In his relatively short life, James managed to create music and a legacy that has outlived him, continuing to inspire musicians young and old. His music lives on, and as this playlist demonstrates, to paraphrase Rick James, it’s always time to funk and roll.
James Ambrose Johnson Jr. was born in Buffalo, New York on 1st February 1948 and would become one of the greatest performers of all time. Leading a rather troubled childhood, James was brought up with his seven siblings by his single mother who worked for the mob. He grew up in bars and clubs, watching and listening to the greats such as Etta James and Miles Davis. Anticipating being drafted to fight the seemingly never-ending war in Vietnam, where African-Americans were more likely to die than their white counterparts, he joined the US Navy. Yet, he was ordered to Vietnam anyway, but fled to Toronto to avoid the war. It was there he befriended Joni Mitchell and Neil Young; he and Young would form the short-lived group The Mynah Birds.
The group went to Detroit to bash out a deal with Motown, and according to James it is where he first met Stevie Wonder; Wonder asked his name, and James, avoiding getting caught by the US Navy for deserting, told him it was ‘Ricky James Matthew’. Wonder said it was too long, and told him ‘Ricky James’ would be enough.
Sadly for James he was discovered by the US Navy, and to avoid a longer stretch in jail handed himself in. He spent a year in jail. Upon his release he went back to his music, but it would not until 1976 that he formed one of the greatest outfits in funk music: The Stone City Band. They were signed to Motown a year later, and began recording the first Rick James solo record Come Get It! which launched the top 20 hit ‘You And I’, as well as his to ode to smoking weed, the mid-tempo stepper ‘Mary Jane’. The album sold over two million copies, helping launch Rick James solo career as well boosting Motown’s flagging record sales.
James remained with Motown until 1896 releasing nine albums on their Gordy imprint. During that time he created some brilliant music, combining funk and disco to create his unique brand of ‘Punk-Funk’: songs such as ‘Big Time’, ’69 Times’ and ‘Cold Blooded’, combined with the brilliance of his album Street Songs made James a true star around the world. He would also become a sought after producer, working with veteran acts such as The Temptations and Smokey Robinson, as well as helping to launch the career of Teena Marie and the Mary Jane Girls.
By the nineties James had left Motown and although he had one final rap-infused hit with ‘Loosey’s Rap’, his days of a hit maker were over. Yet his music would be sampled by the next generation of music-makers, such as MC Hammer and his use of a sample from ‘Super Freak’ on his mega-hit ‘U Can’t Touch This’.
Sadly, James’ drug abuse became public knowledge and he claimed to be spending upwards of $7,000 a week on his cocaine addiction. James was then sent to jail for two offences: holding a 24-year-old female hostage for a length of days making her perform sex acts, as well as assaulting a music executive in Hollywood. James was convicted and spent two years in jail and released in 1996. Whilst in jail he began to write his memoirs. He also began the preparations for a new album entitled Deeper Still; he would go on tour with Teena Marie towards the end of his life, but he never managed to kick his drug addiction.
On 6th August 2004 Rick James was found dead by his caretaker at his house in Los Angeles; although a cocktail of drugs were found in his body, none were deemed to have killed them. He died age 56. Yet in his relatively short life, James managed to create music and a legacy that has outlived him, continuing to inspire musicians young and old. His music lives on, and as this playlist demonstrates, to paraphrase Rick James, it’s always time to funk and roll.