Trial won't kill Rick James' musical career, friends say

August 18, 1993|By Anne Burke | Anne Burke,Los Angeles Daily News

With his cornrowed and beaded hair, elaborate costumes and bass-heavy music, Rick James shot to fame with a distinctive synthesis of funk, jazz and rock.

In 1981, James hit it big with the single "Super Freak," a taut, sexually charged dance number that later would earn him a Grammy Award and helped launch him as the self-proclaimed "king of funk."

But his professional career sputtered in the latter half of the 1980s. While his music-industry peers were shaking their images as hard partyers, James -- approaching middle age and struggling with a longtime drug habit -- still was living in the rock 'n' roll fast lane.

In 1991, his career hit bottom. The pop star and his girlfriend, model Tanya Anne Hijazi, were arrested in July after a woman accused them of imprisoning and torturing her during a weeklong cocaine orgy at the rock star's Hollywood Hills home.

The trial of Mr. James, 45, a Buffalo, N.Y., native, and Ms. Hijazi, 23, began last week in San Fernando Superior Court in suburban Los Angeles on a battery of sensational criminal charges stemming from the 1991 case and a somewhat similar case in 1992.

Friends and associates blame Mr. James' circumstances on several factors, including unhappy business alliances and his declining popularity. But drugs were at the heart of his problems, they said.

"When he's drug-free, he's just a wonderful, wonderful man," said Mr. James' former attorney, Robert Sheahen. "But when the drugs get hold of him, it's a Jekyll and Hyde situation."

Facing charges of aggravated mayhem, assault with a deadly weapon, torture, false imprisonment and forced oral copulation, Mr. James and Ms. Hijazi could be imprisoned for life if convicted.

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Andrew Flier, who expects the trial will last about three weeks, said he has evidence showing that Mr. James has a history of brutalizing women.

Free on bail, Mr. James, whose real name is James Ambrose Johnson Jr., and Ms. Hijazi, who grew up in Los Angeles, both declined to be interviewed for this story. But people close to Mr. James maintain the charges were fabricated.

"Rick James is innocent and the evidence of this trial will show that he has been falsely accused," said his attorney, Mark Werksman of Los Angeles.

Leroi C. Johnson, James' brother and former manager, called the charges "absurd," and suggested that Mr. James' accusers are motivated by greed.

"Robbers rob banks because that's where the money is," said Mr. Johnson, a Buffalo attorney.

Ms. Hijazi and Mr. James, who met at a nightclub, are the parents of a 14-month-old son, Tazman. Described by friends and family as a loving couple, they now live with Ms. Hijazi's mother, Suzanne Shapiro, and her stepfather, Larry Shapiro, in Agoura Hills, about 32 miles west of Los Angeles.

Mr. James has undergone drug rehabilitation "so many times I can't even count them," said longtime friend Bill "B.T." Thornton of Los Angeles.

The 26-year-old victim in the first case testified in court that a contrite Mr. James later blamed cocaine for his actions on July 16, 1991.

The woman testified that the crimes occurred after she went to Mr. James' home, where she had met him at a party several days earlier.

She said she and the celebrity smoked crack cocaine on an almost constant basis during her stay, which lasted several days before and after the alleged attack.

At one point, she testified, James accused her of stealing his drugs. Threatening her with a gun, James and Hijazi forced the woman to strip, tied her to a chair and burned her with the hot bowl of a cocaine pipe and a heated knife, she testified.

Mr. James and Ms. Hijazi were free on bail on Nov. 2, 1992, when the second attack allegedly occurred. Mary Sauger, who had known the pop star for six years, said Mr. James invited her to his room on the 11th floor of the St. James Club Hotel on Sunset Boulevard to discuss a business venture.

When she arrived, Ms. Hijazi was there and the three drank wine, according to court testimony. At 2 a.m., when Ms. Sauger talked about accompanying Mr. James on tour, Hijazi slapped her, the woman testified.

When Mr. James joined the attack, Ms. Sauger lost consciousness, she testified. She was revived with water, but James again slapped and choked her, she testified.

After the attack, Ms. Sauger said, Ms. Hijazi gave her $5 to take a cab home.

In some ways, Mr. James' early life was as unorthodox and outrageous as his adult life and professional career.

He was one of eight children. His parents divorced when he was about 10. His mother held down three jobs -- one of them in the numbers racket -- to give her children a "nice life," Mr. Johnson said.

In 1978, Mr. James became part of the Motown "family." His first album for producer Berry Gordy Jr. was "Come Get It!," which sold more than a million copies and contained the hit single "You and I."

Mr. James signed with Warner Bros. in the late 1980s. Despite his problems with the staff at Motown, Mr. James missed the intimacy of Mr. Gordy's record label, Mr. Johnson said.

Warner Bros. "had Prince over there, Madonna, a bunch of other acts. We were no longer the big kid on the block," Mr. Johnson said.

During the summer that the first set of charges was pressed, Warner Bros. ended its association with Mr. James, Johnson said.

His friends, however, say the music industry has not seen the last of Rick James.

"I guarantee that," Mr. Thornton said. "He just needs to get the burden of this off his head."

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