Rick James

Funk icon Rick James suffered a stroke in November after popping a blood vessel on

stage. He was mounting a full-scale tour after spending years battling personal demons

and logging jail time for an assault conviction. At last report, James was undergoing

physical therapy in hopes of resuming his career.

The singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist was born James Johnson in Buffalo,

N.Y., 51 years ago today. His father deserted the family and James was expelled from

many schools before joining the Navy Reserves when he was 15.

James went AWOL and ended up in Toronto, where he took the stage name Ricky

Matthews. He fronted the Mynah Birds, a band that featured Goldy McJohn, who later

played with Steppenwolf, and Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, both of whom went on to

form Buffalo Springfield. After the Mynah Birds' deal with Motown yielded no releases,

James served as sideman for many '70s bands, but didn't make a big impression.

In 1978, Motown Records signed James again, this time as a solo artist, songwriter and

producer. He scored immediately with his first LP, the million-selling Come Get It,

which benefited from the hit single "You and I." James soon had a string of hits including

"Mary Jane," "Bustin' Out" and "Give It To Me Baby." He was the king of "punk funk."

James became best known, though, for the 1981 dance smash "Super Freak," portions

of which M.C. Hammer later used without permission in his 1990 mega-hit "U Can't

Touch This." James sued and received co-writing credit for the track.

From 1983 until the end of the decade, James' singles began slipping on the pop charts,

although he continued to have such R&B hits as "Cold Blooded," "Ebony Eyes" (a duet

with Smokey Robinson) and "Sweet Sexy Thing."

James introduced the Mary Jane Girls, a soul group for whom he wrote and produced

such songs as "In My House." He also produced Eddie Murphy's debut album and big hit

"Party All the Time." James' last big hit was a #1 R&B song, "Loosey's Rap," with rapper

Roxanne Shante.

In 1991, James and his girlfriend were arrested and charged with physically abusing

women who refused to participate in group sex with them. James admitted he was a

cocaine addict and that the incidents occurred during drug-induced hazes. He was

convicted of assaulting one of the women and, as part of a plea bargain, was sentenced

to five years and four months in jail.

James was released in 1996 and issued Urban Rhapsody the following year. The

LP included such tracks as "Player's Way" (RealAudio excerpt) and

"So Soft, So Wet." He toured behind the album up until his stroke.

As he recovers from his illness, James' fans can catch the James/Ike Turner duet "Love

Gravy" on the soundtrack to the TV show, "South Park." He also plays a gangster in the

Murphy film, "Life," due to be released this month.

Other birthdays: Bob Shane (Kingston Trio), 65; Don Everly (Everly Brothers), 62; Ray

Sawyer (Dr. Hook), 62; Joe Sample (Crusaders), 60; Richard Williams (Kansas), 48;

Exene Cervenka (X), 43; Lisa Marie Presley Jackson, 31 ... Dwayne Goettel (Skinny

Puppy), 1964-1995.