April 1981: Rick James Releases "Street Songs"

Rick James Street Songs
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(Gordy)

By 1981, Rick James was ready to be a rock star. With four studio albums and a handful of hit records, he was already a success. With the release of Street Songs, he'd finally achieve the superstar status he was seeking.

RELATED: February 1981: Rick James Releases "Give It to Me Baby"

The full-length would be preceded by first single "Give It to Me Baby," which was a hit out of the gate. The song crashed the top 40, peaking at #40 on July 17, 1981. The #1 song that week: Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes." It would hit #1 on the Hot R&B Song chart, holding the spot for five weeks.

The album's single has proved to be the biggest track of Rick James' storied career: "Super Freak." While a respectable hit on the charts, peaking at #16 on the Hot 100 and #3 on the Hot Soul Singles chart, it's stood the test of time to stand as his signature song. Providing background vocals: Motown legends The Temptations.

For James, the song was all one big laugh: "I wanted to write a silly song. I was in the studio and everything else for the album (Street Songs) was done," he told Musician magazine in 1983. "I just put 'Super Freak' together really quickly. I wanted a silly song that had a bit of new wave texture to it. I found a tuning on my Oberheim OB-Xa that I'd been wanting to use for a long time - it sounds like ghosts. And I put a very operatic vocal structure on it 'cause I'm really into opera and classical music. You probably hear a lot of that in my music. So I put (sings in a deep voice) 'She's all right'; very operatic, sort of funny, stuff."

Third single "Ghetto Life" was another piece of classic "Punk Funk." With the Temptations joining in again on background vocals, the track was a hit on black radio and on the inner city house party circuit. While James was still breaking through the mainstream, he was already a legend to black America.

Part of that legend was James' notorious relationship with Motown single Teena Marie. Known as the "Ivory Queen of Soul," she was a white artist with a unique connection to black audiences. When Marie and James played their sexual tension out on the song "Fire and Desire," it became one of the most talked-about tracks on the album.

The two would bring down the house with a show-stopping reunion version of the song at the 2004 BET Music Awards. James would pass away two months later at the age of 56.

Released on April 7, 1981, Street Songs would be platinum by summer of 1981. The album would reach #3 on the pop charts, and spend an astonishing 20 weeks at #1 on the R&B charts. At the 1982 Grammys, James would be the first African-American nominated in the Best Male Rock Vocal Performance category for "Super Freak." The award would go to Rick Springfield for "Jessie's Girl."

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