Funk legend Rick James was found dead at his Hollywood home by his live-in housekeeper on Friday, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. He was 56.
The LAPD was notified of James’ passing at 9:45 a.m. PT. James’ physician signed off on his death certificate, explaining that he passed away from an existing medical condition. The singer suffered a stroke in 1998 after a blood vessel broke in the back of his neck during a performance in Denver.
Best known for his 1980s hits “Super Freak” and “Give It to Me Baby,” James, who hadn’t released a studio album since 1997’s Urban Rhapsody, experienced a surge in popularity this year when Dave Chappelle impersonated him on his “Chappelle’s Show.”
James’ phrases like “It’s a celebration” and “I’m Rick James, bitch!” were reintroduced into pop culture through the show. “I’ve always been able to laugh at myself, the character Rick James,” James told MTV News in May. “I created it, that extroverted part of James Johnson. I was able to laugh at myself ’cause that’s what it’s meant for, it’s meant to have fun with” (see “Dave Chappelle: The Reason Grandmas Know Who Lil Jon Is” ).
Born James Johnson Jr. in Buffalo, New York, on February 1, 1948, as a young man he served for a time in the Naval Reserve before running away to Toronto. It was there that James — then calling himself Ricky James Matthews — sang in a band called the Mynah Birds, which featured a pre-Buffalo Springfield Neil Young. The band signed with Motown (one of the first rock acts on the label) but never released a note of music — as James was taken by authorities for going AWOL from the Navy.
James began playing bass and percussion as well as singing in several acts before signing a Motown contract of his own. His debut album, Come Get It!, produced two hit singles, “You and I” and “Mary Jane.” The string of hits continued through the late ’70s and into the ’80s, with “Bustin’ Out” and “Give It to Me Baby,” and resurrected the failing fortunes of the Motown label. In 1981, James had his most massive hit with “Super Freak.”
After his streak of solo successes, James began to produce hits for others. He revived the career of the Temptations with “Standing on the Top,” and he produced hits for his protégés Teena Marie and the Mary Jane Girls. He continued producing and penning hits for himself and others through most of the ’80s and eventually left Motown for Reprise Records in 1988. His popularity began to wane shortly after that, but he gained another moment of attention in 1990 when MC Hammer scored a massive smash with “U Can’t Touch This,” which sampled “Super Freak.”
While the ’90s started off promisingly for James, things quickly fell apart. He was convicted in 1993 of assaulting two women. The first attack occurred when he restrained and burned a young woman with a hot pipe during a cocaine binge at his home. He was free on bail when the second assault occurred in 1992, this time in a hotel room. James was sentenced to more than two years in a state prison.
James toured earlier this year with Teena Marie and had hoped to hit the road for his own tour early next year. He recently collaborated with Kanye West on a song, and he was also working on an autobiography (see “Kanye West, Others Remember Rick James As A Visionary” ).
The singer spoke with MTV News in May and seemed at ease with his larger-than-life reputation. “I’m just now in control of the persona,” James said. “I don’t have to go out to clubs every night, and I don’t have to have 10 women in my bed when I wake up. There’s a lot of things I don’t have to do anymore because it’s passé, you know? It’s redundant. I’m just concentrating on my kids, and I’m just working more towards the future and Rick James happiness within himself.
“I’m in a great new part of my life,” James added. “I got a great new album coming out, I’m on tour and I’m happy. Me and Teena are back together; that may end tomorrow, but right now it’s fine.”