On the Passing of Rick James

I was living in St. Catharines in the fall of 1981. My radio dial was invariably tuned to WBLK — “the House that Hound Built”. ’81 was the year of “Superfreak” and for a time Rick James was one of the biggest acts around.

James’ career was not quite the bottle-rocket that is typically portrayed. From late 50’s Buffalo, he ended up playing with Neil Young in the Yorkville scene of the 60’s. From there it was talent, ambition and drugs that fueled a career that peaked with the landmark “Street Songs”. The opening riff of “Ghetto Life” defines an era and a genre of music; it is the Jamesian equivalent of a John Paul Jones or Brian May classic, except he did it with a bass. Make no mistake, James was glitter, heavy metal, Philly Soul, P-Funk, rock, disco, glam and hair-cut. In 1981 he was a doped-up, egotistical show-man of absurdly energetic creativity. A small group of regular listeners to my radio show accompanied me to James’ Buffalo show. Of course you would expect the Buffalo show to be a tour-de-force, it was his home town. Many were there to hear “Give it to Me” or “Superfreak”, he did “You and I” and “Big Time” but the killer was the opener.

It’s dark. The band’s on stage, but no Rick James. Then boom! A blast at center stage and James appears genie-like out of no where, stroking his guitar. “Ghetto Life” starts — the riff an anthem, the crowd a frenzied bunch of funked up kids. Everywhere lights; blindingly messmerizing. Still one of the greatest concert openers I have ever witnessed; matched only in power, expectation and imagery by U2 during the Joshua Tree and Zoo City tours.

James descent to an earthly hell is well documented and was probably inevitable. With the passing of two of my former musical zeitgeists within the last year or so — Robert Palmer and now James — I’m feeling particularly obsolete these days.

UPDATE: Found this link from soul-patrol.net featuring Rick James and band from the 1981 tour recorded in Long Beach. A great bonus is the performance of Teena Marie on some of the tracks. This show was earlier in the tour and it sure sounds like it at times.