I am many things. I am not, however, funky. One merely has to casually glance at me and realize, there’s no funk there. I can rock but I just can’t roll. Believe me, in the old days, I certainly tried to be funky. But I’m not someone who should ever be seen on the dance floor. I’m the consummate wallflower. I have tried to get into funk music but it just never connected. I’ve purchased LPs by Sly and the Family Stone, George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic (a group whose records my brother owned, The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein) and various Motown acts like the Temptations. I could just never get into it. Little did I realize those acts were very strong influences on 70s/80s pop star, Rick James.
I came back from a trip a week or so ago and the Rock Chick smiled and said, “I’ve found a documentary I think you’d enjoy…” I was a tad surprised when I saw it was a new Showtime documentary about Rick James. The actual title was Bitchin’ – The Sound And Fury of Rick James, which I thought was a mouthful… however, now that I’ve seen the doc, it’s certainly fitting. I was surprised the Rock Chick thought I’d dig this documentary, although I’m quite pleased she did. Of course she knows how much I enjoyed Questlove’s Summer of Soul documentary… I’ve always thought of James as a funk artist and someone who is, if I’m being honest, a little outside of my wheelhouse. I didn’t really realize how many of his songs were “crossover” hits. A song was described as “crossover” when it crossed over from the Soul Charts (aka the Black Charts) to the mainstream Pop Charts. All that industry speak just means it was a song by a black artist that’s popular amongst a white audience, which seems like a badly outdated construct anymore. Rick James was out there making wildly popular hits in the late 70s/early 80s before Michael Jackson and Prince struck chart gold in the 80s. Rick James, in many ways, was the guy who blazed the trail for those other artists.
I was unaware, or had forgotten a lot of Rick James’ story. It’s a fascinating tale. Frankly when I think of James these days its usually in the context of the Dave Chappelle skit about him, “I’m Rick James, Bitch,” which is too bad because Rick had an amazing career. He hailed from Buffalo, New York. In the ’60s he joined the Army Reserve to avoid having to go to Vietnam. As his career as a multi-instrumentalist was taking off the Army life wasn’t to his liking so he deserted and moved to Canada. When in Canada he actually formed a band called the Mynah Birds with… rubs eyes and checks notes… Neil Young. I knew that but had forgotten all about it… I think Young had some Mynah Birds on his first Archive box. Rick and Neil had met on the thriving Toronto folk scene. Bruce Palmer was the bass player. They were signed by Motown and recorded a few singles… until someone dropped the dime on James for desertion. He ended up back in Buffalo in jail. Young and Palmer loaded up in Young’s hearse and drove to L.A. where they formed the Buffalo Springfield.
Once he was released, he and a friend named Greg Reeves traveled out to California. They both auditioned for bass player in the new Super-Group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Despite his relationship with Young, they chose Greg Reeves. It’s like James was living some sort of Forrest Gump existence. He was tricked into taking acid by Jim Morrison… He gave up on the folk-rock thing and moved back to Buffalo where he formed the Stone City Band. He was absorbing all sorts of influences – folk rock, Motown, the funk of Sly and George Clinton – but he was mixing in a little bit of a rock sensibility. They were signed by Motown. One of his early hits was “Mary Jane.” It was the first Rick James’ song I ever heard. I was in junior high and despite the fact that marijuana was merely a rumor – something the druggy kids out behind the school were smoking or some of the older brothers of my friends were involved with – we all got a sly smile on our faces when we heard it… “Mary Jane is not a girl, the song is about pot!” Oh, we thought we were so cool and subversive. We mentioned James along with Bob Marley to prove were hip to the weed thing.
James went on to release the mega hit “Super Freak.” Everyone knew that track. It was one of the biggest crossover songs ever at the time. It gave him a ton of freedom and power. Motown tapped him to produce other artists including Smokey Robinson. He even formed a Girl-Band, The Mary Jane Girls and wrote their big hit, “In My House.” On his tour behind the Street Songs LP, opening act Prince must have been paying close attention as he would go on to repeat the formula to even greater success. It never dawned on me that Rick James was a big influence on Prince and other artists at the time. Hell, I even remember him producing Eddie Murphy’s only hit single, “Party All The Time.” I vividly recall watching the video for that song when I was in college… Eddie couldn’t sing but I thought it was cool when Rick James strolls out of the control booth and strides to the mic to sing with Murphy at the end.
But alas, all that success wouldn’t last. As usual it was a combination of hubris and well, drugs. Cocaine, and more specifically, crack cocaine were Rick James’ downfall. And women… there were a lot of women. There were problems with the law – as Dennis Quaid once said, “Drugs are fun, then fun with problems and finally, just problems.” Rick was arrested for holding a woman hostage and torturing her because he thought she stole his coke. He ended up doing time for that. As with so many stories, this was turns out to be a little sad. MC Hammer sampling “Super Freak” probably paid James more money than the original hit which is sad because MC Hammer is beyond lame. In the end Rick James passed at the tender age of 56. He never did overcome the demons of coke and booze.
Even with the somewhat sad ending, this was a great documentary on a fascinating character in the pantheon of rock n roll and pop music. Again, I think that Rick James’ career was trailblazing for a lot of Black artists who followed him. The guy may have been reduced to a punchline by Dave Chappelle but he even owned that. This is something any music fan would enjoy. I highly recommend checking this one out. As Rick would say, “It’s such a freaky scene.”