Rick James was a singer-songwriter, producer, and instrumentalist, who was born on February 1, 1948 and raised in Buffalo, New York. His Father James Ambrose Johnson, Sr., was said to be abusive and ended up leaving when James was eight years old. His mother Mabel Gladden worked as a cleaner by day and ran numbers at night for the Italian Mafia in Buffalo. James is the third child of eight.
James gained his love for music when his mother took him to a nightclub where she was running numbers. James, then younger than ten, sat under a table behind the bandstand. That night he saw Etta James perform and decided that’s what he wanted to do.
James attended Catholic schools but was expelled numerous times. In the late 1950s James and his family moved to the previously all-white Perry Housing Project in Buffalo where he started public junior high. Despite this change in settings, James was expelled from two high schools before he decided to drop out.
When James was around 14 or 15 he joined the U.S. Navy, lying about his age, in order to avoid being drafted. He did however receive a draft notice in 1964 and fledto Toronto, Ontario, Canada. There he formed the group Mynah Birds under the name Ricky James Mathews. The Mynah Birds got the chance to record at Motown in Detroit, Michigan where James met Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. They persuaded him to shorten his stage name to Ricky James. In 1966, Motown discovered James’ fugitive status, and refused to release any more of his music until he cleared his name. In May of that year James turned himself in to the FBI and was sentenced to six months hard labor.
After his release in 1967, James started writing songs for Motown artists including The Spinners and The Vancouvers. In 1969, James formed a duo with Greg Reeves and moved to Los Angeles where they recorded with Heaven and Earth. He then formed two bands, Hot Lips and Stone City Band, before going solo in 1978.
James recorded his first number 1 hit “You and I,” followed by “Mary Jane” in 1978, which sold two million copies. He now was a leading pop and rhythm and blues musician who toured with Prince and Teena Marie. In 1981 James release his most successful album, Street Songs, which included the hit “Super Freak.” By the late 1980s his fame started to decline and in 1990 he lost his contract with Warner Bros.
In 1991, James was accused of holding his then-girlfriend Tanya Hijazi hostage, and torturing her. Then in 1993 both he and Hijazi were accused of kidnapping Mary Sauger (a music executive) and holding her for 20 hours. James and Hijazi were found guilty and served two years in prison.
After their release, James and Hijazi married in 1996. The couple had one child, Tazman James, but divorced in 2002. James earlier had three other kids, Ty, Trey, and Rick James, Jr. with mother Syville Morgan. Despite their divorce, James and Hijazi maintained a close friendship, including working on music together, up until his death from a heart attack on August 6, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. James was 56 at the time of his death.