Thursday, December 24, 2009

The King of Punk Funk! Rick James, #@#$!

Video: Rick James~Give It To Me Baby

Video: Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories Part 1

The King of Punk Funk!
Rick James, #@#$!

By Byron Lee
(Special To W.E. A.L.L. B.E. News)

"I'm Rick James, #@#$!"

The statement above has become the epitaph for James Ambrose Johnson, Jr.

For this edition of the RCE, we seek to give you a more complete view of the artist and the man. This month, we will profile The King of Punk Funk, Rick James.

Johnson was born one of eight children sired in the union of James Sr., an autoworker and Mabel, a cleaning woman who ran numbers for the mob on the side to make ends meet. (James Sr. left the family with James Jr. was 7).

Feeling abandoned by his father and emotionally distant, at least initially, from his mother, James was alienated. Despite an interest in sports, James's childhood was primarily one of petty theft and truancy. The other activity that caught the young boy's imagination was one that was introduced to him by his mother. When Mabel went to night clubs on number runs, she would occasionally take young James along with her. He was taken by the jazz he would hear, and the club owner would let him get behind the drum kit.

His love of drumming would give him a school related activity that he enjoyed. Though impressed with James's ability, his band instructor told him that he would need many more years of instruction in music theory in order to be truly proficient. James tried his hand at theory for a while, but then got bored. As he recalled in his 2007 memoir, "Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Superfreak" (co-written with Jake Brown) "I felt that music should just groove."

The youngster would eventually get a chance to get the whole school hip to his groove. James performed a call-and-response percussion solo in the talent show, earning a standing ovation, an encore and first prize. He says in “Confessions” that "At that moment, I decided that music was going to be my life."

Unfortunately, he would be kicked out of school and placed in another. He became taken with the shiny uniforms of the Brown Cadet Corp. and the attention that they garnered. Soon, however, he would be kicked out of this institution, as well.

Left with few options, but looking to avoid service in the Vietnam War, James enlisted in the Naval Reserves, the requirement being that he report for training two weekends a month However, with his growing popularity as musician with the doo-wop singing group The Duprees and, subsequently, the revelry it brought into his life, he missed his reporting dates. Soon, he received a notice in the mail that he was to report for active duty. He went to the bus station, then made the decision to go to Canada, instead.

In Canada, and in uniform, James was saved from a violent altercation by two passersby (Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, who would eventually be members of legendary rock group The Band). The guys took Johnson to a bar, and, in an act of characteristic gusto, Johnson sung vocals with the house band. In the band was bassist Nick St. Nicholas (who would go on to join Steppenwolf). Nicholas invited James back to his apartment, where he asked Johnson to join the band. James accepted. The band would call themselves the Sailorboys. (According to “Confessions,” Johnson would be given the name Ricky Matthews by blues singer Shirley Matthews, who gave Johnson the name both out of concern by Johnson’s AWOL status and as a tribute to her deceased cousin of the same name.)

CLIPPED WINGS: The Mynahs Birds were doomed to be a novelty act. (Photo courtesy Nick Warburton)

It would not be long before someone would notice the band’s talent. That person was eccentric businessman Colin Kerr. Kerr had a love of birds and rechristened the group The Mynah Birds. As chronicled by UK music writer Nick Warburton in the article “Super Freak: Rick James’s Rise To Fame,” a must-read for music obsessives (found on Warburton’s website,, Kerr would use various schemes to get the public’s attention, such as staging public stampedes to exaggerate the group’s fame, having the band dress completely in yellow and black and forcing Matthews to sing to a live bird onstage.

The group eventually left Kerr’s management and hooked up with Morley Sherman, who used his connections with actor Sal Mineo (of “Rebel Without a Cause” fame) to get the band an audition with Motown Records. The group played for label head Barry Gordy and performer/songwriter Smokey Robinson. Both were impressed.

Not all went well. Angry that the majority of Motown’s attention went to Matthews, guitarist Tom Morgan quit the group. He would be replaced by future rock icon Neil Young. Young would be with the group through their lengthy recording sessions at Motown, where the group recorded their own songs and served as a backing band for label artists, such as Tammi Terrell.

Contracts were signed (by the group members’ parents, since the bandmates were minors), and all was well, until the advance arrived. The band saw none of it. After discovering that Shelman took the money to fund his drug habit, Matthews lead the group in a movement to have Shelman fired. Shelman retaliated by reporting Matthews’s AWOL status to the authorities. Motown was antsy about releasing work by a band fronted by someone on the lam from the military and cancelled all plans for the Mynah Birds. Matthews turned himself into the authorities and served a two year sentence in the infamous Brooklyn Brig. Young left for LA with bandmate Bruce Palmer, later to form Buffalo Springfield.

The Mynah Birds would go through several incarnations, with James evolving his stage persona by aping that of Rolling Stones’ singer Mick Jagger, until James was arrested in Toronto for an outstanding theft charge. The rest of the most recent lineup would find fame as The Flying Circus.

After completing his jail term in1969, James returned to Motown as a writer and producer, working with acts such as Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. (Taylor would go on to discover Michael Jackson.). There, he met bassist Greg Reeves, the two hit if off and they left together for LA, with James getting Reeves a dream gig with rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

STONE COLD: The Stone City Band has a reputation as an elite ensemble.

In the following years, James would sing for the groups Salt & Pepper, Heaven & Earth (during the tenure of which he shortened his stage moniker to Rick James), Mainline and Great White Cane. The portrait that emerges from those interviewed for the Warburton piece is that of an immensely talented person driven, for better, or worse, by instinct. According to drummer Coffi Hall of Salt & Pepper, the group lost its record deal, due to James taking a rental car as his own property. James ended his tenure with Heaven and Earth by walking off with the tapes of the material the group recorded. While in Great White Cane, James proved himself prone to abrupt changes in the setlist—like an acapella version of “Times They-Are-A-Changin’”—even if they killed the momentum of the show. He eventually quit the group, mid-tour, and, according to horn player Ian Kojima, left the band “faced with numerous lawsuits stemming from multiple management and publishing contracts that Rick signed.” Finally, after guitarist Danny Marks of the original Stone City Band (a band put together to back James up in his solo career) left the group, he found that James had punctured every speaker in his guitar amp.

Marks, unsurprisingly, has mixed feelings toward James. “He owed everybody money and he took from everybody. He used everybody. But there was a lot of joy. He was a larger than life sort of character, charismatic as hell and brilliantly creative in all these genres, all believable, all great song-writing.” Bassist Peter Hodgson of Jon and Lee & the Checkmates says “He had a musical personality that was very charismatic. He could talk and get his way through doors that other people couldn’t because he was so determined.” Guitar player Dave Burt of Salt & Pepper summed up his feelings about James, saying “He was like the angel and the demon all in one person. You never knew which one was going to show up.”

After being a musical nomad, James was met guitarist Aidan Mason and bassist Peter Cardinali through James’s new manager, Tony Nolasso, a drummer with whom he had worked during his time in Mainline. Mason’s writing skills, paired with Cardinali’s arranging, made for a demo that featured “Get Up And Dance” and future smash “Mary Jane.” The recording would land James a deal with Motown in 1977, and his infectious, bass heavy single “You and I” became a nationwide smash. (From this point in his career on, James would constantly give thanks for the musicians that came into his life. (He dedicates “Confessions” to his mother and all the musicians in the world, and regularly pauses the narrative of the memoir to note personnel changes.) He would even go on to produce The Stone City Band’s own releases, taking pride in the various styles the group was able to exhibit.)

As “You and I” rose up the charts, James started to think about his look. He was inspired when he went to see an Afircan drummer in concert. He was taken by the hairstyles worn by the background Massai dancers. He made some contacts and met a person trained in creating the hairstyle he saw. After two days in a chair, he was sporting his trademark braids.

Another concert would give him further inspiration. He reluctantly attended a show by flamboyant rockers KISS. He was soon glad he went. James thought that the band’s over-the-top showmanship would be the perfect complement to the cultural pride of his music and appearance.

BUILT TO LAST: Teena Marie continues to earn respect in the hearts of die hard music fans.

(As his career started taking shape, James would play a part in shaping someone else’s . One day, while working at Motown, he heard a powerful voice in another room. When he came face-to-face with the source, he was surprised not only by the strong instrument, but also but the packaging; the singer, born Christine Marie Brockert, was a white woman. James took her under his wing., and she would be known professionally as Teena Marie. Her debut album, 1979’s “Wild And Peaceful,” was a smash. (In a cunning bit of marketing, both Gordy and James purposely did not have a picture of the singer as part of the album's artwork, in order to keep audiences from knowing the singer's ethnicity.) (Marie continues to have a strong presence in the music industry. In addition to enduring songs such as “If a Were A Bell”, “Square Biz,” “Ooh La La La” (famously reworked by the Fugees to make “Fu-Gee-La”), “Call Me (I Got Your Number)” and the slow jam duet (with James) “Fire and Desire”, Marie, after taking a ten year hiatus, has recorded three albums in the last five years, the latest of which, "Congo Square," boasts “Can’t Last A Day,” the duet with Faith Evans that is currently in heavy rotation on adult contemporary radio stations, nationwide. 80’s fetishism, coupled with a recent statement of adoration from Mary J. Blige, have eyes once again focused on Teena Marie.))

1978’s “Come Get It,” the full length followed to the smash “You And I” would also boast “Hollywood,” “Dream Maker” and the timeless ode to the sticky-icky “Mary Jane.” The album made James an artist to watch.

1979’s “Bustin’ Out of L Seven” and “Fire It Up,” which featured the multi-textured “Spacey Love,” dedicated to Patti Labelle, and the lascivious “Love Gun,” respectively, were viewed by critics as placeholders, serviceable but not up to James’s potential.1980’s more mellow “Garden of Love,” was thought to be good, in its own right, but not what the public wanted from James. The album underperformed. (James claims in “Confessions” that he was having issues with Motown at the time, and the conflict stifled his creativity.)

STREETS OF GOLD: “Street Songs” put Rick James on easy street.

Disconcerted with the reception of “Garden of Love,” James decided to kill two birds with one stone with his next release: go back to his roots and give the audience what they craved. The result was 1981’s “Streets Songs,” an album that spoke for the disenfranchised, but had a sonic background that all audiences could groove to. The frenzied “Give It To Me, Baby,” the aforementioned “Fire and Desire” and the autobiographical “Ghetto Life” were all hits, but the one that would become James’s definitive song started as a joke.

“Street Songs” was finished, when James started playing a silly tempo that he thought whites could dance to. He was encouraged by those around him to add lyrics to it and record it. The result was “Super Freak,” a timeless tale, tongue-in-cheek though it may be, of an insatiable woman.

Like the woman in the song, the public also had a voracious hunger. “Street Songs” sold three million copies and crossed James over to the mainstream. With mainstream acceptance, of course, comes categorization. James would look back with pride that he was able to coin his style of music before the mainstream could. He called it “Punk Funk,” meaning “rebellious funk.”

The follow-up to “Songs” would be 1982’s “Throwin’ Down,” (ironically, a slang term for drug use). The album featured “Dance Wit’ Me,” “Standing on the Top,” (James’s landmark duet with what is thought by many to be the ultimate lineup of the Temptations) and the ballads “Happy” (with a returning Marie) and “Teardrops.” “Down” is thought by many to be a perfect companion piece to “Street Songs.”

COOKIN’ WITH SMOKE: Smokey Robinson was a longtime mentor, collaborator and friend to Rick James.

“Cold Blooded,” released in 1983, had incredible high points, such as the funky title track, a tribute to then-love interest Linda Blair, the rap fusion piece “P.I.M.P. the S.I.M.P,” which commented on the interaction between pimps and prostitutes by utilizing rap from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and spoken word from Billy Dee Williams (Rap fusion would be gloriously revisited by James, this time with Roxanne Shante, on 1988’s “Loosey’s Rap,” his final number one R&B hit.) and “Ebony Eyes” the classic baby making duet with Smokey Robinson. However, when listening to the album as a whole, many started to feel that James’s funk had gotten stale.

James sounded rejuvenated on 1985’s “Glow,” where he incorporated new wave rock influences into his repertoire. As with “Garden of Love,” however, “Glow” found James struggling to return to past heights. (This same year, James would earn another claim to fame. He wrote and produced “Party All The Time,” a song meant to lead its singer, comedian and film star Eddie Murphy, to credibility in the music world. While it was successful at the time of its release, the lightweight song has gone on to be a running joke in pop culture history.)

IN HIS IMAGE: The Mary Jane Girls were formed and guided by the legendary funkster.

For James, what was happening outside of the studio became more important than what was going on in it. While drug use had long been a part of James's life, as the mid-80's approached, his addiction was out of control. ("Confessions" details James's tailspin with a series of ever monotonous stretches where James meets/reunites with a woman, does a lot of drugs, has marathon trysts, feels empty inside and sobers up.) During the madness, he released “The Flag,” his final album for Motown, thought by many to be the worst collection of James’s career. After its commercial failure, Motown sued James, claiming that his drug-induced state contributed to a lackluster product and demanding another album. James countersued, claiming that he was owed back royalties and that the company tried to steal James’s successful girl group the Mary Jane Girls, of “All Night Long” and “In My House,” fame, from him. At the same time, James had a falling out with his brother Roy, an attorney who was managing his finances, feeling that his sibling was withholding and squandering the money with which he had trusted him. (After a five year battle, James won his case against Motown, receiving a large sum. He also won the right to remove Roy as his power of attorney.) To add to James’s plight, Prince, due to the rapturous reception of his semi-autobiographical concert film “Purple Rain,” its accompanying soundtrack, and the landmark double album “Sign O’ The Times,” had firmly placed himself in the one-man band funk throne for which he had fought James, tooth and nail. (The younger performer opened for James on the tour promoting “Fire It Up,” and the two had not gotten along, since. Some have suggested that it was James’s stubbornness, in addition to his drug abuse, that hurt his artistry. Unlike Prince, who had no qualms experimenting, even if he failed, James was determined not to abandon the funk, an act that he equated with abandoning his people.)

BITTER RIVALS: Prince and Rick James fought tooth and nail for the one-man band throne.

People such as Debbie Allen, Jim Brown and members of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five attempted to bring him to his senses, yet Catherine Bach (the original Daisy Duke from the "Dukes of Hazard" TV Show), of all people, seemed to pierce through the haze most powerfully, if temporarily. After James bristled at her praise of "Purple Rain," Bach, as recalled in “Confessions,” called him out by saying “Don’t you know Prince knows you’re always f@^#d up on coke? That’s why he’s beating you these days. You’re too f@^#d up.” James says, "No one had dared talk to me like that before, and as angry as it made me, I knew I needed to hear that."

PUNK FUNK STILL PAYS: M.C. Hammer is one of many who have sampled James’s work…and lined James’s pockets.

An unexpected bit of sunshine would peak through in 1990, when an incredibly energetic bespectacled, baggy pants-sporting rapper and dancer from Oakland named MC Hammer used a loop of “Super Freak” as a backdrop for his song "U Can't Touch This." Although ridiculed in some circles and, in present times, thought to be the precursor to the kind of hits P. Diddy had in the late 90's, where the catchiest part of an already popular song was used wholesale en route to making a "new" hit, the song was immensely popular and powered the rapper's album "Please Hammer Don't Hurt "Em" to seven million copies sold. (To date, it has sold in the tens of millions in the US alone.) James sued Hammer over the use of his song, and an (reportedly lucrative) out of court settlement was reached.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: “Confessions of Rick James” gives the reader insight into the music icon.

The sunshine was to be eclipsed by a heavy downpour a year later, when Mabel, who, during James’s journeyman days and through his subsequent stardom, had been a rock of stability, passed away. The passage from “Confessions” covering this time is one of the most potent in the book:

All I could think of was maybe I was responsible for some of this because of my association with evil. I walked in and spent some time with her by myself. Even though she was slipping in and out of consciousness I could see tears falling down her cheeks and I felt that she knew I was there. I started crying and reached down and took her rosary and put it around my neck.

I went out into the waiting room and sat down. After a little while, I felt this strange feeling, like I had been jolted out of sleep, and my sister turned to me and told me my mother had passed. I went back to see her one last time and finally found some solace in her peaceful expression.

WAVING “THE FLAG”: “The Flag,” James’s final album for Motown, is thought by many to be his worst collection.

James would claim that he mother’s death sent him further down the spiral of drug addiction. He would be convicted of assault on two separate occasions, in 1991 and 1992. In speaking about the latter incident in his memoir, James takes you into the mind of an addict:

Crack will do that. In a world where the only absolute is your next pull on the pipe, your worst enemy can become your tightest friend and the other way around, all in the blink of an eye. One minute the guy sitting next to you can be Satan's first cousin then, after a long, deep hit, transform before your eyes into the second coming of God's own son, complete with a halo and harp.

This isn't about whining that "the devil made me do it." The demons that did their business inside this skin were invited guests-I knew every one of them by name and every time I vaporized a hit up a tube and down my lungs I was opening the door a little bit wider until it finally just ripped off the hinges and blew away.

James would serve two years for the latter conviction. Afterwards, he seemed to be putting his life together. He married longtime girlfriend Tanya Hijazi in 1996 (He fathered a son, Tazman, with her in 1992. The couple would divorce in 2002.) In 1997, he released a comeback album, "Urban Rhapsody," which bridged the gap between James's traditional sound and rap fusion (the latter performed with acts such as Snoop Dogg and Rappin' 4 Tay). The album was a commercial and critical success, and James went on tour to reconnect with his audience. The proceedings were short-circuited when James suffered a stroke, mid-performance, a setback that permanently impaired his speech and mobility.

LARGER THAN LIFE…AGAIN: “Chappelle’s Show” put Rick James’s name on people’s lips, one last time.

One could not have predicted, however, that James would get one last shot in the spotlight. In a February 2004 episode of comedian Dave Chappelle's popular variety program, "Chappelle's Show," another installment of the "C True Hollywood Stories" (cast member Charlie Murphy's memories of meeting famous people) aired. This particular "story" focused on Murphy's encounters with James. Chappelle played James to the hilt and, coupled with Murphy's witty anecdotes and footage from a present-day, exclusive interview with James himself, the skit become a pop cultural milestone, coining the catchphrase "I'm Rick James, #@#$," spawning boat loads of bootleg merchandise and giving James a new lease on life. This new popularity climaxed with a performance at that year's BET Awards, where he sang a duet with Teena Marie and, to the wild approval of the audience, spoke the aforementioned catchphrase from the podium.

LAST WORDS: Rick James’s resting place.

Little did the world know that a boisterous voice would soon be silenced. On August 6 of that year, Rick James died of heart failure at the age of 56. Toxicology reports revealed various drugs in James’s system, but none of them were at lethal amounts. Three years later, to accompany the release of “Confessions,” “Deeper Still” a compilation of the final material James recorded, was made available to the public, to critical acclaim.

DIGGIN’ DEEP: “Deeper Still” is a collection of the final material James recorded.

James’s influence lives on. The 1995 film “Friday” famously used “Mary Jane” in a montage to illustrate a character’s marijuana habit. “Mary Jane” was also used by Tha Alkoholiks” for a song of the same name, Da Brat sampled the guitar intro of the song to make “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” and Mack 10 converted the funk staple to a ode to rims entitled “On Them Thangs.” “Give It To Me, Baby” has been utilized by Def Jef (“Give It Here”), DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince (“I’m All That”) and Jay-Z (“I Just Wanna Love You”) and used in commercials for Burger King, Blockbuster (the “Dancing Baby” commercial), Papa John’s and H&R Block. “Bustin’ Out” was used in the 2007 motion picture “Superbad” and taken by Doug E. Fresh (“Bustin’ Out”), Keith Murray (“Get Lifted”), Dj Quik (“Tangueray”) and Poison Clan (“Fire Up The Funk.”) In addition to its use on “U Can’t Touch This,” “Super Freak” was contorted for use on the title track of Jay-Z’s 2006 album “Kingdom Come.” Mary J. Blige crooned over “Moonchild” to make “Love Is All We Need.” Busta Rhymes sampled “Ghetto Life” to make “In The Ghetto,” and ODB famously covered “Cold Blooded” on his 1999 album, “N*&&@ Please”

In light of his importance, why isn’t more reverence being shown? (In researching this piece, I was stunned both by the lack of in-depth articles available online and by the lack of access to "I'm Rick James," the 2008 documentary made by James's estate.) One reason could be the timing of his fame. The funkster came of prominence between the waning days of funk and the advent of modern R&B and rap, which writer Tony Green, in a 2004 obituary published in Slate Magazine, compared to "saying you were president between Reagan and Clinton." Also, as the reaction to the recent death of Michael Jackson demonstrated, the public can be lazy, even purposefully so, in seeking and accepting all facets of someone's personality and life. Once people decide who you are, it can be difficult to change their minds. Therefore, most people are content to view James as a "habitual line stepper," and move on.

When viewed in its entirety, however, the life of Rick James can be thought of as a story of ascension through drive, descent through excess and redemption through grace.

To that end, James said, in a 2002 interview with Rolling Stone, that he wanted to be remembered as "someone who beat the odds, and as a musician who gave up the truth. My music ain't no contrived bulls*&t. It ain't no sci-fi s*&t. It's the real f@^kin' deal."

Here's hoping that more people learn about the music behind the madness.

Writer’s Note: I’d like to extend special thanks to Nick Warburton for the use of his piece.

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