would eventually be replaced by Bruce Palmer as bassist.
Before too long, there would be a major split in the band, leaving Palmer and James to reform with a new lineup. At one point, when new guitarist Tom Morgan departed, he’d be replaced by Neil Young. Morgan left after the band had travelled to Detroit to record with one of the biggest labels of the day, Motown. He was unhappy with their attitude towards the group, so instead Young assumed the role of guitarist.
Later, while in Detroit, James met his heroes Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Wonder told him that his name was “too long” and told him to shorten it to ‘Ricky James’. This was the birth of Rick James, the funk icon.
However, things quickly turned on their heads for The Mynah Birds. Allegedly, the band’s manager embezzled the funds they had raised, and so they fired him. This led him to tell the rest of the band that James was actually AWOL from the Navy and a fugitive. The song they recorded, ‘It’s My Time’, was left unreleased until 2006, and the label scrapped their plans for the album.
With their band in a troublesome spot, Young and Palmer bought a hearse and drove to LA, helping to form Buffalo Springfield. James surrendered himself to the FBI, and in May 1966, he was sentenced by the Navy to five months of hard labour for his absence. He was only 19. James being James, he escaped from the Brooklyn Naval Brig after only six weeks and then spent another six months as a fugitive.
Eventually, he surrendered himself again. Luckily, his mother stepped in, who enlisted the help of his cousin, Louis Stokes, who would subsequently become a Congressman, and the attorney Captain John Bracken, who managed to plead the court-martial down from five years hard labour to five months.
He was released from Portsmouth Naval Prison in August 1967 and returned to Toronto. He’d be detained once again, would have a stint working for Motown and then would find himself linking up with Young and Palmer again in LA in 1968, but that’s a story for another day.
Listen to ‘It’s My Time’ below.