James Ambrose Johnson Jr. (February 1, 1948 – August 6, 2004), better known by his stage name Rick James, was an American singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, James began his musical career in his teen years. He was in various bands before entering the U.S. Navy and to avoid being drafted in 1964, James deserted to Toronto, Canada, where he formed the rock band the Mynah Birds, who eventually signed a recording deal with Motown Records in 1966. James’ career with the group halted after military authorities discovered his whereabouts and eventually convicted James to a one-year prison term related to the draft charges. After being released, James moved to California where he started a variety of rock and funk groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
After forming the locally popular Stone City Band in his hometown of Buffalo in 1977, James finally found success as a recording artist after signing with Motown’s Gordy Records, releasing the album Come Get It! in 1978 which produced the hits “You & I” and “Mary Jane.” In 1981, James released his most successful album, Street Songs, which included career-defining hits such as “Give It to Me Baby” and “Super Freak,” the latter song becoming his biggest crossover single, mixing elements of funk, disco, rock and new wave. James was also known for his soulful ballads such as “Fire & Desire” and “Ebony Eyes.” In addition, James also had a successful career as a songwriter and producer for other artists including Teena Marie, the Mary Jane Girls, the Temptations, Eddie Murphy and Smokey Robinson.
On the morning of August 6, 2004, James’ caretaker found him dead in his Los Angeles home at the Oakwood Toluca Hills apartment complex, just outside Burbank. He had died from pulmonary failure and cardiac failure, associated with his various health conditions of diabetes, a stroke, pacemaker, and heart attack. His autopsy found alprazolam, diazepam, bupropion, citalopram, hydrocodone, digoxin, chlorpheniramine, methamphetamine, and cocaine in his blood. However, the coroner stated that “none of the drugs or drug combinations were found to be at levels that were life-threatening in and of themselves.”
James was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York.