THE SUPER FREAK

The Super-freaky Life of Rick James

April 3, 2020 by Harriet Kaplan

The phrase once in a lifetime is typically used to describe an event. Every so often, it applies to a person. Rick James, he’s one of those people. He was outspoken, outrageous, controversial, unapologetic, larger than life, real and unreal. This was reflected on and off the stage for better and for worse.

He’ll be forever immortalized by the “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories” segment of “Chappelle’s Show.” The segment took on James’ reputation as a casualty of very high and even lower living. Skit themes hit on his cocaine addiction as well as jail time for sexual abuse and assault.Reportedly James himself disputed little if any of the segment; in fact he posed for a magazine cover in a t-shirt design worn by Chappelle.

Chappelle’s Show | Rick James
The Charlie Murphy segment was seen through the eyes of Murphy (Eddie Murphy’s older brother who witnessed James’ most over-the-top, debauched period in the early ’80’s. Though he died on August 6, 2004, what James left behind can’t get taken away from or diminish his importance and legacy in music.

James was a gifted singer/songwriter/producer who gave his millions of fans great entertainment value with his interracial and talented backing group, The Stone City Band. He also created enduring music that offered up classic danceable tracks showcasing his melodious macho baritone on “You and I,” “Super Freak,” “Cold Blooded,” gritty, personal, slice-of life experiences in “Ghetto Life,” and his personal ode to the pleasures of smoking weed in “Mary Jane.” In the process, James developed a new genre of music merging funk and disco together that became famously known as “punk funk.”

Super Freak for the album, Street Songs
His debut album, “Come Get It !,” which included the Stone City Band, was released April 1978, celebrating its 42nd anniversary this year. The LP launched “You and I” which became his first number-one R&B hit and “Mary Jane.” Eventually the album would sell two million copies helping to launch James’s musical career to stardom and help his label, Motown Records’ subsidiary, Gordy, when it fortunes had dropped. “Come and Get It!” was notable for a new energy, flair, tight arrangements, crisp and dynamic horn parts and sizzling funk all helping to update the Motown sound. That all being said, it was his 1981 album, Street Songs, that made James an international icon.

Give It To Me Baby from the album, Street Songs

Around this time, James also fashioned an original and unforgettable look for himself wearing his hair in shoulder length braids (often with glitter in them), flashy and colorful jumpsuits and wide knee-high boots that paid homage to the theatrics of stadium rock bands that he would go and to play and sell out many shows with his fame on the rise and while it was red hot. Eventually “Come and Get It!” became certified double platinum. It was considered the first of James’s streak of commercially successfully releases under Motown for the next several years. This album helped to launch his artistic ambitions including projects with his protege, the late Teena Marie, Mary Jane Girls, Eddie Murphy, Smokey Robinson and The Temptations.

Rick and Eddie Back in the Day

James would go to release a total of 12 albums in his short life. By the 1990s, he had left Motown and he had one final hit with Loosey’s Rap. Yet James’s music would go on to be sampled by a new generation of musicians, such as MC Hammer and his use of a sample from Super Freak on U Can’t Touch This.

James became this larger than life figure who also influenced many other artists and acts, young and old. He continues to  be remembered to this day as an amazing musician, unforgettable artist and uncompromising visionary that could be said in all truth…. he lived life completely on his own term. His unique musical catalog is an honest reflection of that.  Lots of people, especial bands or artists, come and go… but few leave a mark the way Rick James did.

Rick James with Grace Jones

About his persona, he once said “I’m still James Johnson. Rick James is a stage name, James Johnson keeps Rick James on the ground…. kind of sort of.” At some point the two became the one, and he became that once in a lifetime character that just makes us smile.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery | Charles Colton

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