By: Francesca Small


     My research for this topic was conducted through the means of finding scholarly texts on the life of Rick James. While exploring the texts, I would also listen to his discography and try to understand the intent in which James was creating his music. I used various online databases to find the texts. Among these texts I used both biographies/autobiographies and texts which display the lives of various musicians. Through this research of Jame’s childhood and adult life, I was able to explore the experiences of the man who created such amazing music. 

Early years

     One of eight children, born in Buffalo, New York on February 1st 1948 as James Ambrose Johnson Jr. James’ father, who was a mechanic, left his family by the age of ten. His mother would often take him to bars were she would collect numbers. This is were he was introduced to performers such as Miles Davis and Etta James, thus spawning his love for music. James had attended both Orchard Park High School and Bennett High School before dropping out. As a you he had many stints in jail, mostly for theft and burglary. By the age of 14 or 15 he eventually enlisted in the navy to avoid the draft, thus lying about his age to enlist. After being ordered to Vietnam for missing his reserve sessions, he fled to Toronto, Canada in 1965 (James, 2014). There, James would go on and change his name to Ricky James Mathews  (which eventually by the aid of one James’ musical heroes, Marvin Gaye, would be shortened to Rick James). 

Rick james meets Motown

   While in Canada, James founded a band named “Mynah Bird”. Its sound was a fusion of soul, folk and rock music. The band after making a few lineup changes, left Canada to the city of Detroit to record with Motown records. James would go on to meet a plethora of his musical heroes at this time, including Marvin Gaye. Motown executives eventually found out about Rick James’ criminal life, and refused to release anymore of his music until he got his legal issues with the military taken care of. James turned himself in to the FBI in 1966, and was sentenced back to the navy, for 5-6 months of hard labor. James was hardly even 19 years old at the time, and fled his detention, being on the run for six weeks. Eventually he would complete his detention, and went on to write many songs for Motown artists such as The Miracles, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, and The Spinners. However, like many artists at the time, James rarely saw profit for his work.

Time to go solo

     Rick James’ solo album is released April 1978, entitled Come Get It!. This album featured songs such as Mary Jane and You and I, chart toppers that would go on to bring James to stardom. At the time Motown records had been suffering from low sales and funds, and this album helped them greatly, which was ironic since they had previously not payed  James a lot of his song writing commissions. His second album Bustin’ Out of L Seven was released in early 1979, and sold a million copies. The next album Fire it Up was released late 79’ and went gold. Around this time, James launched his first headlining tour, The Fire it Up tour, he brought Teena Marie and then upcoming artist Prince to be opening acts. The tour would thus spark a rivalry between James and Prince, as James accused him of copying his act. James had produces Teena Marie’s very successful debut Motown album, Wild and PeacefulGarden of Love, a ballad heavy album released in 1980, it was James’ 4th album to go gold. Then in 1981, James would release Street Songs, his best selling album to date. Street Songs featured a mix of many genres, including pop, rock, and funk. James considered his work to be “crossover funk” and “punk funk”(Peter Benjaminson, 2017).


     James had three children with singer songwriter Syville Morgan. James would go on to date famous actress Linda Blair from 1982-84. James had once read in an article that Blair considered him to be very “sexy. After their breakup he would go on to write the hit song “Cold Blooded” after her. In 1989, James would begin his relationship with then 17 year old Tanya Hijazi. The two had a very interesting relationship, as they would go on to kidnap and assault 24 year old Francis Alley. After their respective releases from prison, they would later have a son together, marry in 1996 and divorce in 2002. Teena Marie and Rick James were really close friends, and according to Marie, the two dated for three months, and were engaged for two weeks. Although they did have an on again/off again romantic relationship, the two continued to be very close friends.

     Rick James was also very good friends with both Charlie and Eddie Murphy. Eddie Murphy and James met in 81’ and the two recorded the song “Party All The Time“ together in 85’. Charlie Murphy, who worked as a body gaurd for his brother Eddie, met James in 84’ and the two became very close. The both of them would later have skits on the Dave Chappelle show, were they would recount their relationship.

The passing & THE INFLUENCE

     On August 6th 2004, James’ caretaker found him dead in his Los Angeles home. James had passed due to cardiac failure as a result of his various health conditions. Buried in Buffalo, New York, James’ headstone is engraved with one of his very own lyrics stating, “I’ve had it all, I’ve done it all, I’ve seen it all. It’s all about love – God is love.”(Taste, Deeper Still, 2007)

Rick James was a pioneer artist that not only performed, but wrote, produced, and arranged. He found importance in crossing funk groove, rock, pop, soul and his own twist to all of his creations. Emerging from Buffalo, New York to becoming an international superstar James’s music touched many. While his private life may have been played with crime, drugs, and promiscuity, his music was honest, and true, and had enough funk and soul for the world. Rick James influenced many artists from classic acts like Prince, to modern acts like Rae Sremmurd and Drake. Everyone wanted, and still wants to be a “super freak”. 


Studio albums

Come Get It! (with the Stone City Band) (1978)

Bustin’ Out of L Seven (1979)

Fire It Up (1979)

Garden of Love (1980)

Street Songs (1981)

Throwin’ Down (1982)

Cold Blooded (1983)

Glow (1985)

The Flag (1986)

Wonderful (1988)

Kickin’ (1989)

Urban Rapsody (1997)

Bibliography and WORKS CITED

Benjaminson, Peter. Super Freak : The Life of Rick James. Chicago Review Press, 2017.’

James, Rick, and David Ritz. Glow : The Autobiography of Rick James. First Atria books hardcover edition. ed., Atria Books, 2014.

James, Rick. The Confessions of Rick James : Memoirs of a Super Freak. Colossus Books, 2007.

George, Nelson. Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos : Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture. 1st Da Capo Press ed., updated and expanded ed. ed., Da Capo Press, 2001.

LaBlanc, Michael L. Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the People in Music. Volume 2, Gale Research, 1990.

Morgan, Pat. Motown Artist by Artist : A Compilation of the 100 Greatest Motown Artists. G2 Rights, 2014.

Pilchak, Angela M. Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the People in Music. Volume 55, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Ripani, Rich. The New Blue Music : Changes in Rhythm & Blues, 1950-1999. 1st ed. ed., University Press of Mississippi, 2006.

Vincent, Rickey. Funk : The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One. 1st St. Martin’s Griffin ed. ed., St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996.


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