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.
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