Rick James worked, fought, and partied with almost every icon in the 70s and the 80s, and he kept taking it up a notch until it finally destroyed him.
It seems like the first rule of making it in show business is to have childhood trauma, and James Ambrose Johnson—Rick James—certainly qualifies. Born in Buffalo, New York on February 1, 1948, but a happy family was not in the cards. He was a child when his autoworker father left his family.
His mom had no chance but to step up.
James’ mother had no easy task—she had eight children to raise. Therefore, she worked every second she was alive—worked as a dancer for Katherine Dunham, worked as a cleaner, and even got involved in some pretty sketchy jobs with a Buffalo crime family. While she was working, she tried to keep her children out of trouble.
But the trouble was always around the corner.
In his early teens, James had already started to rebel. He first dropped out of high school, then quickly began experimenting with certain substances. He even gained some experience with women pretty early on. It seemed that his lifestyle was getting more extravagant and dangerous by the day—but there were worrisome consequences.
When James was 14, his record was so problematic that it was sure he would end up behind bars.
However, his biggest worry was being drafted to go to Vietnam. To get away with both of them, he came up with a plan—he lied about his age and joined the Navy Reserve. All he had to do was to follow the Navy Reserve rules and procedures—but as you know, he was never a rule follower.
James only had one simple task:
show up for his twice-a-month Reserve sessions. But for Rick James, that was a lot to ask. During that time, he was drumming for local jazz groups and he was already living the “substance-fuelled reckless musician” life. That’s why he missed his meetings, and in the blink of an eye, found himself on a short list to Vietnam.
It was time for him to come up with another scheme.
Unfortunately, James was out of ideas—so he decided to outright bail on his duty. In 1965, he deserted his post and fled to the Great White North to seek shelter there. He left New York as James Ambrose Johnson, but he landed in Toronto as Rick James Matthews.
This was his “new country, new me” era—of course, it didn’t last long.
Even though he promised to behave, James was like a magnet for trouble. Soon after he started his new life, he was walking outside a club when three intoxicated men approached him pretty aggressively.
They started beating him, yet luckily three other men joined the fight party and rescued James. Of course, these three men were no random people.
One of these men was no other than the American musician Levon Helm, but this was before he'd find success as the legendary singer of The Band.
At the time, he was merely a member of Canadian legend Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band. Luckily, Helm was very friendly towards James, and James was grateful to him. After the scene got cleared out, Helm extended an appealing invitation to James.
The invitation was for James to see Helm’s band perform, but it certainly didn’t stay that way. As it turned out, James was more than ready to put on his big-boy boots and perform onstage.
The day might have started in a not-so-fun way, but it ended with the stuff of legends. It was also a huge step forward for Rick James—because that night, he met all the right people in Toronto.
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As time passed, Rick James had made himself a cool entourage—including hot local musicians who went on to become icons. For example, he was close friends with Canadians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.
James grew particularly close with Mitchell. The two of them bonded over music, and they'd stay up all night listening to Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain.
Rick James was in the right place at the right time—and he wasn't going to let the opportunity go to waste.
James’ life revolved around music, so it was no shock that he finally formed his own band, The Mynah Birds. Their style was a mixture of soul, folk, and rock music.
But the band was missing something, and according to James, that something was "Neil Young". He saw how remarkable of a musician Young was, so he reached out and Young accepted the offer.
It was a done deal. Now the band was ready to make some music.
As of 1965, the band had recorded some good tracks and even got to do some traveling. More impressive, though, was James’ brief union with his “musical heroes”. While in Detroit for a band-related trip, he met both Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. He approached Wonder to introduce himself—and that’s where and when James gained a story worth telling his grandchildren.
When James introduced himself to Stevie Wonder, he told him his full name—Ricky James Matthews. Upon hearing the name, Wonder commented that his name was "too long". He then advised James to get rid of “Matthews” and shorten the name to “Ricky James”.
Of course, that’s what James did—but when you change your name, you don't necessarily change who you were.
The Mynah Birds and James had a good thing going on…until James’ dark past revealed itself. The news about him fleeing his country had reached the band’s producers. They immediately canceled their upcoming shows and the momentum James was gaining went up in smoke.
The other band members, who hadn't known the truth, were furious.
But at this point, James didn’t care much about the band's future. He had bigger fish to fry.
In 1966, James decided to take the high road and do the honorable thing: He surrendered himself to the FBI, who already had a warrant out on him.
In May of the same year, they sentenced the 19-year-old James to hard labor for unauthorized absence. He was about to become legit, yet he was going into confinement—and Rick James was not someone who did well in a cage.
Six weeks after coming back to New York to do time in the Brooklyn Naval Brig, James called it quits.
But instead of notifying the officers about his decision, he preferred to escape. However, his life as a fugitive didn’t last long—six months—before he went crawling back. He surrendered himself for the second time and settled in for five months behind bars in a military facility.
Almost a year after leaving the music industry, James was back in 1967. A miracle happened and Motown—the record label who gave him a shot with The Mynah Birds—gave him a second chance. Unfortunately, they didn’t hire him as the rock star he aimed to be, but as a modest staff writer, which paid nothing compared to his previous salary.
James wanted a little extra walking-around money, so he looked for a side hustle.
The only problem was, he looked in all the wrong places.
Soon after the job hunt, James found himself in a very shady line of work. He began to earn some extra cash by setting up his lady friends with some other guy friends. He stated that it was very common for people around him to engage in these practices, even though he acknowledged that he didn’t enjoy being in this environment.
With this job and his unsatisfactory daily job, James felt like he was in a rut.
He needed a change.
James wanted a change of scenery, a fresh start. He must have manifested it, because not long after, he met another struggling young musician: Greg Reeves, who worked as a session bassist for Motown Records at the time. Reeves and James motivated each other to make it in the big leagues, and the pair of them decided to move to Los Angeles.
The two packed their bags and hit the road. Little did they realize, for one of them, it was the road to stardom.
Moving to Los Angeles would change Rick James's life—but his first impression was disturbing. He described one of his first nights in LA in his memoirs:
“I awoke to see a young dude sitting on the floor in the lotus position, stoned. Nothing unusual about that except for the blood dripping from his wrists”. But this was no ordinary junkie. This was a music legend.
The star of this spine-chilling scene was none other than Jim Morrison of The Doors.
So when James sought help and basically saved Morrison's life, he returned the favor worthy of a rock star. He offered James some acid, and they took a trip together. This didn’t end tragically, but something else was about to.
In LA, James introduced Greg Reeves to his old pal, Young.
The two wanted to join Young—who made it to stardom while James was behind bars—and they wanted a piece of his newly formed supergroup. In a cruel twist, James’ old buddy and new buddy got along better, and they left him behind. As Reeves joined Young’s group, James felt abandoned and alone.
Just as he was about to fall into a depression, a man named Jay Sebring, who James described as “a cat who’d made millions selling hair products”, agreed to invest in his music. In the meantime, Sebring invited James to a hot networking event—a party at Roman Polanski’s house. This was 1969, and he was throwing a party for his wife Sharon Tate.
I think you all know where this is headed—but you might not know James' part of the story.
James recalls the story as “There was gonna be a big party and Jay didn’t want us to miss it”. He then added that he was suffering from a horrible hangover and there was no way he could make it to the party.
Ever seen a man whose life was saved by a hangover? Well, while James was at home having his hangover-related existential crisis, his investor and all the other guests at the party had been a part of one of the most brutal scandals in US history.
After he almost ended up as one of the Manson Family's victims, James had another wake-up call.
From 1970 to 1973, he had small gigs with bands, from Salt’N’Pepper to working on Bruce Palmer’s solo album. He filled in when he was needed, wrote songs for big bands, and tried forming another band—Hot Lips. Unfortunately, he wasn’t getting the attention he wanted, so once again, he decided to switch it up a bit.
In 1973, after seeing no success in a band, James decided to give the solo route a try.
Upon signing with A&M Records, he released his first single ever: “My Mama”. Though it didn't quite catch on in the States, it became quite a hit in Europe. For Rick James, that was the foot in the door that he needed.
James finally had a hit song on his resume, and he couldn’t wait to enjoy the perks. While he toured clubs in Europe to further promote the song, he met a Swedish girl whom he called “freedom herself”. However, things immediately spiraled out of control.
He didn’t know it then, but it was about to get a lot more freakier.
1981 was a career milestone for James, because that's when he released his biggest hit ever:
“Super Freak”. But, believe it or not, it almost never saw the light of day. He nearly scrapped "Super Freak" because he thought it was too cheesy. Luckily, his band members convinced him not to. Seeing as the song spent 10 weeks in the Top 40 and has been widely sampled ever since, I think they made the right call.
Shortly after the release and success of "Super Freak," James knocked on MTV's doors to present them with a music video for the song. But they weren't prepared for what James had brought them. In spite of the dashing success of the song, MTV refused to show the video—apparently, it was too vulgar even for them. Meanwhile, James called the network channel “racist” for turning the video down.
In terms of his love life, James read some good news in the papers.
One day, he read an interview where actress Linda Blair called him “sexy”, and he immediately took action. He reached out to her, they wined and dined for a while, and by 1982, James and Blair were dating. They were going strong—but also light-speed fast.
It was only a matter of time before their love went up in flames.
Of course, after rising high, the couple fell down pretty badly. The news of Blair becoming pregnant shook the two. The situation was even worse for James, since he only learned about the baby after it was long gone. He said that "I loved Linda and it hurt me that she would choose to abort our child without even wanting to talk to me about it first”.
This experience scarred James—and he tried to heal in the best way he knew how.
As we expected, the two ended their relationship—only leaving a heartbroken musician behind them. Soon after, James released a song called “Cold Blooded” which explored his relationship with Blair. He described the song as “It was about how Linda could freeze my blood”.
Sadly, writing a song about his pain wasn’t enough to ease it—so he tried something a lot more dangerous.
James struggled with addiction and substance abuse for years.
Still, in the 80s, his problem upgraded to another level, and he was starting to lose control. On the other hand, he was a superstar with no privacy. Therefore, he had to come up with creative methods to hide his dark secret.
James indeed had one simple life hack to keep doing what he enjoyed while staying out of the public eye and the news.
He often smoked you-know-what in his Beverly Hills mansion, yet he always put aluminum foil on his windows so that nobody would be able to see what was going on inside the house. Only if he’d spent the same energy to overcome his problem…
Even though he had a system working well, James knew that this had to stop.
He decided to ask for advice—and he reached out to someone who'd been through the same thing. And, since this was Rick James, that person just happened to be extremely famous: Ray Charles was the man from whom James sought advice about staying clean.
Unfortunately, the answer he got wasn’t helpful. Indeed, it was the opposite.
During their conversation, Charles admitted that he had nothing to offer when it comes to giving good advice. As if this wasn’t disappointing enough, Charles added, “I cut all my big hits when I was high”. That was exactly the WRONG thing to tell Rick James.
As it turned out, no one in James’ close circle enjoyed the same lifestyle—in fact, one particular person despised what James was doing. That someone was actress Debbie Allen, who confronted James about it.
She screamed at him and even sat on top of him so he couldn’t escape her. She screamed, “Don’t you see how blind you are to all the things sapping your soul”.
After the impromptu intervention, Allen made James promise to get clean. How do you think that went?
As James put it, “I broke that promise later that night”. He broke the promise numerous times after that night too—until his body couldn’t take it anymore. One spring day in 1984, one of James’ friends found him unconscious in his suburban home, and they took him to the hospital.
He couldn't move for days, let alone make any music.
After that incident, it was all downhill.
Five years passed by and James continued to produce music, but this time his music was not getting the attention it once did. After James’ 11th album—and its lack of commercial success—he had to say goodbye to his deal with Warner Bros. He had already struggled with personal issues, but he added some career troubles to the list in 1989.
Luckily, every time he fell, someone extended an arm to him.
This time, the arm belonged to MC Hammer—well, in a roundabout way at least. Hammer's smash hit “U Can’t Touch This” sampled the opening riff from “Super Freak,” but there was just one problem: He didn't give James any credit.
Thankfully, this was one battle that Rick James could win: He sued Hammer for the songwriting credit and ended up winning a Grammy Award for Best R&B song—for a song he wrote a decade prior.
In the midst of a highly unstable career, James met a 17-year-old party animal named Tanya Hijazi.
Neither of them realized what they were getting themselves into. The 41-year-old James felt a spark when he saw Hijazi, and despite their age difference, the two started dating in 1990. They were absolutely not good for each other.
On August 2, 1991, James and Hijazi ended up in every newspaper in the country—for a disturbing reason. Authorities busted them for doing unspeakable things to a 24-year-old woman.
Courts later discovered that they kept her in their household against her wishes for days—and that was among the least of their crimes. The two had earned a notorious reputation—and somehow they kept doing bizarre things.
Somehow, James and Hijazi got out of the incident by only paying their bail.
A year after, in 1992, they started acting strangely around a music executive. The strange behavior quickly turned into something more chilling. Once again, this woman found herself trapped in James's home, suffering savage beatings.
Of course, this time there was no getting out—they had to face the consequences for their cruelty.
Once again, James was behind bars, and this time, his lover joined him too.
Hijazi served two years—James spend a bit longer—but their love stayed strong. Right after the officers signed their release papers, the two signed their marriage papers. In 1996, they made it official and tied the knot.
James thought there would be luck in marriage—but what he really needed was luck for his career.
After his highly publicized incidents, James got back on the horse and released an album in 1997.
Of course, things would never be the same for him, and he knew it. His album—Urban Rapsody—didn’t do well in the charts. However, James kept his head above water, making appearances here and there. He even participated in a documentary series in 1998, where he discussed his roller-coaster life.
He was mentally not ready to give up on his career, but physically…it was a different story.
In 1998, James scored a couple of concerts, yet he overlooked this one thing about himself—his deteriorating health—when he said yes to the idea. During one of his concerts, he suffered a minor stroke.
The 50-year-old musician went into surgery because of a blood vessel rupture. The doctor named the cause as a “rock ‘n’ roll neck,” from “the repeated rhythmic whiplash motion of the head and neck". Despite the fun name, it left a serious mark on James’ health.
For the following years, James stayed out of the spotlight.
While he seemed forgotten by some people, some didn’t miss the chance to pay tribute to him. Dave Chappelle was on the latter team, and he asked James to participate in his show for a segment dedicated to him. Chappelle not only resurrected James’ career, but he also resurfaced his famous catchphrase, "I'm Rick James, b****".
He was back on the map—but it wouldn't be for long.
Even though he wasn’t ready to jump back into the studio for an album, James still wanted to produce some music. The perfect opportunity came when his old buddy/lover Teena Marie offered to do a duet with him.
It was Marie’s comeback album, and it was supposed to be James’ comeback song—but sadly, Rick James was out of comebacks this time.
On August 6, 2004, James's caretaker made a disturbing discovery: At just 56 years, Rick James was found dead on the floor in his home.
Immediately, everyone began wondering about what caused his demise. There were numerous rumors—not surprisingly, most of them were related to substance use. However, his publicist released a statement telling the world that Rick James died of natural causes.
But while Rick James filled his life with works and stories worthy of a five lifetime, he still had one more thing on his bucket list.
During his final years, James was working on his autobiography—The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak. It was bitter for his loved ones to see that he didn’t get to finish the book, but luckily, Colossus Books finished the job for him. Even better, music journalist and biographer David Ritz published another version, so that James's autobiography would “reflect how the musician wanted himself portrayed”.
If you think you read some crazy stories here, you should check out the full memoirs.
If nothing else, they'll prove that Rick James was exactly what he said he was: A Super Freak.
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