Happy Black History Month! February has traditionally been the month when the contributions, traditions, and historical facts about African Americans are celebrated the most. This year's Black History Month started off a little heavy with the passing of Soul Train founder Don Cornelius. All month here at Backbeat, we'll be celebrating an iconic music figure in the world of black music. Today, we bring you Rick James, bitch!
Born James Ambrose Johnson on February 1, Rick James grew up singing on corners with the neighborhood boys in Buffalo, New York. Dropping out of high school at the age of fifteen to avoid the draft, James joined the Naval Reserve but left after one year because it interfered with his music.
Out of fear of arrest, James fled to Toronto and began performing under the name Big Jimmy before joining with Nick St. Nicholas to form the Mynah Birds. The single "The Mynah Birds Song" was released by Columbia Records in Canada. After a fight with the group's manager over money, James was turned in for going AWOL, and he spent a year in naval prison.
After many monikers (he was Rick Matthews in rock band Salt and Pepper with Greg Reeves), the singer-guitarist released his 1978 debut, Come Get It!, which featured his smash hit "Mary Jane," under the name Rick James.
He scored a ton of number one hits throughout his career including, "Super Freak," "You and I," and "Mary Jane." From a personal perspective James's drug addictions and antics left his his monstrous career riddled with arrests and tales of burning hookers with crack pipes.
These episodes were later described in great detail by James himself along with Charlie Murphy (whom he became friends with while Murphy was working security for his famous brother) and Dave Chappelle in the now famous comedy sketches that immortalized the catch phrases: "I'm Rick James, bitch!" and "Cocaine is a helluva drug."
James changed the game for black music and black culture. Not only did he write and produce for artists who would go on to blaze the path of their own careers (Teena Marie, anyone?) he garnered and cultivated a love affair with the dangerous, the beautiful, and the destructive.
On August 4, 2004, James was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment of an apparent pulmonary failure. His vocal presence was completely unmatched at the time and songs like "Ghetto Life" continued to paint the vivid picture of African American culture and lifestyle.
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Happy belated, Mr. James! May your legacy live on with the sounds of blackness.