Super Freak: The Life of Rick James, by Peter Benjaminson: Books

What do you think of when someone mentions Rick James? There’s a good chance the Dave Chappell Show, “I’m Rick James, bitch,” “Cocaine is a helluva drug” and “Super Freak” come to mind. Of course, none of those scenarios were far from the real-life James when he was under the influence – which tended to be most of the time.

Peter Benjaminson (author of Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar and The Story of Motown) covers the rest of the story in Super Freak: The Life of Rick James. This chronological bio provides all the facts and recounts a few rumors. There are other books about James, including one by the man himself: Glow was published after James’ death in 2007, and was revised in 2014. Super Freak, however, doesn’t ignore or gloss over the violent and scandalous aspects of his life.

Born James Ambrose Johnson, Jr. in Buffalo, NY, in 1948, the future Rick James’ troubles started early, even before drugs and groupies. His mom was a numbers runner, and he stole cars, robbed stores and dealt drugs as a teen. He left high school to join the Navy (and avoid being drafted). After fleeing the Navy, he ended up in Toronto in 1964. He imitated Mick Jagger, not R&B stars, and played with a succession of local musicians, including Neil Young. His career was temporarily derailed when a music executive snitched on him to Motown. James served time in prison for desertion, but it wouldn’t be his last stint behind bars.

His road to stardom was paved with bad intentions. He’d take advances from more than one record company at a time, with no plans to either pay them back or deliver material. James didn’t just use drugs, he smuggled them, going on trips to Colombia and India to secure contraband and bring it back. “Rick liked doing things on the edge,” his brother LeRoi Johnson remembers. (He even hid some drugs in his unsuspecting brother’s bag and in his friend’s car, to avoid getting caught.) Despite these unsavory antics, James was so charismatic people let him get away with it.

As his cocaine and pot-drenched star rose, James smoked weed onstage, dared cops to arrest him and had the audience dancing in the aisles. He seemed more like a rock/funk comic book character than a flesh-and-blood person at the height of his fame. James got all the girls – even if they came to the party with someone else. His entourage had a tough time keeping any groupies for themselves. Peter Benjaminson devotes a short chapter to Rick’s sexual escapades while on tour.

For all his relentless womanizing, James was smitten with his first wife Kelly. In a weird twist of fate, the song “You and I,” which James had written about their relationship, became a hit right after they divorced. James’ most famous girlfriend, Exorcist star Linda Blair, become pregnant with his child, and had an abortion without letting him know. Heartbroken, he wrote the song “Cold Blooded” about her.

Unlike Prince, Rick James wasn’t a musical prodigy. He didn’t have a distinctive singing style or play instruments that well. Instead, he was a showman, and very much epitomized the freewheeling decadence of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Although Prince and James both sold sex appeal as well as music, James had the more intimidating persona.

A perfectionist when it came to his musical vision, he arranged and produced hit songs for the Mary Jane Girls, Eddie Murphy and Smokey Robinson. His duets with protégé and powerhouse vocalist Teena Marie, proved to be some of the best work of his career.

In the late 1980s, with his album sales dwindling, Motown sued him. The case was dismissed, with James freed of all his obligations to the company. A few years later, “Super Freak” resurfaced when MC Hammer sampled the song in his hit “U Can’t Touch This.” James and his co-writer sued for songwriting credit, and they shared the 1990 Grammy for best R&B song with Hammer.

Instead of parlaying this lucky break into a musical comeback, Rick James sunk further into addiction. In 1991, he and girlfriend Tanya Hijazi held a woman hostage while on a crack cocaine binge. Two years later, James and Hijazi assaulted a woman in a West Hollywood hotel. James was found guilty on both charges and spent two years in prison. Of course, even bad behavior means good publicity, and Motown released a Rick’s greatest hits project to capitalize on the crimes. Despite a few tours and an album Urban Rhapsody in the late 1990s, Rick James’ career never recovered. He died of heart failure in 2004.

There’s no editorial slant to Super Freak: The Life of Rick James; it’s pretty straightforward, with author commentary here and there, leaving readers to form their own conclusion. Unfortunately, Rick’s persona was so consumed with drugs and womanizing that finding the man underneath the image could be a challenge. It seemed weird to see him appear sober on Judge Joe Brown’s TV show in 1998. Would have become as (in)famous if he’d been sober all the time?

Peter Benjaminson covers the more controversial incidents in Rick James’ life in detail, but he also gives us a glimpse at the human being and musical legacy underneath all the coked-out madness.

Jade Blackmore

Jade Blackmore

Jade Blackmore has written about classic rock, hard rock/metal and indie films for EarCandy Mag, Rock Confidential, Cinema Sentries, Perfect Sound Forever and Entertainment Today, among others. Her past day jobs in the entertainment industry included stints with Mix Magazine, Bourne Music and Boxoffice Magazine. She lives in Los Angeles. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Jade Blackmore