The legacy of Rick James. The formidable talent died of heart failure at age 56

By Raymond Fiore
Updated August 14, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Rick James
Credit: Rick James: Paul Cox/LFI

If George Clinton IS funk’s intergalactic architect, and Prince its crossover musical prodigy, then Rick James, who died Aug. 6 of heart failure in his L.A. home at age 56, was the genre’s flashy, carnal embodiment of rock & roll excess. A formidable talent who wrote and produced a string of indelible post-disco R&B classics like ”Super Freak” and ”Give It to Me Baby,” James enjoyed a brilliant moment of success in the late ’70s and early ’80s before being swallowed by a cocaine addiction that all but ruined his life and career. ”Rick was a troubled soul but an amazing talent,” says his former Motown labelmate Lionel Richie. ”I will miss him.”

When he debuted on the scene back in 1978, James (born James Johnson Jr.) invoked the cross-pollination of rock and soul that Sly Stone had pioneered a decade earlier, fusing his lascivious lyrics and rebellious spirit to craft a style that came to be known as punk-funk. With glittery braids and ostentatious leather duds, he seemed an unlikely candidate for mainstream success. But by positioning himself between genres, the R&B Bacchus was able to sell his electro-rock jams to a wider audience than most of his funky brethren. ”Rick achieved what at the time P-Funk could not, and that was to cross over to the white audience and get major airplay and video play,” says Bootsy Collins, the Parliament Funkadelic bassist. ”So it can be said that Rick took funk into the unfunky homes of white America.”

James’ early-’80s success made him a rich man, but it also magnified his demons. ”You smoke a joint and write a song and next thing you know you’ve got a check in the mail,” he said in 1981.