Rick James, 56; Funk Music Singer, Known for Hit 'Super Freak'

Times Staff Writers

Funk music pioneer Rick James, famous for the raunchy 1981 hit "Super Freak (Part 1)" and later infamous for drug and sex crimes that outdid the debauchery of his songs, was found dead Friday morning in his home near Universal City. He was 56.

Police arrived at the singer's home about 9:50 a.m. after a live-in caretaker reported finding his body. The preliminary finding was that James died of natural causes, but the Los Angeles County coroner's office will perform an autopsy. "He has a significant medical history, and it may prove that he died a natural death," said Craig Harvey, the agency's chief of operations. "But given his history of substance abuse, we think it is prudent to look into the case."

In addition to years of drug abuse, James had endured a battery of health problems in the last decade, including a stroke, heart problems and a hip replacement. Still, in recent months he had been fit enough to tour, undertaking a road run that included a July 26 show at the Universal Amphitheatre with Teena Marie and Morris Day & the Time. He recently performed on the televised BET Awards, and finished an album scheduled for release next year.

James enjoyed an unexpected surge in name recognition in recent months through the skits of David Chappelle, the popular comedian whose Comedy Central "Chappelle's Show" features sendups of James as a menacing celebrity Lothario. The spoof has such appeal that there has been talk of expanding it into a film.

At one point in his life, the Grammy-winning musician had, by his own estimation, a $10,000-a-week drug habit. He has said that he was on cocaine binges when he assaulted women in two separate incidents. In 1993, a jury convicted James on three of 14 charges in assault and torture cases. He had faced a potential life sentence if convicted of all charges, but the verdict led to two years in prison. Among the charges were accusations by a 24-year-old woman that she was held against her will and assaulted by James and his then-girlfriend, Tanya Anne Hijazi.

The lurid case only added to the salacious vibe James fostered with his concerts, album covers and lyrics. Although his number of Top 40 hits was limited to just five songs, all released from 1978 to 1984, the bassist was viewed at one point in his career as a worthy rival to Prince and as a pioneer carrying on the funk traditions of James Brown and George Clinton. In addition to "Super Freak," James' most notable hits were "You and I" in 1978 and "Give It to Me Baby" in 1981.

James was born James Ambrose Johnson Jr. on Feb. 1, 1948, in Buffalo, N.Y., the third child among eight born to James and Mabel Gladden Johnson. His father, described by the son as abusive, left the home before James was 8. His mother was a former dancer whose days as a housekeeper and single mother were far removed from her Harlem nights of glamour. There was still an edge to their life, however. "Her main income was from running numbers for the Italian mob," James later recalled.

James chafed under the discipline of his Catholic parochial school, and though he wore altar boy robes, he compiled an arrest record for petty crimes. At 15, he entered a school talent show, and his performance marked a clear turning point. "The feeling of the crowd singing, the people dancing in the aisles cast a magic spell on me.... I made a pact with myself from that day on -- music was my life," he said in a 1996 Rolling Stone article.

By 1964, James was enjoying local success with a vocal group called the Duprees -- enough success that he was failing to meet his obligations in the Naval Reserve, though those duties kept him out of the draft. After his superiors put him on active duty, James crossed the border to Canada. There he formed a band that would become a trivia answer for later rock fans; the Mynah Birds featured two future members of the Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, as well as Goldie McJohn, later of Steppenwolf.

James crossed paths with another future rock name -- a kid named Daniel Lanois, who had a basement recording studio in nearby Hamilton, Ontario, and would go on to produce records by Bob Dylan, U2 and others. "Working three hours with Rick James," Lanois told The Times last year, "that's like five years in a university studying record-making. Inside of 40 minutes you'd have a fully finished production. It was really great."

James' uncle was Temptations member Melvin Franklin and helped the youngster forge ties with Motown Records early on, but the mid-1960s recordings fizzled and the military issues prompted James to spend a good portion of the early 1970s in London with a band called Main Line. In 1977, he was back in the states and, with his military issues resolved, was soon delivering his first R&B; hits to Motown.

A tour with Prince helped establish both as rising stars, and James took no back seat to his famous peer in flamboyant stagecraft. James was backed by a band whose members were, like him, more than 6 feet tall and decked out in tight spandex, with bare chests and long, braided hair.

In 1981, James found the perfect song to accompany the cosmic pimp persona -- "Super Freak." ("She's a very kinky girl/The kind you don't take home to mother/She will never let your spirits down/Once you get her off the street, ow girl.") The song featured the Temptations on backup vocals and helped his album "Street Songs" climb to No. 3 on the pop charts.

"Super Freak" found a new life of sorts in 1990, when the song's musical hook was pulled from the original recording and used as the catchy core of "U Can't Touch This," a ubiquitous hit by MC Hammer that took rap music to a new level of success. As a credited songwriter on "U Can't Touch This," James earned his only Grammy when the hit was honored as the year's best R&B; track. Erykah Badu and Mary J. Blige would be among the other hip-hop stars to sample James' songs.

James also wrote and produced hits for Marie, Smokey Robinson, Val Young, the Temptations and comedian Eddie Murphy during his flirtation with a pop music career.

In June, he was honored with a career achievement honor as a songwriter by ASCAP, the performing rights group. Handed a glass statuette, he reflected on his past life on the edge. "Years ago, I would have used this for something totally different," he told the Beverly Hills audience. "Cocaine is a hell of a drug."

James is survived by three sons, Rick Jr., Tazman and Ty; and two granddaughters, Charisma and Jasmine. Funeral arrangements were pending.

Times staff writer Richard Cromelin contributed to this report.

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