1981 Rick James – Super Freak
James Ambrose Johnson Jr. grew up in Buffalo, New York. He played in several bands before joining the US Naval Reserves to avoid the draft. He deserted from the military and moved to Toronto in 1964. He got into a fight and was rescued by Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of Levon and the Hawks (which would later evolve into The Band). He joined them on stage and impressed them enough to get an invitation to join their group, which they renamed The Sailorboys.
Singer Shirley Matthews suggested James begin using the stage name Ricky Matthews, the name of a cousin who had died. His name morphed into Ricky James Matthews and settled into Rick James. The Sailorboys became The Mynah Birds. They even recorded The Mynah Birds Hop for Columbia Records.
Some lineup changes took place, including the addition of future Buffalo Springfield member Bruce Palmer. In 1966, Neil Young joined the group, and they recorded the song I’ve Got You (In My Soul) for Motown Records. The song was never released as a single because it sounded more than a little like the single Little Girl by Van Morrison and Them.
The band’s manager stole the group’s advance money, and when the band complained to Motown, the now ex-manager told Motown that Rick was AWOL and wanted by the US military. Rick was subsequently arrested and went to prison for a year.
Neil had met Stephen Stills in 1965 and he and Bruce decided to go looking for him. They pawned the Mynah’s equipment, bought a hearse, and drove to Los Angeles.After a week, they had given up finding him and decided to drive to San Francisco instead. They got stuck in traffic on Sunset Boulevard. Stephen and Richie Furay were driving the other direction and spotted Neil. They turned around and drove after him until they met up. The net result: Buffalo Springfield.
When Rick got out of prison, he moved to LA and crashed on Stephen’s sofa. He awoke the next morning to find Jim Morrison meditating in the room.
It was a small world back then.
Rick spent the next decade starting and dissolving bands. In 1976, that finally paid off with the formation of the Stone City Band in Buffalo. The group signed with Motown and recorded their first album.
In 1978, Rick recorded his first solo album with the Stone City Band helping with the music. The album sold over two million copies. It contained his first hit single, You And I. The record topped the R&B chart and reached #13 on the Hot 100.
Several more gold records followed. In 1981, Rick released the single Super Freak. The record was just a little too funky for many radio stations, but it topped the Dance Club chart and reached #3 on the R&B chart. The single peaked at #16 on the Hot 100.
Rick’s career peaked and then declined rapidly. His 1989 album was only released in the UK, and in 1990 his label dropped him completely.
His career was reignited that year by MC Hammer when the mega-hit U Can’t Touch This sampled Super Freak. It took a lawsuit, but Rick finally got writing credit for the use of his music.
Rick’s drug use led to complications with the law, leading to imprisonment in the mid-nineties.
Rick struggled with diabetes, suffered at least one major stroke, and a heart attack, and his poor health finally overwhelmed him. He died in 2004.
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