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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 160

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This is the grave of Rick James.

Born James Johnson in Buffalo in 1948, James became interested in both partying and music in his early teens. He lied about his age to join the Navy when he was 14 or 15 and wasn’t particularly good at it, being pretty out of control. In 1965, he was supposed to be deployed to Vietnam. Instead, he fled to Toronto and changed his name to avoid detection. He started playing the local music scene, getting to know Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. He played in several bands in the city, including with future members of Steppenwolf. He then went to Detroit and met a bunch of the Motown musicians. That included Stevie Wonder, who told him to shorten his name (of course still not using his real name) to Ricky James, although he continued to use Ricky Matthews at times for the next several years. He signed with Motown. When the label found out about his fleeing the Navy in 1966, seeing a real talent, it worked with the Navy to deal it without ruining the kid’s life. He had to serve 6 months at hard labor. But then of course he escaped after 6 weeks. After another 6 months hiding, he turned himself back in. Thanks to his mother knowing Ohio congressman Louis Stokes, this got worked out where he only had to serve another 5 months of hard labor, which given he was probably going to face 5 years, was pretty good. After this was over, he went back to Canada and served a bit of time in jail there too.

Over the next decade, James was a songwriter for Motown, a studio musician, and a bandleader with marginal success. Finally, in 1978, he hit it big. He released his first solo album that year and had hits with “You and I” and then “Mary Jane,” which made him a star. He mentored Prince, having him open for James’ first big headlining tour. He had a series of albums that did well through the mid-80s, though found himself unable to get on MTV, as did so many black artists. The network claimed it was for the sexual content of his videos, but he countered that it didn’t matter when Madonna had a sexually explicit video. Gee, I wonder why.

James also partied to a legendary success, eventually ruining his career and his body by the late 1980s. He did make some money after MC Hammer stole “Super Freak” from him and he sued for songwriting credit when “U Can’t Touch This” went huge in 1990. But his legendary cocaine use (he had a $7000 a week habit that lasted for five years), which led to legal problems, including the kidnapping of a woman doing cocaine with him that included forcing her to perform sexual acts. He lived in isolation during most of the 1990s, at least when he was not in legal trouble, had a brief comeback in 1998 but suffered a stroke. His friends Eddie and Charlie Murphy worked with him to rehabilitate his career and he had a famed appearance on the Chappelle Show, not to mention Dave Chappelle’s legendary imitation of him that got so famous, it helped drive the comedian into his own rejection of the spotlight. James died in 2004, basically from abusing his body for the last 40 years.

Rick James is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, New York.

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