In 1981 Rick James released his fifth album, which would turn out to be the biggest success of his career: the wonderful Street Songs.
James Ambrose Johnson Jr. was born on February 1st, 1948, in Buffalo, New York. At a very young age he witnessed greats like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Etta James live on stage. He dropped out of school, got exposed to drugs and was arrested for burglary. Because he was about to be sent to Vietnam (after lying about his age to the United States Navy), James fled to Toronto, Canada.
While in Canada, James met (future Band member) Levon Helm, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. With Young he played in the Mynah Brids, who managed to secure a record deal with Motown. A relatively small financial problem led to the discovery of the true identity of James, who went by the name of Ricky James Matthews. Motown advised him to come over to the US, resolve his issues with the Navy and get back in touch when everything was settled.
Following a short stint as a song writer at Motown, and having played in lots of bands, James signed a solo deal with A&M Records in 1973. His debut single My Mama was released in 1974. In 1976 James returned to Buffalo, New York and recorded his second single Get Up And Dance!.
In 1977 James returned to Motown and signed a deal with subsidiary Gordy Records. James’s debut album Come Get It! was released in 1978, and it sold very well. The next album, Bustin’ Out Of L Seven, was also successful. Third album Fire It Up went gold. His stature had risen considerably, so much so that he was now able to headline his own tour. He took a young and upcoming artist along as his support act: Prince. James accused Prince of copying his act and would hate Prince for the rest of his life. The reality of it was that Prince started challenging James, and at times even kicked his ass, which didn’t amuse James one bit. In 1980 James released Garden Of Love, only to be met by disappointing reviews and sales. The many ballads on the album fell flat on the lovers of James’s “punk-funk”.
On April 7th, 1981, Rick James released his fifth album on Gordy Records: Street Songs. Partially due to the big hits Give It To Me Baby and Super Freak the album was a huge success, the biggest of his entire career. Within two years total sales worldwide exceeded four million copies.
James had clearly listened to the implicit message given to him by his fans with the preceding Garden Of Love. Their preference wasn’t geared towards the sensitive side of James, but to the ‘street smart’ version. The third single, Ghetto Life, signified that approach.
When I was a young boy
Growing up in the ghetto
Hanging out on corners
Singin’ with the fellas
Lookin’ for the cute chicks
Trying to find the big fun
Looking for some trouble
Or anyone who’ll give me some
© Ghetto Life, Rick James, 1981
Of course the album contained a lot of romance / sex: Give It To Me Baby, Make Love To Me, Super Freak, Fire And Desire and Call Me Up are songs dedicated to love, romance and sex. Barring Make Love To Me, which I personally find too predictable, they are all great songs with generally funky rhythms, great bass playing, instantly recognizable riffs and James who sings and seduces convincingly. Great!
But the real trump card can be found in the other three songs. James talks about his life in Buffalo, New York
I was born in a city they call Buffalo
Zero degrees below is too damn cold and funky
Mama raised me on the numbers racket
With eight kids and no father
She said she couldn’t hack it
On the eastside where I started sangin’
On the corners hangin’
Out with all the hoodlums
© Below the Funk (Pass the J), Rick James, 1981
In the previously mentioned het Ghetto Life he delves into his life in the East Side of Buffalo, the slum where James spent his formative years. But the real stand out song is Mr. Policeman, which explicitly references police violence, which seems to be even more relevant today than it was at the time of its release.
Hey Mr. Policeman
I’ve seen you in my neighborhood
You look to me up you’ll do no good
I’ve seen you with your gun in your hand
Hey Mr. Policeman
I saw you shoot my good friend down
He was just havin’ fun
Checkin’ out a one and one
It’s a shame, it’s a disgrace
Why every time you show your face
Somebody dies, man
© Mr. Policeman, Rick James, 1981
A confrontational lyric, one that usually wasn’t published by artists linked to Motown, who were generally less outspoken.
Back then people weren’t really programming their own synthesizers, Prince, you know, he’s a genius… he was one of the only ones who could really do that, probably him and Stevie were the only ones really doing it… Prince was programming all his synthesizers and setting the presets with his own sound and at the end of the tour Rick took Prince’s synthesizers. He took them to Sausalito and he actually used them on the Street Songs album and then he sent them back to Prince with a thank you card.
If the story is true, it is kind of remarkable that James’s best sold album was partially made with Prince sounds. Prince was able to retaliate quickly. At the 1981 American Music Awards Prince ran into James’s date: Denise Matthews. It clicked and it didn’t take long for the world to get to know her by her stage name: Vanity.
James’s fifth album Street Songs is a beautiful, mature and great sounding album, which still sounds like it was recorded only yesterday. A timeless classic that morphed funk, new wave, disco and soul into one organic melting pot. Finally, James had arrived where he wanted to be: to be recognized commercially and artistically.
Three singles were culled from the album:
- Give It To Me Baby
(released on February 20th, 1981)
- Super Freak
(released on July 10th, 1981)
- Ghetto Life
(released in October 1981)
Contrary to popular belief, Fire And Desire, the James and Teena Marie duet, was never released as a single.
All songs written by Rick James, unless stated otherwise.
- Give It To Me Baby
- Ghetto Life
- Make Love To Me
- Mr. Policeman
- Super Freak (Rick James, Alonzo Miller)
- Fire And Desire (duet with Teena Marie)
- Call Me Up
- Below The Funk (Pass the J)
Next to 12″ and instrumental versions of album songs, the 2001 Deluxe Edition contained an utterly exciting concert recording of the Street Songs tour of the show performed on July 30th, 1981, in Long Beach, California.
- Ghetto Life
- Big Time
- Come Into My Life
- I’m A Sucker For Love
- Square Biz
- Fire It Up
- Love Gun
- Do You Want Some Funk (Interlude)
- Mary Jane
- Super Freak
- You And I
- Give It To Me Baby
- Rick James – vocals, bass, drums, guitar, horns, percussion, timbales, timpani
- Gerald Albright – flute on Make Love To Me, Fire And Desire
- Oscar Alston – bass, percussion
- Clifford J. Ervin – flugelhorn, piccolo, trumpet
- John Ervin – flute, trombone
- Fernando Harkless, Roy Poper – trumpet
- Nathan Hughes, Armando Perzara, Raul Rekow, Bugsy Wilcox – percussion
- Daniel LeMelle – flute, saxophone
- Tom McDermott – guitar, percussion
- Naranda Michael Walden – drums
- Stevie Wonder – harmonica on Mr. Policeman
- Levi Ruffin – synthesizer
- Teena Marie – vocals on Fire And Desire, background vocals on Give It To Me Baby, Mr. Policeman
- Ja’net Dubois, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Mary Jane Girls – background vocals
- The Temptations – background vocals on Ghetto Life, Super Freak
- Melvin Franklin – background vocals on Give It To Me Baby
After Street Songs
In 1982 and 1983 James followed Street Songs‘s enormous success with Throwin’ Down and Cold Blooded. Around this time he launched his protégé’s Process And The Doo-Rags, girl band the Mary Jane Girls and Teena Marie’s solo career. He subsequently produced a single for The Temptations and recorded a duet with Smokey Robinson. In 1985 he produced a hit for Eddie Murphy: Party All The Time. His solo career was continued with the release of 1986 album The Flag.
But James’s success was on the wane and he left for Warner Bros., where he released the album Wonderful, which contained the highly explicit (yet fantastic) single Loosey’s Rap. In the meantime James got into more and more trouble because of his drug habit, explicit songs and videos (which resulted in banning his videos from MTV) and publicly criticizing organizations that were working against him.
When the 1989 album Kickin’ was released only in the UK, followed by his firing from Warner Bros., James was suffering. Until 1990, when MC Hammer released the song U Can’t Touch This, which was essentially James’s Super Freak accompanied by rapping. A lawsuit was filed and won quite easily. Initially James was firmly against the art of sampling, but the moment he caught on to the potential earnings, he softened up considerably. A lot of the Street Songs songs were sampled, providing James with a steady cash flow.
But it all went wrong anyway, and very much so. James had a big, very big, drug issue, the cocaine had been replaced by crack. His health suffered, as did his ability to think rationally. James had always had an edge, but it got worse and worse. In 1989 he met Tanya Hijazi, with whom he started a relationship one year later (when she was barely 18). On August 2nd, 1991, they were arrested for kidnapping a 24 year old woman. They had held her captive and abused her mentally, physically and sexually over a period of six days. When the pair was out on bail they attacked a music executive on November 3rd, 1991, who was treated to the same treatment over a 20 hour period.
They were convicted to a prison sentence of five years at Folsom Prison and a fine of over $1 million. After two years both James and Hijazi were released and on August 21st, 1996, they married (and subsequently divorced in 2002).
James returned to making music and released the album Urban Rapsody in 1997. The following year James received a hip transplant and sometime later had a minor stroke. The drugs finally showed its damage. After that he vanished from plain sight.
In 2004 James cooperated on a number of sketches for Chappelle’s Show entitled Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories. Dave Chappelle, who played James, repeatedly stated I’m Rick James, bitch!, which now seems to be inseparably linked to James himself. James’s career was on a slight high and he went out on tour with Teena Marie.
On August 6th, 2004, James’s body was discovered at his house. He died of lung- and heart failure, caused by an endless list of health issues: diabetes, the former stroke, a pacemaker and a prior heart attack. Autopsy showed that James hadn’t won his battle with drugs. His blood contained traces of xanax, valium, wellbutrin, celexa, vicodin, marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin. It also showed that the substances were not the cause of his death. Rick James was just 56 years old.
At the time of his death James was working on his autobiography, The Confessions Of Rick James: Memoirs Of A Super Freak, and a new album. The book was published in 2007. According to David Ritz, the journalist who had helped James write his book, the book wasn’t published the way James had intended, so he published his own version in 2014, Glow: The Autobiography Of Rick James. The album James was working on at the time of his death was released in 2007 entitled Deeper Still.
Street Songs was a highlight in James’s career, that he single-handedly killed by his drug abuse and his loathsome behavior during the 1990s. A sad ending to a musician who had a lot of potential and could have achieved way more if he had been able to keep his demons under control.
What do you think of Street Songs? Let me know!
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Rick James and the classic Street Songs. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.
Rick James – Live 1981 image: pinterest.com
Rick James – Albums 1 to 4 and 6 to 10, Rick James – Street Songs – The singles images: discogs.com
Rick James – Street Songs image: udiscovermusic.com
Rick James & Tanya Hijazi – The trial image: cbsnews.com
Rick James – Albums 11 and 12 image: bol.com
Rick James – Glow: The Autobiography Of Rick James image: amazon.com