Despite a Frightening Collapse, Funkstar Rick James Won't Let Anyone Rein Him in
Hyperbole notwithstanding, James might just be capable of making $4 million while he's asleep. In the past five years he has written, arranged and produced six albums that have sold almost nine million copies. Last year's Street Songs (which included his No. 1 single Super Freak) sold four million, and his latest LP, Throwin' Down, is heading for platinum.
To James, this staggering success is perplexing at times. "You smoke a joint and write a song and next thing you know you've got a check in the mail," he marvels, sitting at a mahogany desk in his house a few miles from the Buffalo slums where he grew up stealing cars and singing on street corners. "People rob banks and kill for a hundred dollars, and here come hundreds of thousands for something that took a few minutes. I think that's funny as hell."
There was nothing funny about what happened last Aug. 12, however. Alarmed at Rick's enervated state after a couple of months on the road, two doctors urged James not to take the stage that night at Dallas' Reunion Arena. But with a capacity crowd of 19,000 awaiting him, the sequined, spandexed, space-booted star went on and was halfway through a typically high-voltage performance when he doubled over with stabbing abdominal pains and collapsed unconscious on the stage. He tried to perform again after a week's recuperation but eventually canceled the last six weeks of the tour and a European concert swing as well.
What exactly happened to him remains a mystery. Professing hospital "paranoia," James has yet to sign in for the two or three days of further tests his doctors have recommended. The pains have retreated, but he continues to wake up tired after 12 to 14 hours of sleep. "I don't have my usual vavoom," he confesses.
While professing a faith in "the Creator" that makes every negative a positive ("I believe everything happens under God's plan anyway"), James senses he may be undergoing his first mid-life crisis. Rick allows only that he's "younger than Chuck Berry and older than Michael Jackson," but at 31 he is a one-man music machine. When he isn't producing and writing albums for his backup quintet, the Stone City Band, he's penning the title track for Dan Aykroyd's new comedy flick, Dr. Detroit. And when he's not busy introducing discoveries like white soul singer Teena Marie and saxophonist Bobby Millitello, he's promoting a pair of designers whose racy sportswear wowed him in Hawaii.
At dinner with friends one recent evening, James spoke eagerly of bringing Broadway's Dreamgirls to Buffalo, opening a soul food restaurant in Hollywood, adding a party room and recording studio to his house, and buying a yacht, a beach house and a seventh car. Meanwhile Richard (Uptown Saturday Night) Wesley is writing a screenplay about a black rock star who rises from the ghetto. The film's co-producer and star? Rick James, of course. "I've got a million things to worry about," he says. "I've got 30, 40 people's lives in my hands. And I'm basically a lazy person. I'm really not tailored for responsibility."
Harder to handle are "chicks coming on looking for Rick James," he complains. "I guess that's the price you have to pay to be a star. But it's absolutely, totally getting to me." There are exceptions, of course. In an interview accompanying a topless pictorial in Out magazine, actress Linda Blair, 23, revealed that she found James "very sexy." Rick, who was shown the piece by a member of his retinue, returned the compliment through an intermediary. And before you can say "bicoastal blind date," they winged it to New York for a multinight stand. That was last month. Now they talk daily and plan future assignations. "I had learned very well to be single," Linda says, "but Rick turned my head around." The feeling, apparently, is mutual. "She's my baby," James responds. "I really care for her deeply. She had a lot of hard times, like myself, and managed to rise above them."
Rick's hard times began as one of seven children born to James Johnson, a foundry worker, and his wife, Betty. His father deserted the family when James—as his birth certificate reads—was 6. But Betty found a way to cope. She ran numbers for 21 years, and in the mid-'60s made as much as $1,500 a week, with monthly bonuses up to $10,000.
The Johnsons moved to an all-white housing project when James was about 8. "We had to fight our way home from school every day," he recalls, but this came naturally to him and his siblings because their mother "taught us never to avoid confrontations. She used to whip our asses real good. She called it discipline. Today they call it child abuse. It took me a long time to realize there was a lot of love in there."
Not surprisingly, James grew up fast. His older brother, Roy, an attorney, says, "He probably lost his virginity when he was 8 or 9." In high school, he lettered in basketball and football, being dubbed Tippy Toes Johnson for his running style. But "laziness," he says, made him prefer the spontaneity of writing songs and playing in bands. Lying about his age, he joined the Navy reserves at 15 in the belief it would keep him out of Vietnam. But skipping reserve meetings got him placed on active duty, assigned to a ship bound for Vietnam in 1966.
James went AWOL and headed for Toronto, where "a whole new world opened up." He began singing with future members of Steppenwolf and Buffalo Springfield and formed a band called the Mynah Birds with Neil Young. Since he was on the lam, he adopted a girlfriend's last name for an alias and briefly sang as "Ricky James Matthews."
Motown signed the Mynah Birds in 1971 but told James he'd have to face the military music first. So Rick did eight months in a Navy brig in Brooklyn, breaking out at one point with three other inmates only to surrender a second time two months later. Jail produced one positive effect: "I went in there a pitiful form of human being, and I came out 180 pounds of rock."
Afterward he wrote songs for Motown and bummed around the world, occasionally calling his brother Roy collect with urgent requests for money. Along the way, there was a failed marriage and two children by another woman, none of which he will discuss.
James' breakthrough began in 1978. Returning to the U.S., he settled into his mother's house on Rich Street (since renamed Rick James Street by the city of Buffalo) and wrote You and I, his first hit single, and the rest of his debut album, Come Get It. Overnight he was in a new league: "In 1978 I spent $1 million on cars, wine, women and booze." And cocaine. And Quaaludes. One year and three albums later he had hepatitis and $1 million in debts.
So James gave up hard drugs ("I don't miss them, but I'll always smoke ganja") and pulled himself together, realizing that "I can't live on this fame shit." Sticking to soul—or what James calls "funk 'n' roll"—he has cultivated a largely black audience. "I've got hundreds of rock 'n' roll songs stuck away on tape, and if I put them out I'd make triple the money I'm making now. But I'd lose my black base, and if you lose that base it's like losing part of your color. That's the real thing. You can't forsake it."
You can't forsake your roots either, James figures, which is why he returned to Buffalo in 1979 after a year in California. He is surrounded by family—five siblings are on his staff—and friends, from whom he demands perfection. As he prepares to resume recording, living in Buffalo may be his best therapy. "Ten minutes from here, I'm back in the ghetto," he says. "I can't hang out as loose as I used to, but I can still go down Jefferson Avenue and look in the faces of winos, pimps and junkies, all the things I'm made of."