Singer, songwriter, musician and record producer Rick James (born in 1948, died in 2004) played in various bands during the early 1960s to the late 1970s, including the Canadian R&B group The Mynah Birds, before launching a successful solo career with Motown's Gordy label. His debut solo album, “Come Get It” (1978), received platinum certification from RIAA. He gained even more commercial success with the No. 1 hit album “Street Songs” (1981), which went triple platinum in the U.S. Other hit albums included “Fire it Up” (1979), “Garden of Love” (1980), “Throwin' Down” (1982) and “Cold Blooded” (1983). After leaving the Gordy label, James recorded two albums with Reprise Records in the late 1980s, but suffered a career setback because of drugs and legal problems. Prior to his death, James released a comeback album in 1997 titled “Urban Rapsody.” During the height of his success, James recorded a number of R&B hit singles, including “You and I” (#1), “Give It to Me Baby” (#1), “Super Freak” (#3), “Cold Blooded” (#1), “Glow” (#50) and “Loosey's Rap” (featuring Roxanne Shanté, #1). “Super Freak” received a Grammy nomination.
In the 1990s, James made headlines with his personal life. He became addicted to crack cocaine and was arrested several times on drug charges. In 1993, he and his then-companion, Tanya Hijazi, were convicted of assaulting music executive Mary Sauger and 24-year-old Frances Alley. He was sent to Folsom Prison in California from 1994 to 1996 to pay for the crime, while Hijazi served 15 months.
James and Hijazi were married from 1997 to 2002. They had been together since 1986 and had one son. James also had two kids from prior relationships.
Childhood and Family:
Rick James was born James Ambrose Johnson Jr. on February 1, 1948, in Buffalo, New York. The third of eight children born to an autoworker and a former vaudeville dancer, he was raised in a strict Catholic family by his single mother after his father abandoned him and his siblings.
Rick developed a love for music at an early age and grew up idolizing Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and The Temptations, where his uncle Melvin Franklin was the bass vocalist. He became involved in street activity and dropped out of school at age 15. After leaving school, he joined the Navy, but became a deserter a year later when he went to Canada to pursue music.
Rick began living with Tanya Hijazi in 1986. The couple welcomed their first child, a son named Tazman, in 1992. They eventually married on December 24, 1997, but divorced in 2002. Rick also had two illegitimate children born in the 1970s, Ty and Rick James, Jr.
On August 6, 2004, Rick was found dead in his Burbank, California, apartment by his caretaker. Although an autopsy revealed illegal drugs, the official cause of death was a heart attack. He was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo.
You and I
Using the stage name Big Jimmy, 16-year-old Rick James flew to Toronto, Ontario, after abandoning the Navy and joined his first band, Mynah Birds. Formerly known as Sailorboys, the R&B band was fronted by Jimmy Livingstone and also included guitarist Ian Goble, drummer Rick Cameron, organist Goldy McJohn, bass player Nick St. Nicholas, and James. They released a single called “The Mynah Birds Hop” for Columbia Records of Canada in early 1965, but it flopped. Around the same time, St. Nicholas left the band and was replaced by bassist Bruce Palmer.
Along with Palmer, James then formed a new version of The Mynah Birds, with guitarists Tom Morgan and Xavier Taylor, and drummer Rick Mason. In early 1966, they auditioned for Motown Records and scored a seven year deal with the label. However, Morgan left the band and was replaced by Neil Young. The band had recorded many tracks when James was arrested because he had deserted the Navy. Motown subsequently postponed their recordings and Young and Palmer left the band after James’ arrest.
After spending a year in jail, James returned to Toronto and put together a new lineup for The Mynah Birds in early 1967 with bass player Neil Lillie (Neil Merryweather). The band returned to Detroit and recorded a new version of James and Neil Young's “It's My Time.” However, the band disbanded soon after. In early 1968, using an assumed name, James returned to Motown and became a songwriter and producer. During this time, he had the opportunity to work with Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, and The Spinners.
James relocated to Los Angeles in late 1968 and founded a new band called Salt and Pepper, with drummer Steve Rumph from T.I.M.E and Michael Rummans from the Yellow Payges. This time, he assumed the pseudonym Rick Matthews. The band's lineup later included Coffi Hall, guitarist Dave Burt and keyboardist Ed Roth. Bassist Ron Johnson joined the band after the departure of Chris Sarns and they recorded a demo for Atlantic Records.
In 1971, James and Ed Roth appeared in Bruce Palmer's debut album “The Cycle is Complete.” They then returned to Toronto and joined the band Heaven and Earth, whose members also included guitarist Stan Endersby, bass player Denny Gerrard and drummer Pat Little. They recorded two singles with the band called “Big Showdown” and “Don't You Worry.” Heaven and Earth, without Little, were then united with the local band Milestone to form Great White Cane, which also included horn players Bob Doughty and Ian Kojima, guitarist Paul C Saenz, drummer Norman Wellbanks and keyboardist John Cleveland Hughes. The band recorded an album for Lion Records in Los Angeles in March 1972, but broke up later that summer.
Following a number of years playing bass with various groups, James again signed to Motown as an artist, producer and songwriter in the late 1970s. His solo debut album, “Come Get It,” was released on April 20, 1978, under Motown's Gordy records. Produced by James, the album peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard 200. The single “You and I” spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart and went to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978. The song also charted at No. 3 on the disco chart and broke into the U.K. Singles chart at No. 46. The follow up single, “Mary Jane” (1978), which he composed with keyboardist Billy Nunn, peaked at No. 3 on the R&B chart and No. 41 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Come Get It” was eventually certified platinum by RIAA.
James released the sophomore effort, “Bustin' Out of L Seven,” in 1979. The album rose to No. 2 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and No. 16 on the Billboard 200. It spawned the hit singles “High on You Love Suite” (#12), “Bustin' Out” (#8) and “Fool on the Street” (#35). The same year, he also launched the album “Fire It Up,” which peaked at No. 5 on the R&B chart and went gold in the U.S. It included the singles “Love Gun” (1979) and “Come into My Life” (1980), which rose to No. 13 and No. 26 on the R&B charts, respectively.
The fourth album, “Garden of Love,” was released in 1980. The album peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and No. 83 on the Billboard 200 and received gold certification from RIAA. The single “Big Time” went to No. 17 on the U.S. R&B and No. 38 on the dance chart. It also charted in the U.K. at No. 41.
James enjoyed a massive success with the album “Street Songs,” which he also produced. Released in April 1981, the album topped the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and charted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. It went triple platinum in the U.S. The first track, “Give It to Me Baby,” spent two weeks at No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, but fared better on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, where it soared to No. 1 and stayed there for five weeks. It also made the top 50 in the U.K. Released on November 5, 1981, the next single, “Super Freak,” which James co-wrote with Alonzo Miller, peaked at No. 3 on the R&B chart and No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for a Grammy Award. The single “Ghetto Life” peaked at No. 38 on the R&B chart. “Give It to Me Baby,” “Super Freak” and “Ghetto Life” also became chart toppers on the U.S. dance charts in early 1981.
In 1982, James launched “Throwin' Down,” which rose to No. 13 on the Billboard 200 and No. 2 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. It also charted at No. 93 on the U.K. Albums chart. The single “Standing on the Top (Part 1),” with The Temptations, went to No. 6 on the U.S. R&B chart and No. 66 on the Billboard Hot 100, while “Dance Wit' Me” peaked at No. 3 and No. 64, respectively. Both singles also charted at No. 53 in the U.K., with the latter also topping No. 7 on the U.S. dance chart. The single “Hard to Get” peaked at No. 15 on the R&B chart. “Throwin' Down” was certified gold by RIAA.
James had his next hit album with “Cold Blooded,” which was launched on July 4, 1983. The album rose to No. 16 on the Billboard 200 and became the artist's next gold record. Written and produced by James, the title track spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100. The single “U Bring the Freak Out” (1983) rose to No. 16 on the U.S. R&B chart. It was followed by the hit R&B single “Ebony Eyes,” featuring Smokey Robinson, which rose to No. 22 on the R&B chart and No. 43 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In 1984, James released his first compilation album called “Reflection.” It peaked at No. 10 on the R&B chart and No. 41 on the Billboard 200. In addition to popular singles (1977 to 1984), the album also contained “17,” “You Turn Me On” and “Oh What a Night (4 Luv).” The first two songs were released as singles in 1984 and peaked at No. 6 and No. 31 on the R&B chart, respectively.
The album “Glow” was released in 1985. It peaked at No. 7 on the U.S. R&B chart and No. 50 on the Billboard 200 and produced the R&B hit singles “Can't Stop” (#10), “Glow” (#5) and “Spend the Night With Me” (#41), with the title track also becoming a chart topper on the U.S. Dance chart. In 1986, James released “The Flag,” which became his last album with Gordy Records. The album went to No. 16 on the R&B chart and No. 95 on the Billboard 200. The single “Sweet And Sexy Thing” peaked at No. 6 on the U.S. R&B chart and No. 4 on the dance chart.
In 1988, James released the studio album “Wonderful” on Reprise Records. It peaked at No. 12 on the R&B chart and yielded the singles “Wonderful” and “Loosey's Rap,” a duet sung with Roxanne Shante. The latter became his fourth No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. His next record with Reprise, “Kickin'” (1989), was only released as a promotional album in the U.K.
After completing a two year prison sentence, James attempted a comeback by releasing a new album called “Urban Rapsody” on October 14, 1997, with a private label. The album peaked at No. 31 on the R&B chart. He also began touring again in 1997, but suffered a stroke after completing a two hour show in Denver's Mammoth Events Center. In 1998, he recorded the song “Love Gravy” on the “South Park Soundtrack” with Ike Turner.
Prior to his death in 2004, James collaborated with Teena Marie on the song “I Git You,” which was included on her 2004 album “La Doña.” He was also working on a new album and an autobiography called “The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Superfreak.” The book was later released in 2007. His album titled “Deeper Still” was also released in 2007 under Stone City Records. It peaked at No. 19 on the R&B chart.
In 2006, Busta Rhymes recorded “In the Ghetto,” featuring James, for his album “The Big Bang.” The song rose to No. 50 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.