`Super Freak' learned from his excesses

Image and reality mixed for Rick James


August 07, 2004|By Geoff Boucher and Amelia Neufeld | Geoff Boucher and Amelia Neufeld,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Funk pioneer Rick James, famous for the raunchy 1981 hit "Super Freak (Part 1)," but also for drug and sex crimes that outsized the debauchery of his music, was found dead yesterday morning at his home near Universal City in Los Angeles. He was 56.

Police arrived at the singer's home at about 9:50 a.m. after a live-in caretaker reported finding the body of the singer. The preliminary report was that James died of natural causes, according to Los Angeles police and the star's attending physician, who signed the death certificate. In addition to years of drug abuse, James had endured a battery of health problems, including a stroke and a major hip injury.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, James first cut his image as a sly, urban Lothario with a penchant for drugs in hits such as "Give It to Me" and "Mary Jane," but by the close of the 1980s, he was immersed in a life that would see him do prison time for drug charges as well as a lurid case resulting in charges of assault with a deadly weapon, false imprisonment and kidnapping.

In his heyday, James used a blend of bass-heavy rhythms combined with salacious lyrics to revitalize Motown Records. He also wrote and produced hits for the Temptations, Teena Marie and others.

James, along with Alonzo Miller and MC Hammer, won a Grammy Award in 1990 for "best rhythm and blues song" for "U Can't Touch This," performed by Hammer. In more recent years, James' music has been sampled and used by more contemporary artists such as Mary J. Blige, LL Cool J and Ja Rule.

James was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, a performing-rights group, during its 17th annual Rhythm & Soul Awards in June.

In the early 1990s, James served prison time for charges stemming from cocaine use and two sexual assaults on women, one of whom he restrained and burned with a hot pipe during a weeklong cocaine binge at his house in West Hollywood.

In his 1991 trial, James denied that his life had imitated his art. Instead, while describing his long career in music, James said his 1981 hit song "Super Freak" changed his life, drawing to him many women similar to the woman described in the song as "a very kinky girl ... the type you don't bring home to mother."

The tune began as just a "silly song," not an autobiographical account, he said.

"I don't even know what `super freak' means," said James. "I could take any girl home to my mother."

Two years ago he publicly denied allegations that he had sexually assaulted a woman at his home, claiming the charges were motivated by greed. No criminal charges were filed.

In a 2002 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jones said in some ways he was older and wiser for his travails.

"I have a desire and a purpose now," he said. "Before, I was really on drugs [when] I went on stage. Now I can remember the cities I'm in and the songs I'm singing."

James is survived by three children and two grandchildren.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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