Rick James: Sex, Street Smarts And Success

Street songs from the ghetto to sweet songs in the limo - Rick James is livin' the life he's always dreamed of

June 24, 1982
Rick James
Rick James
Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

SAUSALITO, CA — Rick James Lies sleeping on the plush burgundy velvet seat in the back of the long black limousine. It has been forty-eight hours since he last slept. Nonstop work on his new album, Thrown' Down, and a night spent partying and scheming with Sly Stone have finally taken their toll.

A cassette of Brahms' Concerto no. 1 in D Minor, one of James' favorite pieces of music, fills the rear of the limo – a lullaby for a superstar. Rick James can afford to sleep easy. He is now the most popular black rock & roll star in the world. His last album has sold more than 4 million copies. He is a millionaire many times over. Yes, life has been good to Rick James recently. Let him sleep.

There was something wrong with the little black boy. James Ambrose Johnson Jr. was nervous, hyper, irritable. He couldn't seem to settle down. It was as if something were constantly bothering him. Disruptive was one of the words his mom used to describe him. Mischievous was another, and it was an accurate description of a boy who was always playing tricks on his three brothers and four sisters. Like the time he poured itching powder down his baby sister's back. Or the time he slipped a pearl from his mother's necklace into his brother Roy's ear and his mom had to rush Roy to the hospital to have it removed. Then there were those damned animals. One time he put a hamster in his brother's bed; on another occasion, his mom found the bathtub in their Buffalo, New York, home full of stray dogs.

Mom thought he was crazy. How else to account for this precocious kid who would strut around the house like Superfly Jr., yapping about how he was going to be a star? "I'm going to be rich and famous and real big one of these days," James would say. "I'm going to have a big house and set you out in fur coats."

"What you talkin' about?" his mom would reply. "Get away!"

When James didn't seem to be coming to his senses, she sent him to several psychiatrists. But they all told her the same thing: Betty Gladden's wild son was "bright and brilliant." There was something inside of him that he had to do; he just didn't know what it was yet.

This internal turmoil began to surface in more serious, disturbing ways. At age thirteen, James Johnson started making a habit of stealing Chevies. "Guy's got to have some fun," he would say. "I need a car. I have women on the other side of town. I have to see them. I need to have a car. Just for four hours."

The police in Buffalo didn't see it that way. First they threw him in juvenile hall, and then they put him in jail for seven months. "I was a serious juvenile delinquent," he says today. "I perfected juvenile delinquency. I'm not ashamed of it."

When he wasn't in jail, stealing cars or hustling "hot chicks," James Johnson used to hang out with his gang on the corner of Jefferson and East Ferry streets. They would sing Temptations songs in five- and six-part harmony, and between songs they would try to convince one another that the future held more for them than a life in the ghetto. "We used to do some serious fantasizing," says James Johnson. "It was always the same things. Lots of cars, lots of clothes, lots of women. Being recognized all over the place. Private planes, Lear jets. Tons of women. All that bullshit that never comes true. But this time it did."


'You got to have the money," says James Johnson, who is known today as Rick James. "I got to have it. You see, I have to buy marijuana. I don't buy ounces, I buy pounds. I buy clothes. I don't buy one pair of shoes, I buy thirty or forty pairs. I don't buy one shirt, I buy fifteen or twenty. That's just the way I am. I'm very extravagant." He's talking seriously now; Rick James is very serious about his lifestyle. "I ain't playin' " is how he puts it.

James is stretched out across his double bed in a small room within the Record Plant, a Sausalito recording studio that has been his home for the past four months. A little over a year ago, James wrapped up an album called Street Songs at this same studio. The LP hit the Number Three position on the pop charts, contained the two hit singles "Give It to Me Baby" and "Super Freak" and held the Number One position on the soul charts for some twenty weeks.

James scratches his crotch, then takes a hit from a joint of sinsemilla. He's wearing a pair of baggy green-and-brown camouflage pants and no shirt. His black cornrow braids hang down past his shoulders, a trademark as instantly recognizable as Kiss' makeup or Alice Cooper's ghoulish mug once were. James takes a sip from a bottle of Beck's, then licks his full lips.

Now he's talking about why the cars and the houses and the clothes and all the things that he spends his millions on matter. "What does it matter?" James asks, screwing up his face for a second. "I don't know. I don't have one car, I have five cars. I can't drive five cars, but I like every one of them. And I wanted every one of them. I wanted a house with a swimming pool. I mean, these things I wanted. Always wanted! I wanted a whole fucking closet of fucking clothes. I got to be sharp. Got to be sharp."

Sharp is not the word. Try bad. Rick James is the baddest-looking dude in rock & roll, and don't try to tell him otherwise. Onstage, he shows up in a flash of lights and explosions and dry ice. That larger-than-life head of cornrow braids, dusted with sparkling silver and gold glitter, seems to have a luminosity all its own. His body is sheathed in skintight spandex covered with sequins. A giant serpent wraps itself around his thigh and snakes between his legs, past the bulge at his crotch, like a deadly phallus. And don't forget the knee-high space boots. James is in constant motion, rapping to his fans about love and sex between every song. For "Mary Jane," his tribute to the joys of smoking weed, two towering fabricated joints are brought onto the stage as Rick lights up a real one and takes a few exaggerated hits.

Offstage, he will tell you that "Rick James" is just an act, a character he invented one night in Buffalo when he was living in his mom's house on Rich Street (which the city of Buffalo has renamed Rick James Street). He'll tell you there's a James Johnson and a Rick James, and that the two are completely separate; that James Johnson is really a quiet guy who likes to ride horses at his ranch near Buffalo and write songs and listen to classical music. All of which is true, of course, and all of which is also beside the point. For what's also true is that Rick James and James Johnson have merged, or maybe they were always two sides of a man who can't be contained by a one-dimensional image.

Tonight, as he lies on the bed smoking his joint, munching on popcorn prepared by one of his bodyguards, sipping beer, rapping nonstop about everything from drugs to sex to his troubled childhood, Rick James and James Johnson are both talking to me.

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