Rick James: 1948-2004
Although the Buffalo native's death at 56 is still a mystery—an autopsy was inconclusive pending toxicology results—his family believes James, who wore a pacemaker and suffered a stroke in 1998, died of a heart attack. His contribution to music is clearer—some would even say precise. "He fills the gap between Parliament and Prince," says music biographer and "Sexual Healing" lyricist David Ritz. James complemented his hit songs—"Super Freak," the equally subtle "Give It to Me Baby" and "Fire and Desire"—with outrageous stage getups and long braids. Says godfather of funk George Clinton: "He was the shot in the arm for funk and for Motown."
It may have helped that when James sang of debauchery and excess, his voice—mocking, pleading, whining, insinuating—resonated with an authority that perhaps only personal experience could provide. A 12-year cocaine addiction eventually caused his career to explode spectacularly and publicly: In 1993 he and then-girlfriend Tanya Hijazi were convicted of assaulting a woman and furnishing cocaine to another woman. Jail was "a curse that turned into a blessing," James, who served three years and cleaned up his act, told PEOPLE in 1998.
James's name had been popping up again of late, thanks to Dave Chappelle's running Rick James impersonation on his Comedy Central show. "Everything was falling into place for him," says Ty. James, who had recently finished his memoirs and a new album, couldn't resist planning one last bash: His detailed funeral instructions included an Aug. 11 public viewing at L.A.'s Forest Lawn cemetery and an Aug. 12 memorial service. "My father wanted a party instead of a funeral," says Ty. "He always said he felt he'd lived two or three lives. He was so fulfilled."