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

Rick James
Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Rick James
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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.

"What about drugs?" I ask.

He laughs. "What about them?"

There was a time, after his first wave of success, when Rick James had gone clean over the edge, ending up in a hospital nearly dying of hepatitis. "How do you keep it in control now?" I ask.

"There's something I want greater than drugs," says James. "Usually, when people lose control to drugs, it's because that is the greater thing to them. And they can't deal with it. Entertainers are sensitive people, overly sensitive. And when you become sensitive and susceptible to a lot of the shit around you, it becomes easy to want to take yourself out of it.

"You find that all the abundance of material wealth you've acquired really doesn't mean much. In your heart you really know that so much is superficial and so much is bullshit, and it's a heavy reality to deal with. There are only two things you can do: rise above it and treat the business you're in like a business, or fall below it and take your life with drugs or a gun to your head, which is a very easy, simple way to do it. But drugs are very easy for me to deal with. I went through my little drug flip-out trip and decided that my life and this career the creator has given me are more important. I enjoy a snort or two with friends. A nice joint. But I don't overindulge in anything anymore."

Some people think Rick James is only in it for the money. It's an idea that he generally doesn't do much to contradict. On several occasions he's told me that Rick James is "strictly business."

But Rick James isn't strictly business at all, which is something that he'll rarely admit, but that his friends and business associates will tell you.

"Well, I think he might think that's true, but I don't think it is. No one can do what he does as well as he does it strictly for money," says Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown Records. "If he were strictly in it for the money, he would not be as good as he is. Sure, he wants to make a lot of money, like all of us do. Money is a measure of success in our society. But underneath it all, Rick is a real pussycat. He's one of the most wonderful, soulful people you would ever want to meet."

James' last album, Street Songs, was the most powerful record by a black artist since Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life. It's a soul opera of sorts about life in the ghetto. The LP begins late one night when a drunken Romeo rolls into bed and tries to get his woman to put out ("Give It to Me Baby"), then moves to a flashback of this Romeo's youth on the street ("Ghetto Life"), cuts to a tender ballad that conveys the intimacy and intensity of making love ("Make Love to Me") and finally hits the street again just as a cop has killed an innocent man ("Mr. Policeman"). That's just side one, but you get the idea.

Rick James' great contribution to our culture is to have painted this big, dramatic, vivid picture of a world that few whites know anything about. And for blacks, James' songs must surely be powerful and cathartic.

"What makes him so popular is that he's from the street," says Gordy. "It's about the street, it's about life, it's about what people are feeling. There is only one Rick James. He's an original."

His mother agrees: "His songs are him. I mean 'Ghetto Life' is his life. That's the soul life, 'cause we lived in the ghetto. And he did hang out around the corner with the boys. That's his life."

At about five a.m., after a day and a night in the studio without sleep, followed by hours and hours of conversation, Rick James finally admits just how personal his music is: "I am the music I make."

For James Johnson, it all started in Buffalo, New York, on February 1st, 1952. Right from the start, he wanted to get out of the ghetto – "probably from the time I came out of the womb," he says, his eyes flashing. "My mother said I was the hardest birth she had. I did not want to come out. It was like I didn't want to come here. But now that I'm here, look out!"

Betty Gladden worked several jobs, the most profitable of which was running numbers. She was able to provide a lower-middle-class childhood for James and his brothers and sisters. "We were never really poor, but we grew up in poor surroundings," recalls James. "The ghetto is a poor state of mind, no matter how much money you have or what you're doing. You're still not living in a house with grass, the way you want to live, where your mind is going to be relaxed. The crazy thing about the ghetto is that there's something that really seems to hold you there. Makes you kind of lazy and dumb and lackadaisical. Your motivation plug is kind of out."

But James Johnson was always motivated. He says it was the image of his dad – who was separated from his mother when the boy was only three – that pushed him toward a career in entertainment. "I was too lazy to work," James says. "Music was always going on around me. I've always been kind of a ham, kind of an entertainer. It was easier than working. I used to watch my father come home real tired from the Chevy plant with these big boots on, and he was real dirty. Every day he did this, and it looked really boring and like a real drag. So I said, 'What else is happening?' And I decided music was what was happening."

When he was fifteen, James ran away from home to join the U.S. Naval Reserve. He says he had to escape the dominance of his mother, who used to whip the kids for the slightest infraction. He lied about his age and got a friend to forge his mom's signature so he could enter the navy.

But James Johnson didn't take to the navy, and when they started talking about shipping him off to Vietnam, he went Awol. James spent some time in Greenwich Village, where he sussed out the folk rock of the Lovin' Spoonful, then headed for Canada, where he discovered he could make a living playing music in the Toronto clubs. It was there in the late Sixties that James put together a rock & roll band that included future members of Steppenwolf and the Buffalo Springfield. Bruce Palmer, who played bass, and a longhaired singer-songwriter-guitarist named Neil Young were both in Rick's band, the Mynah Birds. "Neil and I got this little apartment and stayed together and wrote a lot of great songs together," says James. "We were happy. Only thing I worried about was stopping Neil from having an epileptic fit. And us catching VD from all the chicks we were messing around with. We didn't worry about being rich. We thought we were going to make it."

James took the Mynah Birds to Detroit, where they signed with Motown Records and recorded an album that was never released. The problem was that James was still on the lam from the navy. Motown executives convinced him to turn himself in, and he spent nearly a year in a government detention center in Connecticut. "That's when I think he got deeply into his music," says Betty Gladden. "The severity of the punishment really did him in. After that, I didn't have any more problems with him."

When he got out, James went to work for Motown as a staff writer and producer. Though he didn't write or produce any hits, he took advantage of the opportunity to learn from some of the great hit-makers of the day, Norman Whitfield and Holland-Dozier-Holland. But he felt his talents weren't appreciated, and eventually he left Motown.

James spent several years traveling in Europe and South America before returning to Buffalo, and in 1976 he began working on the material that would appear on his debut album. "I had a baby grand piano, and he'd get up in the middle of the night," says his mom. "I remember it well, because I would come home and want to get some rest, and he would be down at the piano, three or four o'clock in the morning, getting this album together."

Motown signed Rick, and his first single, "You and I," and the Lp, Come Get It, both sold over a million copies. James' next two albums, Bustin' Out of L Seven and Fire It Up, were both very successful, selling, respectively, a million copies and jusc under a million. But his fourth album, Garden of Love, a collection of mellow ballads, sold poorly.

"After Garden of Love, I thought I was through," says James. "Really. I didn't get in this business to be number two. Number one is what's happening. Always!"

So Rick James took a short vacation. When he returned to the studio, he was ready to try it again. "Everybody kept telling me I should go back to my roots. So I said fuck it, wrote about ghetto life and growing up and decided to call the album Street Songs.

"My attitude was that it was going to be the biggest album I ever had or it was going to be the worst album I ever had. Fortunately, it was the biggest."

The sunlight that falls across Rick James' body is muted by the tinted glass of the limousine we're riding in. Rick is asleep as the vehicle heads toward the San Francisco airport. His next album, Throwin' Down, is finished, and he's heading out to L.A. to play it for Berry Gordy. Already, the single, "Dance wit' Me," is a hit in New York.

But now, as Brahms fills the limo, Rick is sleeping. His eyes are covered by powder-blue sleep shades, and he looks like a star, royalty. He is wearing a white-and-red velour shirt, white cotton slacks, red plastic Fiorucci shoes and a mess of gold rings and bracelets studded with diamonds. One of the rings is in the shape of a heart with wings; Rick's name is etched across the center of that gold heart.

Rick James has come about as far from the ghetto as is possible. And now he is sleeping. And there is a smile on his face.

This story is from the June 24th, 1982 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 372: June 24, 1982