Soul Revisited: Remembering Rick James

On this day in 2004 the King of Punk-Funk Rick James passed away at the age of 56 at his home in Los Angeles.

After spending two years in prison and being released in 1996, James appeared to be finally turning his life around, partially due to his declining health, as well as his desire to continue performing and making music. At the time of his death James was writing his autobiography, recording new music that would be released posthumously, as well as touring with friend the great Teena Marie. Despite his personal troubles Rick James created some of the most infectious funk music ever recorded, with millions across the world still finding enjoyment in his delicious brand of Punk-Funk.

James Ambrose Johnson, Jr born in Buffalo, New York where he grew up into a rebellious teenager getting involved in petty crimes and dropping out of school. To avoid the draft, James lied about his age to join the US Navy but after missing Reserve sessions he was ordered to Vietnam; to avoid fighting, fled to Toronto befriending musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. He soon went to Detroit where Stevie Wonder reportedly gave Johnson the name “Ricky James” and began working with The Miracles and The Spinners. But it would be a return trip to Buffalo that would ignite James’ career when he formed the Stone City Band featuring the incredible talents of Levi Ruffin, Tom McDermott, Lanise Hughes, Nate Hughes, Kenny Hawkins, Daniel LeMelle, Jerry Livingston and Jerry Rainer. The group were signed to Motown, regaining the faltering label, whilst becoming funk legends in the process.

Rick James will be rightly remembered as one of the great soul/funk stars of all-time. His music, his performances and his persona have lived on after his young passing, a testament to his musical genius. As we remember the life of Rick James, we’ve taken a look back at some of his finest productions:

 

Mary Jane (1978, Come Get It!)

One of James’ earliest releases, this song was at first controversial, at least for those who actually knew what Mary Jane meant – reportedly, several Motown executives were oblivious to the obvious statement about marijuana use. It’s a laid back groove, one similar to the Mary Jane Girls’ ‘All Night Long’ that James would produce a few years later. Tom McDermott’s guitar is exquisite throughout, as is James handling the vocals beautifully.

Bustin’ Out (1979, Bustin’ Out of L Seven)

This is a truly funky piece of music. Not as fast-paced as his later work on Street Songs, it follows in the mould created by the earlier kings of funk, Sly Stone, James Brown and George Clinton. The Stone City Band demonstrate their ability to craft a funky groove; the slap-bass, the rhythm guitar, the synths, and the horns all combine to create a piece of funky wonder. Vocally James is superb, and the backing chant is infectious to anyone and everyone.

Big Time (1980, Garden of Love)

Never one for modesty, ‘Big Time’ tells the story of James’ career, being adored by his fans and, importantly, his female fans. The music is, as you would expect, delightful. The opening keys give way to another wonderful horn arrangement, as well as some great harmony from James’ female backing singers.

Give It To Me Baby (1981, Street Songs)

Arguably James’ finest recording, ‘Give It To Me Baby’ is one of the best later-era Motown songs released. The Stone City Band lay down that infectious groove; the horn arrangement is stunning; and James vocal is sexy yet funky. The Temptations’ bass singer Melvin Franklin (James’ Uncle, no less) features as well, applying his trademark bass voice to the funky beat. The bass-line is rumoured to have been lifted by none other than Quincy Jones for Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ a few years later, an it does bare an uncanny resemblance to the Street Songs opener. It’s simply magical, and sets the tone well for the rest of the Street Songs album.

Super Freak (1981, Street Songs)

Another one of James’ most well known songs, and most sampled songs. James sings his vocal in mock-English accent to give the song it’s freaky nature; with the lyric telling the risqué story of a girl he’s met, a girl that ‘you wouldn’t take home to Mother’ no less. Melvin Franklin is joined on backing vocals by fellow Temptations Richard Street and Otis Williams, leading to one of the most memorable shout-outs on vinyl: ‘Temptations SING!’

Ghetto Life (1981, Street Songs)

To be fair, the entire Street Songs album could have made this list. But ‘Ghetto Life’ is perhaps the funkiest song on the LP, opening with drums and Tom McDermott’s delicious guitar. The synths and horns work in tandem, and James tells the story of the being raised in the ghetto as a young man. Melvin Franklin once again makes an appearance, with his booming bass voice present throughout. Overshadowed by ‘Give It To Me Baby’ and ‘Super Freak’, ‘Ghetto Life’ is equally as brilliant as both.

(She Blew My Mind) 69 Times (1982, Thowin’ Down)

Not necessarily the most family-friendly Rick James song, but then what is? That said, the subject matter of this tune seems relatively platonic to some of the music that followed it, but nonetheless at the time was controversial. It also marks the move away from the big funk sound of The Stone City Band towards the more synth-orientated sounds of the eighties. Nonetheless, it’s another tasty bit of punk-funk.

17 (1984, Reflections)

17’ is, however, a product of the eighties, but actually remains less-dated than you might imagine. It tells the story of ‘a little girl… with a look of curiosity’ who recognised James, who, inevitably, asked her back to his hotel; she may have only been 17, ‘but she was sexy’. Whether this is based on a true story its unknown, but James stresses that although they spent the night together ‘we never even touched’. Despite his musical genius, James’ brains rarely were used when it came to women.

You Turn Me On (1985, Glow)

Taken from the smash Glow, this song is mid-tempo ballad that lacked most of the freakery that had dominated James’ earlier recordings, but nonetheless is groovy piece of music that doesn’t succumb entirely to the eighties obsession with synthesised sounds – it even features a real horn section, a rarity for soul during this time!

 

Bonus Tracks: Rick James Productions

Rick James may have appeared to have ego issues, as would any major star, but he was never afraid to help the careers of his fellow Motown stars, helping to craft some of their biggest hits. Here we’ve chosen our favourites:

The Stone City Band – Ladies Choice (1983, Meet The Stone City Band) 

This is one of our all time favourites here on TFSR; a staple of Haff’s Hot Tracks. In an attempt to ride the success of Rick James, Teena Marie and The Temptations’ ‘Standing on the Top’, James produced ‘Meet The Stone City Band’ album encouraged to do so by Berry Gordy himself. The album is pretty funky, featuring classic throwdown from the ‘Bad Boys of Funk’, but without the name ‘Rick James’ on the cover the album seemed to get a bit lost. That said, this song is incredible: with the band doing what they do best, James working his magic in the studio, this is one of the forgotten Motown greats of the eighties. It even features a tasty little vibe solo from none other than Roy Ayers, adding another dimension to this epic production. Take a listen now, you will not regret it.

Mary Jane Girls – All Night Long (1983, The Mary Jane Girls)

Another group that Rick James launched the career of was the Mary Jane Girls. The more eagle-eared amongst you will recognise the bass-line of this song to be the same as Keni Burke’s 1982 smash ‘Risin’ To The Top’. Backed with this wicked bass-line, James produces the voices of the Girls beautifully, making this a perfect summer-driving song.

Teena Marie – I’m Just A Sucker For Your Love (1979, Wild & Peaceful)

When Teena Marie was signed to Motown in 1976 Rick James was preparing to work with the Queen of Motown Diana Ross on a new album. Sadly for Miss Ross, James decided to work with Teena Marie instead, producing and writing on her debut album Wild & Peaceful, one of the better albums Motown released in the late seventies. On ‘I’m Just A Sucker For Love’ James himself duets with his female protégée.  Motown, however, were so concerned however that a white woman singing in such a soulful manner would result in a backlash from their African-American audiences that they did not release a picture of Marie on the album, leading many fans to conclude the seemingly obvious: Teena Marie was black. Not so, of course, and Motown’s worries were unfounded as it thankfully turned out, Marie was welcomed wholeheartedly into the soul community, remaining a firm favourite in the African-American community.

The Temptations – Standing on the Top (1982, Reunion)

This is another firm favourite at TFSR. In 1982, after lengthy negotiations, original members of The Temptations David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks reunited with remaining originals Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin (who was Rick James’ Uncle), along with then-current Tempts Dennis Edwards, Richard Street and Glenn Leonard. To mark this occasion Berry Gordy arranged for James to produce the lead single ‘Standing On The Top’, an epic ten-minute funk masterpiece sampling Parliament’s ‘We Want The Funk!’ lyric. The rest of the album paled in comparison to this brilliant production, but it was not enough to keep the seven-man incarnation of The Temptations together. Old conflicts remerged when the Tempts went on tour, with Otis and Melvin deciding to end the configuration and go back to the five-man incarnation featuring Leonard, Street and Edwards after the tour. The song, however, remains a favourite amongst fans, one that Dennis Edwards’s Temptations Revue continue to perform today.

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George Haffenden
Written by George Haffenden
Brought up on a healthy diet of soul and funk, Haff's dream was to become the first British member of The Temptations. Realising that this dream could never be realised, he is now the curator of The Funk & Soul Revue.