There is a reason that Dave Chappelle’s jokes and the late Charlie Murphy’s anecdotes about Rick James went over so well with Chappelle show audiences. James’ legend and presence were larger-than-life. Even people born after the peak of James’ popularity still knew about his music and persona. If nothing else, people could identify his rhythmic beats from MC Hammer’s catalog of samples.
Known for what many would call a hard-partying lifestyle, James’ late in life quip that “Cocaine is a helluva drug,” was bittersweet. Bitter because most people understood that the singer and guitarist was familiar with the substance, and sweet because his delivery made people laugh. Even in the context of the “Chappelle Show,” people paid attention to James and his cautionary tale.
Like so many performers that permeate multiple decades and facets of their audiences’ lives, it was difficult for some to reconcile themselves to the fact that James was in fact, mortal. His death felt as if it had come too soon.
But, years of partying had caught up with him. According to the New Musical Express (NME), James suffered a stroke in 1998. He also had a pacemaker and had diabetes.
The longtime music periodical further reports that a mix of prescription and street drugs were found in his system, including cocaine. However, NME cites the coroner’s report from Reuters, which detailed that none of the drugs were in fatal amounts. Instead, it was deemed that the drugs were simply too much for his heart.
This seems a sad end to the life of James. A man who described himself as “an icon of drugs and eroticism.”
But aside from the way his life ended, what audiences have is the legacy left behind.
Musical life of Rick James
Reportedly, James’ musical career began when he left his native Buffalo for Canada to escape the draft (he was eventually caught). James had been in bands while a teenager in the early 1960s. While in Canada, James became a part of the legendary Mynah Birds, a rock group that included Neil Young. This was in the mid-late 1960s. When the group split, Young and other members would form folk rock band Buffalo Springfield. The Mynah Birds did manage to get a recording deal from Motown in 1966. However, James wrote songs for other performers, but by the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was making a name for himself.
James quickly proved himself a gifted guitarist, bassist and songwriter. In a short span of years, most people in North America would become familiar with his signature sound.
By 1981, James’ album “Street Songs” contained the songs “Super Freak” and “Give It to Me Baby.” Those two songs alone garnered James accolades to last a lifetime. The storytelling in “Super Freak” is a feat of lyrical eroticism that is a guilty pleasure for some to sing along with. Aside from the lyrics, there is the rhythm of the bass guitar, so deep and danceable, coupled with James’ flexible baritone that made “Super Freak” a classic.
James is also credited with assisting the careers of Teena Marie and his protégés, the Mary Jane Girls, who carried on James’ soulful, sophisticated eroticism in songs like “In My House,” and “Shadow Lover.”
While most recently before his death, audiences laughed at the exploits of James, and at the exclamation of the tagline credited to him, “I’m Rick James, b–!” The life of James seems more than that. James’ life could teach people to be themselves in an uncompromising way.
Rick James passed away in 2004 at the age of 56.