The King of Punk-Funk: Rick James’ Unbelievable Yet Very Real Life

He was Rick James, the Super Freak, the guy you read about and saw Dave Chappelle impersonate. He was the guy who was usually high and lived a roller coaster ride of a life — full of ups, downs, danger, and crazy stories. But amidst all the hoopla, Rick James was actually an amazing musician. But his wild lifestyle eclipsed his extraordinary talent.

Rick James with a girl on the red carpet 1994 / Rick James and his daughter Tyenza / Rick James and Laura Branigan on the red carpet in 1984 / Rick James and Lionel Richie on the red carpet in 1983 / Rick James performing in November 1997
Photo by Kip Rano, Shutterstock / Jim Smeal, BEI, Shutterstock / Adam Scull, Shutterstock / Mediapunch, Shutterstock / Atashiain, Mediapunch, Shutterstock

The man was an icon of funk, a rebel of the convention, who blended different styles seamlessly and created numerous hits. He made the acclaimed list of Motown’s greatest and cemented his legacy as the King of Punk-Funk. It got to a point, though, that he became an enemy of his own success. James wasted away his health and career with drugs. But it was also his wacky antics (just watch the Chappelle Show skit) that got him into trouble. For better or worse, James lived life to the beat of his own funky drum. And he served time for it.

This is the unbelievable, yet very real, life of Rick James.

Kiss It, U.S. Army!

We’ve all heard the now-iconic catchphrase “I’m Rick James, b****!” – a phrase so culturally popular that even a Lego store in Australia officially calls themselves “I’m Rick James Bricks.” Born James Ambrose Johnson Jr. in 1948, the future music star dreaded the idea of being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.

Rick James posing in the studio
Photo by Pat Johnson / Shutterstock

When he was 15, he lied his way into the Naval Reserve. He then dodged the Reserves, too. His excuse: He couldn’t take the “regimentation and conformity.” Instead of serving his country, he spent his time drumming for jazz groups and, well, doing drugs. In 1964, he was nonetheless placed on active duty, but James defiantly told the military draft board to “kiss his ashy black a$$” and fled the country to Toronto, Canada.

Becoming Rick James

In Toronto, James was hanging out with Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. He formed a band called the Mynah Birds with Young. The Mynah Birds signed a record deal with Motown, and James got to meet Stevie Wonder and perform for him. Wonder was impressed and wanted to know this young man’s name.

Rick James performing circa 1983
Photo by Alan Berliner / BEI / Shutterstock

James, still a teen, told the blind musician that his name was Ricky James Matthews. Wonder then suggested that he shorten it to a simple Rick James. At the time, James was still a fugitive and ended up serving time in a military prison. It resulted in the end of the Mynah Birds record deal. But for Rick James, it was just the beginning of one of the wildest musical careers in the history of music.

Escape, Surrender, Rinse and Repeat

In 1966, when Motown learned of James’s fugitive status with the Navy, executives told him they wouldn’t release any of his material. They convinced him to come back to the U.S. and work out his legal issues. James then surrendered himself to the FBI and was ultimately sentenced (by the Navy) to five months of hard labor.

Rick James on stage accepting an award
Photo by L Cohen / WireImage / ASCAP / Getty Images

The 19-year-old escaped from the Brooklyn Naval Brig after six weeks, marking him as a fugitive yet again for another six months. And, for a second time, he surrendered himself. James then found legal assistance from his cousin, Louis Stokes, the future Congressman, and attorney. As a result, James’s sentence went from a potential five years of hard labor to just five months.

Hustling on the Streets of Toronto

After his release from the Portsmouth Naval Prison in August of 1967, James went back to Toronto. By 1968, he was working under the name Ricky Matthews, producing and writing songs at Motown for groups like The Miracles, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, and The Spinners. According to James himself, this was when he got involved in pimping. (More on this later…)

Rick James and Lionel Richie posing together
Rick James and Lionel Richie. Photo by Globe Photos / mediapunch / Shutterstock

He stopped, though, because he felt he wasn’t fit for the harshness and the abuse of women that typically goes along with the role. During his third stint at Motown, James met musician Greg Reeves, who was hoping to find a better situation than just $38 a week (which is about $625 in 2019 dollars) as a session bassist for Berry Gordy.

Hitching a Lift on Neil Young’s Rising Star

Reeves then joined James, looking to “hitch a lift from Neil Young’s rising star,” and moved to Los Angeles. On one of his first nights in L.A., James crashed on Stephen Stills’s couch. When he woke up, he saw a young Jim Morrison sitting on the floor in the lotus position. After the Doors opened for Buffalo Springfield at the popular club Whisky a Go-Go, Morrison allegedly tricked James into taking acid. (More on this later…)

Neil Young at a party circa 1983
Neil Young. Photo by Richard Young / Shutterstock

Once in California, James started working as a duo with Greg Reeves, but after James introduced Reeves to Neil Young, Reeves (instead of James) was hired as the bassist for the new group, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

When Being Hungover Saves Your Life

It was around this time that James formed different versions of the rock band Salt’N’Pepper. He met with hairstylist Jay Sebring, who invested in his music. James said that Sebring invited him to come to a party at Sharon Tate’s house in 1969, but he was “too hungover” to get out of bed. The next morning, he learned of the murders when he read the Los Angeles Times headline “Sharon Tate, Four Others Murdered.”

Rick James posing in a zebra printed jacket
Photo by Alan Berliner / BEI / Shutterstock

In the early ‘70s, James formed another band called Hot Lips. He signed with A&M Records, releasing his first single under the name Rick James, title My Mama, in 1974. He formed yet another band in 1976 called the Stone City Band and recorded the track Get Up and Dance!

The Start of a Bitter Feud with Prince

In 1978, James released his first solo album, Come Get It! His single Mary Jane sold two million copies and essentially launched his musical career to stardom. By the end of the decade, he was on his first headlining tour, the Fire It Up Tour. It was a tour on to which he invited then-upcoming artist Prince.

Prince posing in Purple Rain
Photo by Warner Bros / Kobal / Shutterstock

It proved to be the beginning of a long and bitter feud between the two artists. James later accused Prince of ripping off his act. Those who are acquainted with the infamous Chappelle Show skit know that there is some truth to that, as hilariously told (by Charlie Murphy) and portrayed (by Dave Chappelle).

The Epic Altercation

It’s hard to picture Rick James punching Prince in the face (probably because they were both played by Dave Chappelle), but the epic altercation nearly happened. Prince used to open for James. And James being who he is, used to pick on the up-and-coming artist. While celebrating his birthday on tour, James said he “grabbed Prince by the back of the hair and poured cognac down his throat,” all while laughing at him.

Dave Chappelle dressed as Rick James
Dave Chappelle as Rick James. Source: YouTube

But James wasn’t amused when Prince stole the show during the tour. He accused Prince of stealing more than just his thunder: “Prince was emulating my mic moves like a motherf***er. He was calling out my funk chants and even flashing my funk sign.”

Getting Snubbed by Prince

James allegedly got revenge on his frenemy at one point. He supposedly stole Prince’s synthesizers and used them on his 1981 album Street Songs, only to return the synthesizers along with a “thank you” note. Then, there was the time at the American Music Awards, when James’s mother — a huge Prince fan — asked for Prince’s autograph and got snubbed.

Prince performing at a concert / Rick James posing for a photograph
Source: Shutterstock / Photo by Walter McBride, Shutterstock

James fueled with rage, chased after Prince, whose manager intervened. Prince apologized to James for disrespecting his mother. But Prince stole James’s date that night, model Denise Matthews. The two started dating and she even launched her own music career (as Vanity).

(Even though a punch to the face didn’t actually take place, we can only imagine how easily it could have happened.)

Creating His Style of Punk Funk

In 1981, James recorded his best-selling album to date, called Street Songs. It contained a fusion of rock, new wave, and James’s own brand of crossover funk, which became his signature style of “punk-funk.” It featured Ghetto Life, Fire, and Desire, Give It to Me Baby, and his biggest crossover hit, Super Freak, which sold over 1 million copies.

Rick James performing
Photo by Alan Berliner / BEI / Shutterstock

The ‘80s was a successful decade for James, career-wise. In 1985, he produced a hit single for Eddie Murphy with the song Party All the Time. That year, he appeared on The A-Team with Isaac Hayes.

The Birth of Super Freak

James recounted how his biggest hit was created. As he recalled, it was about three in the morning, and they “had just put the horn parts on Give It to Me Baby” while he was sitting in front of the console with his bass guitar. “I wasn’t trying to write. I was just noodling. This bass line came out of nowhere.”

Rick James posing while in New York City
Photo by John Barrett / photolink / mediapunch / Shutterstock

There were four descending notes – “nothing particularly striking.” He even called it “cheesy, but it was also catchy.” He just couldn’t stop playing it while also singing, “She’s a very kinky girl…” He was about to stop until one of his guys said, “Cut it, Rick.” They thought it was hypnotic, so James had the engineer hook up a microphone, and he started singing the story as it came to him — the story of a super freak. “I never wrote down a word. Made it up on the spot.”

“Please Allow Me to Sketch You”

James once went to a dinner party in Hawaii where one of the guests, the famed artist Salvador Dali, just kept staring at James. Finally, he said to the musician, “Senor, I am mad about the way you look. Please allow me to sketch you.” Dali then spent 15 to 20 minutes drawing a portrait of James on a napkin, of all things.

Rick James posing against a streetlamp with tall red boots on and his guitar
Source: YouTube

He then gave James the napkin. Of course, it could have been a priceless memento – one to make a fortune of – but the next morning, James went for a swim in the shorts he was wearing the night before. That’s right, he forgot the napkin was still inside. The portrait turned into an indeterminable, inky blob.

A Controversial and Provocative Image

James tended to cause trouble with his controversial and provocative image. He was famous for promoting the use of marijuana in concerts at a time when simple possession could lead to a serious prison sentence. James was continually threatened with arrest by the police if he smoked on stage during the songs Fire It Up and Mary Jane.

Rick James with two beautiful women on stage
Photo by Richard Young / Shutterstock

Apparently, most Motown executives thought Mary Jane was a “simple cute love song to a girl,” naively unaware of its real meaning. But James’s overt sexual boldness made it hard for him to become a mainstream act. After the debut of MTV in 1981, James tried to present the Super Freak music video to the label.

Rick James vs. MTV

When MTV turned the video down, James accused the network of racism. MTV denied it, of course, stating the real reason for turning the video down was because they felt it was too vulgar for the channel. By around 1983, when younger artists like Prince and Michael Jackson found fame on MTV, James accused the singers of being “tokens.”

David Bowie and Rick James posing together
Photo by Busacca / Mediapunch / Shutterstock

In protest, he urged any Black artist who had a video aired on MTV to take it off the channel. James’s rant was supported by David Bowie, who argued with the channel’s VJ Mark Goodman about the lack of Black artists being given airtime, despite the obvious success of Jackson and Prince. Then, when both MTV and BET refused to play the music video for his single Loosey’s Rap, due to its graphic sexual content, James still considered the networks hypocritical since they were playing provocative videos by Madonna.

What Goes Up…

In 1989, James’s 11th album, Kickin’, was only released in the UK. By 1990, he lost his recent deal with Warner Bros. and began struggling with both personal and legal troubles. That year, MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This was released, which relied on the noticeable opening riff from Super Freak.

MC Hammer performs on stage in London
MC Hammer performs on stage in London, 1990. Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

James and his co-writer on the track, Alonzo Miller, successfully sued Hammer for shared songwriting credit. As a result, all three received a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song in 1991. In 1997, after his release from prison on assault charges, James released Urban Rhapsody. His musical career slowed down again after he suffered a minor stroke during a concert in 1998.

That Time He Hit Carlton from Fresh Prince

“What did the five fingers say to the face? Slap!” Well, James’s five fingers also spoke to Alfonso Ribeiro, the guy we all know as Carlton Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. As recounted by Mike Tyson in his memoir, Undisputed Truth, sometime around 1987, the star boxer was drinking with the then-underage Ribeiro and Ricky Schroder (about 16 or 17 years old at the time) in a hotel lobby on Sunset Boulevard.

Rick James buttoning up his coat / Alfonso Ribeiro as Carlton
Photo by Walter McBride, Shutterstock / NBC, Stuffed Dog, Quincy Jones Ent, Kobal, Shutterstock

That’s when James showed up in a Rolls-Royce. James “came over and slapped Tyson five, and then he looked at Alfonso,” Tyson said. He then asked Ribeiro, “Aren’t you an actor?” and “then, boom, he hit him.” James then drank Ribeiro’s beer. “Iron Mike” might have been the “baddest” man around, but Rick James had the “baddest” hand.

The Strangest of First Encounters

Remember the time James woke up on Stephen Stills’s couch to find Jim Morrison sitting on the floor in the lotus position? Well, there’s a little more to the story, and it’s all very, very strange. In his autobiography, James described that when he saw “a young dude sitting on the floor in the lotus position,” it marked “the start of the extreme strangeness.”

Rick James posing on the red carpet with his album
Photo by Startraks / Shutterstock

Morrison was sitting there, on the floor, with blood dripping from his wrist. The Lizard King just sat there, marveling at it, saying out loud, “Isn’t the blood beautiful? Isn’t that the deepest red you’ve ever seen?” James super freaked out (pun intended), told Stills, who stopped the bleeding and formally introduced the musicians.

A Good Poet, but a Bad Singer

The weirdness didn’t stop there. After the two were introduced, Morrison picked James’s brain about Motown. He also read him a poem about “the dead angels of history returning as groupies.” James later admitted that he appreciated Morrison’s “trippy” poetry but considered him to be a terrible singer.

Rick Hilton, Kathy Hilton, and Rick James posing on the red carpet
Photo by Globe Photos / mediapunch / Shutterstock

The guys tried to go on a group trip to Disneyland, but they were denied entry. James ended up going on a different trip when Morrison allegedly tricked him into taking LSD. How? He passed it off as a mint. Along the way, as strange as it was, James said rather earnestly that he learned something valuable from the Doors’s frontman: A singer’s persona is just as important as his voice.

Choosing Teena Marie Over Diana Ross

James nearly collaborated with Diana Ross, but a certain up-and-comer, Teena Marie, caught his attention and captured his heart instead. When he was walking around Motown’s headquarters, James recalled hearing “this girl singing her a$$ off. I walked in, I said, ‘Wow you’re really great.’”

Rick James and Teena Marie when they were younger / Rick James and Teena Marie posing on the red carpet
Source: Tumblr / Photo by Bei, Shutterstock

Marie got a taste of commercial success once she teamed up with James, who produced her first album. They sang a series of duets, including the popular Fire and Desire. Marie and James also progressed to lovers, but their romance didn’t last. According to Marie, they were just too different. Still, they remained close, and James befriended Marie’s daughter. In 2004, during the last musical performance before his death, James performed Fire and Desire with Marie.

Two Kids, but It Could Have Been Three

James had two children with Syville Morgan, who used to be a singer and songwriter. They had a daughter named Tyenza and a son named Rick Jr. James also dated Exorcist actress Linda Blair from 1982 to 1984. They got to know each other during a short stint at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. Early on in their relationship, Blair became pregnant but had an abortion.

The children of Rick James at his funeral
Rick James’ children. Photo by MB Pictures / Shutterstock

James wrote in his memoir, “I loved Linda, and it hurt me that she would choose to abort our child without even wanting to talk to me about it first. I still look back on her choice with sadness and wonder about our baby, and how having that child might have changed my life.”

Not Cold-Blooded Enough

James wrote the song Cold Blooded about Linda Blair. “It was about how Linda could freeze my blood,” he wrote in his memoir. But the term “cold-blooded” is actually meaningful to James on a different level. And it has to do with his early days in Toronto when he just couldn’t handle his brief stint as a pimp.

Linda Blair at an event in 1982 / Rick James up-close portrait
Photo by Bei, Shutterstock / Globe Photos, mediapunch, Shutterstock

As explained in Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James, James worked as a staff writer during those early days and wanted extra income. Singer Jimmy Ruffin, the brother of the Temptations’ lead vocalist David Ruffin, suggested to James that he get into the pimping business. According to James, he just wasn’t “cold-blooded” enough. He couldn’t force women to work and lent them money while beating up violent “Johns.”

Rick James + Steven Tyler = Illegal Hilarity

There was a moment when Rick James and Steven Tyler “powdered their noses” off a large blade together, and things didn’t end in disaster. In his autobiography, James recounted that he and Aerosmith shared a building while working on his 1978 album, Come Get It! One day, Tyler dropped in and wanted to have a listen.

Rick James on the red carpet / Steven Tyler sitting on a chair
Photo by Fotos International, Shutterstock / Ian Dickson, Shutterstock

James played the track You and I, and Tyler “started dancing like James Brown.” Tyler then “pulled out a big bag of blow and a long bowie knife.” Tyler praised James’s music, and James said he “never felt more confident” in his abilities. He worked tirelessly to finish the album. The two musicians met again… in rehab… multiple times. James claimed Tyler made rehab meetings fun by hopping on his back for piggy-back rides.

Parties, Kids, and Divorce

In 1989, James met 17-year-old party-goer Tanya Hijazi. The two started dating the following year, and in 1993, the couple had their only child together and James’s youngest, named Tazman. Following their respective releases from prison, they married in 1996 and divorced in 2002.

Tanya Hijazi and Rick James on the red carpet
Tanya Hijazi and Rick James. Photo by Bei / Shutterstock

James was friendly with actress Debbie Allen who once invited him to her Broadway show where he fell asleep. Afterward, she confronted him in the dressing room. She pleaded with him to get his life together. “All you do is get high and have sex,” she said to him. He promised her that he would change his ways – a promise he broke that same night.

Friends with Eddie and Charlie Murphy

James had some pretty interesting friendships. He was close with Eddie Murphy, whom he met in 1981, as well as Murphy’s older brother Charlie Murphy, who was his brother’s security guard. James and Charlie talked about their bizarre relationship on Chappelle’s show. James admitted to starting random fights with Charlie and staining his couch with mud.

Eddie and Charlie Murphy on the red carpet in 2007
Eddie and Charlie Murphy. Photo by Picture Perfect / Shutterstock

James was also friends with Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, singers James had idolized as a teenager. He also befriended Gaye’s second wife, Janis, and was a godfather to Gaye’s daughter, Nona. James’s friendship with Robinson began after James signed with Motown, and in 1983, the duo recorded the single Ebony Eyes.

A Creature of His Environment

According to James’s mother, out of all her eight children, he gave her “the most trouble.” Rolling Stone reported that the young Rick James filled the family bathtub with stray dogs, dumped itching powder down his little sister’s back, and lodged a pearl in his brother’s ear. But by the time he reached 13, things started getting illegal. He would steal cars and do drugs for the thrill of it.

Rick James with a plate of food at the Golden Globe Awards 1988
Photo by Fotos International / Shutterstock

His environment might have nurtured his wild behavior. After all, James grew up in poverty, and his father, whom he said was abusive, abandoned the family before he was eight. His mother lived a contradictory mix of religious faith and lawbreaking. “She raised us strict Catholics,” James said, but she made most of her money in illegal gambling for the Italian mob. He remembered “crying and carrying numbers books in big shopping bags” for his mom during the winter.

Crossing Over to the Dark Side

After she passed away in 1991, it was as though nothing was holding James back. One could say that he crossed over to the dark side. He wrote: “There was nothing to keep me from descending into the lowest level of hell.” Unfortunately for two women, that meant false imprisonment and sexual assault.

Rick James and Laura Branigan posing on the red carpet together
Photo by Walter McBride / Shutterstock

Without going into detail, both James and his wife Tanya Hijazi stood trial in 1993 for aggressive acts against a woman who was a guest in their home. But James insisted, “I abuse drugs, not women.” Hijazi served 15 months while James’s five-year sentence was reduced to about two years due to “prosecutorial misconduct.” He wasn’t released early due to good behavior or anything.

A Matter of Prosecutorial Misconduct

It was actually because of the awful behavior of an investigator named Craig Gunnette, who was so determined to see James rot behind bars that he became a criminal himself. Police records revealed that Gunnette had admitted to bribing a key witness with heroin, money, and “other favors.” That witness was a woman named Michelle Allen, who received hundreds of phone calls and thousands of dollars from Gunnette, all while she was in jail.

Rick James on the red carpet in 1999
Photo by Globe Photos / mediapunch / Shutterstock

In return, Allen provided Gunnette with testimony against James, falsely accusing the singer of breaking her arm (it was actually her boyfriend who did it). Gunnette was never incarcerated and was simply allowed to retire. Meanwhile, when James was in prison, he wrote more than 300 songs.

Don’t Do Drugs, People

If this article isn’t already a warning against doing drugs, let this true story be another reminder. James accidentally set himself on fire after an MC Hammer concert. The beef between the two had recently ended, and so James got on stage with Hammer. James apparently thought it would be a feel-good moment to smoke rocks on stage.

Rick James posing with his wife Mary Jane on the red carpet in 2003
Rick James and his wife, Mary Jane. Photo by Picture Perfect / Shutterstock

As described by his supplier, Rayce Newman, things went awry when James set a plate on fire. While walking with the flaming plate, he dropped it, catching his robe on fire. The flames then spread to his sleeves. Newman extinguished the flames, but James was “still smoldering, picked up the plate as if nothing had happened and took it into his room.”

All Wild Things Come to an End

On the morning of August 6th, 2004, James’s caretaker found him lifeless in his home at the Oakwood Toluca Hills apartment complex just outside of Burbank. He died from pulmonary failure and cardiac failure, which were associated with his many health conditions. He had diabetes, had endured a stroke, had a pacemaker, and essentially a heart attack.

Rick James and Ty on the red carpet
Rick James and his daughter on the red carpet a month before his death. Photo by Jim Smeal / BEI / Shutterstock

His autopsy found a number of drugs in his system, including alprazolam, diazepam, bupropion, citalopram, hydrocodone, digoxin, chlorpheniramine, methamphetamine, and cocaine. However, according to the coroner, “none of the drugs or drug combinations were found to be at levels that were life-threatening in and of themselves.” He was 56 years old.

Despite It All

James wasn’t the model father. In fact, sometimes, he was an absent dad, especially at the height of his career. He still loved his kids, though, and they love him, despite the hardships they faced with his parenting. His eldest child, 47-year-old daughter Ty, made it very clear.

Rick James with his daughter Ty on the red carpet
Rick James and his daughter Ty. Photo by Stewart Cook / Shutterstock

The close bond they built later in life didn’t develop without pain. In social media posts, Ty explained the love-hate relationship she had with her dad and why it wasn’t until she was 13 that she eventually met him. Regardless, she loved him dearly and appreciated his unconventional parenting skills. Her post reads: “Thank You for walking, talking, teaching, guiding, cussing, smoking, trusting, laughing, praying, caring, shopping, dreaming, and most of all loving Me.”