February 1, 1948
🇺🇸 Buffalo, NY
August 6, 2004
Rick James rocketed to immortality following the 1981 release of the single "Super Freak," which a decade later became the source for M.C. Hammer's breakthrough "U Can't Touch This."
James (born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y.) began playing in local bands as a teen, and after entering the U.S. Navy Reserve to avoid the military draft, he relocated to Toronto and formed the Mynah Birds, a rock band whose lineup would later include a then-unknown singer-songwriter named Neil Young. The Mynah Birds scored a recording contract stateside with Motown Records, but when James was jailed on charges of military desertion, the group splintered and Motown walked away.
James eventually landed in California, where he led a series of rock and funk groups before returning to Buffalo to form the Stone City Band. The group's local popularity led to a new solo deal with Motown's Gordy Records, and in 1978 he released Come Get It!, which featured the hits "Mary Jane" and "You & I." The 1981 classic Street Songs blended funk, disco and new wave, yielding James' signature hits "Super Freak" and "Give It to Me Baby." James also moonlighted as a writer and producer, helming sessions for Teena Marie, the Mary Jane Girls and even film and TV superstar Eddie Murphy, who notched the crossover hit "Party All the Time."
James struggled to maintain his commercial success in the second half of the 1980s, compounded by mounting addiction issues. He received his only Grammy Award in 1991 for his contributions to "U Can't Touch This," which heavily sampled "Super Freak," but two years later James was sentenced on two separate instances of kidnapping and assaulting women while under the influence of crack cocaine, resulting in a three-year sentence at California's notorious Folsom State Prison. James enjoyed a pop culture renaissance in 2004, when Comedy Central's sketch series Chappelle's Show satirized the singer's indulgent lifestyle; however, he died later that year from heart failure at age 56.