This month’s Motown Spotlight from the illustrious Sharon Davis focuses on one of the ‘bad boyz’ of funk, Rick James, the impact of his best-selling 1981 album “Street Songs” and his first highly memorable visit to London…
The American release of “Street Songs” from Rick James forty years ago this month, reminded me of a visit he paid to London which I’ve not written about previously for one reason or another, but thought now it might be of interest as we pay homage to this extraordinary album from an equally extraordinary man. However, before spilling the beans, I reckon the album deserves more than a passing mention.
“Street Songs” was his life saver, or to be more precise, it saved his professional life. He was no longer a Black artist, he had officially crossed over. And it’s easy to see why. From the very first note, the album was crammed with red hot tracks from its lead song and single “Give It To Me Baby,” featuring Temptation Melvin Franklin on support vocals. This high octane few minutes was brash and heavily laden with funk, while the lyrics, erm, spoke for themselves, which made it a dead cert to top the US R&B chart and become a Top 40 mainstream hit. Yet for all its power, “Give It To Me Baby” (like his previous three singles) got stuck in the Top 40. Second track, “Ghetto Life” delivered to us all The Temptations lending a vocal hand on a song that Rick James said summed up his life in four minutes forty seconds. Almost overshadowing “Make Love To Me” was “Mr Policeman” with Stevie Wonder playing harmonica and was, Rick explained, based around a true account of his friend being shot by the police. Quite possibly the most outstanding track here with a remarkable change of pace quite alien to the rest of the album, was the magnificent musical epic “Fire And Desire”, a duet with his one-time protégé Teena Marie. Rick intended to cut it on himself before changing his mind believing it better suited a duet. To this end, he had lined up “a local girl with an amazing voice” because Teena Marie was sick with a fever in Sausalito. When she discovered Rick’s plans she “immediately got out of her sick bed to sing on the track.” “Fire And Desire” spoke of breaking a woman’s heart, inspired by Rick’s relationship with Zimma, an Ethiopian princess he met in Paris, who, he admitted, had changed his attitude towards women. While he cared for her greatly, he refused to give up his drug use for her, so she left him.
Squashed in between this musical oasis were “Call Me Up” which he once referred to as his fun tune because girls would somehow discover his phone number and talk ‘sexy’ to him so he felt this would make an interesting track. “Below The Funk (Pass The J)” probably speaks for itself as it was, he pointed out, a reflection of his life in Buffalo, his hometown.
I’ve deliberately left “Super Freak” (again with The Temptations’ input) to last as that was the single Rick James flew to London to promote. Dissecting the lyrics from the funk, it’s easy to hear they didn’t reflect a nursery rhyme. In fact, Rick once admitted that it related to personal experiences and that on the original version the lyrics were ‘nasty to say the least,’ so much so, radio stations refused to touch it, let alone give it airtime. With help from a DJ friend, Alonzo Miller at a Los Angeles station, he re-wrote them, giving Alonzo ten per cent of the single’s royalties by way of thanks. When the revised “Super Freak” was aired, the station was once again deluged with complaints about its lyrical content, so it was pulled it from the playlist, never to return. Rick was furious.
“I have gotten a lot of things off my chest with (‘Street Songs’)” Rick told the media at the time. “I think some of the songs and lyrics are among the best.” He was not wrong. “Street Songs” elevated him into a near mega-star status almost overnight. Everyone wanted a slice of him, everyone claimed to be his friend: “Suddenly I had white fans as well as the black fans who had always loved me.” A US nationwide tour was put into action at $75,000 per gig. Before the album hit, he was playing to 20,000 maximum, now he was being offered stadiums three times that size – and to mixed audiences. Upping his game meant designing a large brand new stage set, new clothes, intensive rehearsals, and the necessary panache associated with a rising superstar. “We were then ready for the largest-grossing Black tour in history and though we didn’t know it yet, ‘Street Songs’ was on its way to being the second biggest selling Black album of all time.” The sold-out tour took in fifty-eight cities, with Teena Marie among his support acts: it was a tour of stylish, glitzy performances which whipped his audiences into a frenzy, with a marathon drug-taking heaven waiting for him behind the spotlight. Here’s a handful of facts and figures: in the Midsouth Coliseum, Memphis, Rick’s ticket sales matched those of Elvis Presley, but the visit wasn’t without unforeseen problems. Death threats were made against him, which the police took seriously. To this end fifteen Black plain clothes officers were assigned to protect him, particularly as prior to his arrival at the Coliseum, a couple of record shops selling his records had been fire-bombed. Rick spoke of this situation in a later media interview. “…Martin Luther King was killed there. So when a whole bunch of rednecks start making that kind of threat it soon loses its joke appeal. Elvis Presley was so big there that the people simply refused to let his memory die, and the thought of a black guy coming in, breaking the record and kissing white girls was just too much for them to take. Especially when they knew I’d end up smoking grass on their stage too.”
His performance at the Long Beach Arena broke the attendance record held by Elton John, while at the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, forty thousand people were turned away from the concert, with a line of cars extending six miles outside the arena; and a woman gave birth to twins during one concert. SWAT surrounded the Coliseum in Dallas. There were warrants out on him for money owed; the outcome was unclear. At another venue, police presence was high, having been alerted to Rick smoking weed on stage. He was warned if he did, he would be thrown into prison. Undeterred, Rick said “I had these twenty-foot joints made out of paper-mache which had smoke that would come out from the top. During ‘Mary Jane’ I’d go through this classical trip with the band, conducting while I was smoking a joint. I did it at every concert.” During the performance he told the audience that the police intended to incarcerate him, and with their help, he escaped to sing another day. There were more incidents during this tour but I think these examples give an idea of the character and attitude of this gifted singer. Whether you agreed with his antics or not, nobody could take away the sheer artistic showmanship once he was on stage or recording in the studio. These were unprecedented times for Rick James as he shook up America with his unique brand of funk and rock.
The “Street Songs” journey was phenomenal. It exceeded platinum sales on its way to becoming one of this decade’s biggest selling items in excess of six million copies. Named as the top crossover album of 1981, prestigious awards came in thick and fast. It was nominated for two Grammy Awards and won the Best Soul Album category in the American Music Awards. Rick was also the first African-American to be nominated in the Best Male Rock Vocal Performance category for “Super Freak”. Yet, reading between the lines, these honours and trophies were secondary to him; he loved the dollar more. “The biggest effects have been financial. I earn a lot more money now for doing just the same thing as I’ve always done. The other satisfying thing is that I’m getting to a wider audience.”
As his public appeal grew rapidly in alarming proportions, Rick James quickly earned his place in the upper echelons of Motown: a star to be reckoned with. Yet behind the bucks, company executives knew they were in for a rough time – privately and publicly – because Rick had little regard for authority, was reckless with his drug use and juicy sexual appetites, and was, whether of his making or not, the centre of controversy and conflict. Sometimes it just didn’t do to look too carefully behind the music, but hey, that’s rock ‘n’ roll! While Rick James was everyone’s darling across America, on the other side of the Atlantic, it was a whole different landscape.
After numerous attempts to tempt Rick to visit London, Motown/BMG finally succeeded in November 1982. It was of course a long overdue five-day promotional trip which can, in hindsight, only be described as a nightmare for those involved. As there was no new product available, “Super Freak” was re-promoted. My press/promotion company, Eyes & Ears, had for some while been working with Motown on Rick’s product and like them knew this visit could actually push him into the “Big Time” (no pun intended) as there was a huge market ready and waiting for him. All it needed was that extra push. To say I was pretty excited about the visit was an understatement; I was ridiculously upbeat with large doses of fan worship.
Motown and Eyes & Ears worked together planning a comprehensive schedule for him with his management which guaranteed maximum publicity with some personal time in between the media interviews and nightclub walk-ins. All was agreed before he stepped foot on British soil. Rick James arrived at Heathrow on Tuesday, 9th November and was transported to his hotel in a limousine escorted by two American motorcycle cops. Well, that was the intention, but the small cavalcade was pulled over by genuine British police for impersonating the boys in blue. Yet once the singer was settled into his hotel, much of the itinerary was scrapped because Rick feigned illness, and those he did honour were necessarily edited before broadcast. An expensive media reception was arranged in his honour at Piccadilly’s luxurious Xenon nightclub where most of the city’s luminaries including Wham! and visiting American artists, Shalamar and Sylvester, were invited to share time with one of Motown’s most talked about artists. Xenon was heaving with guests drinking the finest wine as they waited for the star to arrive at 8pm. Twin mime dancers, Photostat, kicked off the evening’s entertainment to be replaced by two hefty guys dressed as American cops riding Harley Davidsons through clouds of dry ice into the club, whereupon Rick James appeared, bare-chested, wearing leather trousers and codpiece, with a scantily clad lady on each arm, as the climax to the spectacular light and dried ice presentation.
Following this he snorted cocaine from said codpiece hanging from his waist before being encouraged, if you like, by Sylvester to meet his guests from the nightclub’s stage. I was standing behind Sylvester at side stage listening to him telling Rick to just get out there. He told me later (which I wrote down as rarely left home without a notebook and pen on my person) that he knew who Rick was but doubted that Rick knew of him, “What he doesn’t realise is that despite being a big star in the States, he means nothing in this country. So, OK, he doesn’t want to perform in the clubs. But I did it and it worked. Subsequently, I got several hit singles. If Rick doesn’t do it, he won’t make it. It’s as simple as that.” I understand Rick’s comment afterwards was something like, “I get paid $75,000 to sing in the States and if anyone wants me to sing here, they’ll have to pay me.” I further remember that at some time during his short stay at Xenon, Rick and two ladies disappeared into a side room for a time, not to be interrupted. I’m sure it wasn’t the type of reception Motown had envisaged although thankfully the attending guests were unaware of the mischief being acted out backstage.
Rick remembered the visit rather differently, saying he attended a lot of press parties and met many beautiful English women. “All any of them wanted to know was, what is a Super Freak? Before I left England, I’d show a few of them.” He also mentioned he was due to appear on a prime BBC radio programme but the night before he entertained ‘two fine English babes’ in his hotel room, and cancelled the BBC. “I was so high I missed the most important radio interview of my life.” He stayed in bed instead recuperating, saying his doctor had ordered him to rest, “but I don’t think they believed me.”
The last night of Rick’s stay in London was the most crucial for personal appearances. Being a Saturday, potential record buyers filled the clubs to party the night away. Despite this, Rick cried off his obligations, saying he was ill, yet was photographed partying at Stringfellows (one of my favourite nighteries) in London’s West End, just hours after his appearances had been reluctantly cancelled. Blues & Soul magazine subsequently reported – “On meeting Rick, we would underline there was nothing Motown or Eyes & Ears could have done to help the situation. Rick doesn’t want this market badly enough to put himself out, and for that reason, we’d be very surprised if he ever cracks it. It’ll take a massive change in personality and of course a couple of good records!”
Once again, the artist defended his actions, insisting he was exhausted after visiting eight countries in under two weeks. “London was the last stop and they had me going to clubs all night partying, filling me with drink and throwing women at me all the time. Then, at eight in the morning, there’d be a knock at my door and they’d expect me to be ready for interviews. The truth is, I just couldn’t physically handle it.”
I must say when I read my notes after his visit, my blood pressure rose. Let me clarify, when I worked at Motown we never forced any artist to drink, and certainly throwing women at the artists we worked with wasn’t on the agenda for any US visiting act. Yet I remember saying at a ‘clean up’ meeting that the main thing Rick failed to grasp was that the two companies who worked with him also worked exactly the same hours – if not longer – but had declined all offers of alcohol, women and drugs!
So there you have it: the brief tale of spilling the beans, according to Miss Davis’ 1982 work diary. OK, so Rick James was irritatingly controversial, had a provocative image, and became troublesome at times, but he was, without a doubt, an incredibly innovative talent which he generously shared with his company of singers that included Teena Marie, Val Young and the Stone City Band. Sure, he was more potent and steamier than most, his music definitely more explosive, and I believe our world of music would have been so much poorer without him in it.
Rest in peace James Ambrose Johnson Jr. Your music lives on through the generations and I’m still ridiculously upbeat with large doses of fan worship.
(Some of the quotes are gratefully sourced from “The Confessions Of Rick James: Memoirs Of A Super Freak” by Rick James, published 2007. This book was later edited by David Ritz for publication in 2014 under the amended title “Glow – The Autobiography Of Rick James”. Both are available on Amazon)