It's fitting that he would leave us in summer, that Rick James would die when the weather reflects the spirit of his classic music: bright and blisteringly hot. I have always associated Rick's music with the summers of my country childhood -- when my cousins and I used to do the snake, the gigolo and all the latest dances to "Give It to Me Baby," "Super Freak" and "Dance Wit' Me."
My great-grandmother, Ma Rene, was hip. She kept a jukebox in the backroom of her house. And my cousins and I would fill it with quarters, punching the numbers for the Rick James records. We would get the party started right and quickly -- forming a Soul Train line, shouting "Go 'head! Go 'head!" as we raised the roof.
Rick, who at 56 was found dead at his Universal City, Calif., home last Friday from apparent natural causes, always knew how to get a party started either on record or at his irreverent, freewheeling concerts. But to relegate the funk legend's art to just party music is a disservice. Too bad that during his lifetime, Rick's wild, bad-boy image often overshadowed the brilliance of his arrangements, the explosive grandeur of his voice. Not only was Rick a monster on the bass and guitar, the man could flat sing. His was a powerful, full-bodied style that blazed through his up-tempo cuts and rocketed his midnight-love ballads to the moon.
Mainstream folks will forever remember Rick for one song, his signature pop smash "Super Freak" from '81. Those of us in the 'hood appreciated that joint, too, but there were other jams, more smartly arranged classics that have endeared him to the audience he catered to the most: streetwise, urban folks. There's 1978's "Mary Jane," the funkiest ode to reefer ever waxed; 1979's "Bustin' Out (On Funk)" was the perfect amalgamation of Kool & the Gang's jazz sensibility, Funkadelic's improvisational spirit and Sly Stone's strong funk bottom; and 1984's "Moon Child," which Mary J. Blige sampled wholesale on her 1997 hit "Love Is All We Need," swaggers with attitude to spare. His best slow jams -- "Fire and Desire," a feverish duet with protege and one-time lover Teena Marie, "Ebony Eyes," a smooth pairing with Smokey Robinson that Rick dominates, and "When Love Is Gone," a key album cut from 1979's Fire It Up -- smolder with drama, passion and poetry.
Years before he sported regal braids and spandex and spent $7,000 a week on cocaine, Rick was James Johnson of Buffalo, N.Y., born on Feb. 1, 1948. In the mid-'60s, after going AWOL from the Navy, the performer was active on the Canadian hippie-rock scene as a member of the Mynah Birds, a group that also included Bruce Palmer and Neil Young. The FBI caught up with him by the end of the decade and he served some time for ditching the Navy. After that, Rick did some session work, fell in love with the music of Sly Stone and Parliament and began experimenting with his sound once he settled in Los Angeles.
In 1977, the singer-musician landed a deal with Motown and released his debut, Come and Get It, the next year. The record was an immediate gold-seller, featuring "Mary Jane" and his first smash, the disco-tinged "You and I." In '79, the artist produced Teena Marie's maiden opus, Wild and Peaceful, a successful set that sparked her long and sorely underrated career.
Rick hit his commercial peak in 1981 with the release of Street Songs, his masterpiece that contained "Super Freak" and "Give It to Me Baby." I remember the cover: the artist standing under a street lamp with his guitar, rocking firetruck-red, knee-length boots. The album sold more than 3 million copies, an amazing feat at the time for a straight-up funk record. Although Rick scored other hits during the '80s, his popularity waned after Street Songs fell off the charts. And his artistry suffered as his drug addiction deepened. His last No. 1 record was 1988's "Loosey's Rap" with Roxanne Shante.
The 1990s were rough on the guy. The hits dried up, and crack almost ran him crazy. In '91 and '92, he was arrested for assaults on two women; one claimed that Rick and his girlfriend imprisoned her in a West Hollywood hotel and burned her with a hot crack pipe. In 1993, the funk-pop star, who looked disheveled and vacant in press shots at the time, was sentenced to five years and four months in jail. He was released in 1996.
Months before he died, Rick had reunited with his old partner Teena and the two went out on a well-received national tour. He was on the verge of a comeback, working on an autobiography called Memoirs of a Super Freak. A series of hilarious, oft-quoted sketches on Chappelle's Show, in which the lanky comedian plays a Rick James caricature, brought the artist back into public consciousness. Despite suffering a stroke and undergoing a hip replacement four years ago, Rick was still passionate about life and music.
When I interviewed him last December, we talked briefly about reincarnation, a concept in which he strongly believed. After I heard he had died (and I got over the shock), my mind went back to our talk earlier this year.
"Maybe he was right," I thought. "He can never die." The stuff of Rick's being moves on and changes forms. It enlivens his music, weaving in and out of the jazz-kissed horn lines, riding on the thick bass figurations. He's alive whenever I hear his music. Whenever I think of those summers when I danced like a fool with my country cousins.