Rick James (born James Ambrose Johnson, Jr. February 1, 1948 – August 6, 2004) was an American musician and composer.
Influenced by singers such as Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, James started singing in doo-wop and R&B groups as a teenager in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. After entering the U.S. Navy to avoid being drafted, he deserted to Toronto, Canada, where he formed the rock and R&B band The Mynah Birds, whose lineup included Bruce Palmer, Neil Young, and Nick St. Nicholas. James’ tenure with the group was interrupted after military authorities discovered his whereabouts while he was in recording sessions with Motown Records in 1966. James served a one-year prison term related to the draft charges. Upon release, James moved to California to resume his career with the Mynah Birds. After that group disbanded, James began a series of rock bands in California, and worked for Motown as a songwriter under the alias "Ricky Matthews."
In 1977, he signed with a Motown imprint, Gordy Records, as a recording artist, releasing his debut, Come Get It!, in April 1978. The album sold over 2 million copies, and launched his career as a funk and soul artist. His most popular album, 1981’s Street Songs, launched him into superstardom thanks to the hit singles, "Give It to Me Baby" and "Super Freak", the latter song becoming his signature song, and the basis of MC Hammer’s biggest hit, "U Can’t Touch This." James eventually sued for back royalties. After being credited as writer of the song, James became the 1991 recipient of a Best R&B Song Grammy for composing the song. Due to this success, James was often called the "king of punk funk", for his mix of funk, soul and underground-inspired rock music. In addition to his own success, James emerged as a successful songwriter and producer for other artists, such as Teena Marie, The Mary Jane Girls, The Temptations, Eddie Murphy and Smokey Robinson.
A drug addiction hampered his career in the late 1980s. In the 1990s, his legal troubles, including kidnapping and torturing two women while he was under the influence of crack, resulted in his serving a three-year sentence at California’s Folsom State Prison. James was released on parole in 1996, and resumed his musical career releasing the album, Urban Rapsody, in 1997. A mild stroke suffered during a concert in 1998 interrupted his career for a brief time. James received new notoriety in 2004, when he appeared (as himself) in an episode of Chappelle’s Show, in a Charlie Murphy "True Hollywood Stories" segment that satirized James’ wild lifestyle. James died later that year from heart failure at age 56.