Rick James Biography

rick jamesClaim to Fame: Singer ("Super Freak" Funk Legend)
DOB: February 1, 1948
Date of Death: August 6, 2004
Diabetes Type: Unknown

Rick James was born James Ambrose Johnson, Jr. in Orchard Park, New York into the home of an autoworker and a dancer. He was one of eight children and a nephew to Melvin Franklin, bass vocalist of the Temptations. James father was abusive and left when he was seven.

His mother, Mabel Johnson, was once a Katherine Dunham dancer who had worked at some of Harlem's most prestigious nightclubs. To support her family, she worked as a cleaning woman and ran numbers on the side for a local organized crime racket, all so she could send her children to private school. James went to a Catholic school for a time, but even the discipline of the school did not keep him from cutting class and delving into petty crime. It was a talent show he entered in high school that finally provided him with the focus his life needed. The connection with his crowd inspired James to make music his lifelong pursuit.

When James was not yet 16, he dropped out of school permanently. To avoid being drafted, he joined the U.S. Naval Reserves. The bimonthly, weekend trainings were difficult to keep up with due to the increasing success with his first band, the Duprees. James was soon told to report for active duty in 1964. Instead, he fled to Canada.

James continued his music career in Toronto and formed his first band called the Sailor Boys but they soon changed their name to the Mynah Birds. The group released their first single Mynah Bird Hop in 1965. The Mynah Birds were formed with Nick St. Nicholas, who would later go on to become part of the successful California rock band Steppenwolf. Canadian guitarist Neil Young was also a Mynah Bird for a time, and the group became well-known on the Canadian rock scene. The band was financed by an ambitious British rock impresario, and eventually they secured a contract with Motown Records. After recording an album, the Mynahs were dropped when the label found out James was a wanted man in the United States because of his AWOL status.

James gave himself up to authorities, but then escaped from a naval brig. He eventually served out his sentence and returned to Toronto, where Canadian authorities then arrested him on stolen-property charges. He served more jail time there before being deported.

Motown recognized James's talent and hired him as a songwriter in the early 1970s. He grew unhappy with the "hit factory" nature of the process, however, and quit. For some time after that, he indulged his growing taste for illicit substances by working as a drug courier. Eventually he was able to record an album on his own, and took it to Motown, who re-signed him as a recording artist. That LP, Come Get It, and its first single, "You and I," established James as a solid singer/songwriter able to turn the basics of funk into a catchy pop tune. At the height of the disco era, "You and I" was the number one R&B single, and the album achieved double-platinum status.

James helped craft hits for numerous other Motown acts, but it was his 1981 hit "Super Freak" that earned him millions. The song sold four million copies and crossed over to the white pop audience. The album Street Songs sold three million copies, and another single, "Give It to Me Baby," was also wildly successful. James was tagged the King of Funk Punk.

In 1985 he launched the record career of comedian Eddie Murphy, producing the ill-advised "Party All the Time"; though it reached number two on the charts, Murphy would soon direct his ambitions to acting in feature films. James received Grammy nominations for his extensive production work for these and other artists. Over time, however, James's drug abuse began to undermine his creativity. He became withdrawn, and finally stopped writing music.

James made the news in the early 1990s for assaulting two women. He was sentenced to two years in prison and was ordered by the court to pay a $2 million fine. James served out his sentence in California's Folsom Prison, where he converted to Islam, joined Narcotics Anonymous, began writing his autobiography, and finally returned to songwriting.

James was released from prison in 1995 and soon after attempted a comeback, but health issues would prevent him from doing so. At a concert in 1997 in Denver, Colorado, James suffered a mild stroke that would mark the end of his career.

Rick James died August 6, 2004 at the age of 56 after suffering from pulmonary and cardiac failure. James had other health issues such as diabetes and the requirement of a pacemaker that were also listed as factors in his death. In addition to this, there were nine different drugs in Jamess system at the time of his death. His death was later ruled as accidental.

Find other musicians with diabetes.

Last Modified Date: September 10, 2015

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by Brenda Bell
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