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The Life of Rick James
By Peter Benjaminson
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2017 Peter Benjaminson
All rights reserved.
Birth of a Super Freak
Rick James's staying power and superstardom is not limited to the often unpredictable music business. It is based on his solid family allegiance.
— Congressman Louis Stokes (D–Ohio), Rick's second cousin and former chairman of the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations, addressing his fellow United States representatives from the floor of the House in 1981
It's tempting to think of Rick as the black sheep of his family. But considering his fourteen years of creative struggle to make it to the top and his relentless efforts to stay there, it makes more sense to think of him as an active and intelligent family member who just happened to work in the music business instead of politics, journalism, or law, as others in his family did.
Through his mother, Rick had formidable second cousins. A US congressman for thirty-one years, Louis Stokes investigated the murders of President John F. Kennedy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as chairman of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. His brother Carl Stokes was mayor of Cleveland from 1967 to 1971 — the first black mayor of a major American city. Rick also was the cousin of Lori Stokes, presently coanchor of Eyewitness News This Morning on New York City's WABC-TV, and Chuck Stokes, editorial/public affairs director for WXYZ-TV in Detroit and producer and moderator of Spotlight on the News, that city's oldest weekly public affairs and news show. As Chuck Stokes put it, "This is a family with the drive to be productive and successful and to make it."
Rick also has been said to be the nephew of Melvin Franklin of the Temptations. But Rick's brother LeRoi Johnson, a prominent Buffalo, New York, attorney and artist, says flatly that Franklin, who died in 1995, "is not related to us." Johnson did say that Franklin might be connected to the late Alberta Franklin, who was Rick's aunt through marriage.
Finally, Rick also was a distant cousin of singer James Brown and actor Danny Glover. According to Johnson, during the slavery era Brown's great-great grandfather and Rick's great-great grandfather were brothers enslaved on the same plantation in Wrens, Georgia, a small town thirty miles south of Augusta. One of their sisters was Glover's great-great grandmother. These three siblings had been enslaved on a plantation in another state but were eventually brought to Georgia and sold to separate but nearby plantations in the Wrens area. Rick's ancestors worked on the Stone Plantation, and Glover's and Brown's on the Dove Brown Plantation. Johnson says an employee of Glover's has confirmed this account and Glover confirmed through his spokeswoman that he, Rick, and Brown are distant relatives.
Rick James was born James Ambrose Johnson Jr. in Buffalo, New York, on February 1, 1948. The family eventually grew to four boys and four girls, presided over most of the time by a single mother. That mother was former nightclub dancer Mabel Sims, who eventually became known as Mabel "Betty" Gladden. Mabel was a petite woman, 5 feet, 5 inches, who spent most of her career working for two prominent black numbers runners in Buffalo who reported to Buffalo Mob boss Stefano Magaddino.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Sims, the granddaughter of a slave, may have danced in a traveling troupe before moving to Buffalo during World War II, according to family members. There, she appeared at the Moonglo club. LeRoi Johnson, Rick's brother, describes his mother's dancing as seductive, à la Josephine Baker. A barely distinguishable family photo shows her performing on what looks like a low table covered with a tablecloth. She is barefoot, wearing a somewhat modest halter top with a bare midriff and a long skirt slit high on the sides. She stopped dancing at age sixteen when she gave birth to her first child, Carmen Sims, a boy, in Cleveland.
She then had a second child, Camille, with a man named Homer Robinson before marrying James Ambrose Johnson Sr. in 1946. James Ambrose Johnson Jr. was Sims's first child with Johnson, and LeRoi Johnson, born eleven months after Rick, was her second. The couple had three more children — Sheryl, Alberta, and William — before divorcing in 1959. The former Mrs. Johnson then married Elliott Gladden and gave birth to her final child, Alicia Penelope Gladden — known as Penny — in 1961.
Although Sims had given up her career as a dancer by the time Rick was born, once she saw Rick's nascent talent as an entertainer, she passed her own ambitions on to him. In 1998 Rick's brother Carmen told Behind the Music that their mother's frustrated show business career was the major force driving Rick. "He was the favorite," Carmen said. "[My mother] saw talent in him, and with her unfulfilled talent, she wanted to live it through him." Rick felt this pressure throughout his life.
Rick's mother had an intense interest in music, and strove to cultivate this in her children as well. She constantly played albums by Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, John Coltrane, and Sarah Vaughan at home. Rick later called these albums "the musical textbooks of my youth." Rick's mother also visited clubs in Buffalo to hear these and other rhythm and blues and jazz musicians, sometimes taking one or more of her children with her. One of Rick's goals in life was to unite these two forms of music, a goal he later achieved in some of his hit songs.
* * *
The family lived in the Willert Park Courts housing project on Buffalo's east side, which had been built exclusively for African Americans in 1939. In 1956 they migrated across the Swan Street Bridge into the previously majority-white Perry Projects. According to LeRoi Johnson, "The white kids were fine with us until the parents would say something to the kids and the kids would come out and say something like, 'My mother told me you're just a nigger.'" Rick, LeRoi, and their siblings often punched it out with the white kids.
Rick became a skilled fighter, as did LeRoi, and both were known to throw punches later in life. When the harassment became intense, LeRoi Johnson said, their father and their older brother Carmen "beat the hell" out of their harassers.
After their mother married Gladden in 1960, the family moved to a two-family house on Ferry Street in Buffalo's Cold Spring neighborhood. Gladden's parents lived upstairs and the rest of the family lived downstairs.
Although Rick's mother officially worked as a house cleaner, as Rick sang in his 1981 song "Below the Funk (Pass the J)," "Mama raised me on the numbers racket." Gladden indeed made most of her money by running numbers and administering a numbers racket office. An illegal precursor to today's widespread and legal state lottery games, the numbers racket allowed its players to bet money on three numbers they'd pick in the hope of matching the three numbers that would be announced the next day. Runners like Rick's mother would carry the bet money and the numbers chosen (written on betting slips) from each bettor to the "numbers bank," or headquarters.
Rick's mother "worked her ass off," Rick told author Davin Seay, who interviewed Rick for his e-book Super Freak: The Last Days of Rick James. "Every day she'd be out in her snow boots, house to house, under mats, in mail boxes and behind the garbage cans where people would leave their [betting] slips." She often took Rick and LeRoi with her. As Rick said, "We'd carry a shopping bag with all the money and books, so we could run with it in case the cops stopped her."
The money from the numbers operation helped Gladden support her eight children well. Both LeRoi and Rick remembered good meals; a two-level, three-bedroom apartment; and sufficient clothes for everyone, even when no father was around. LeRoi also remembered that their mother employed her own housekeeper and kept two new cars for family use, although she parked them blocks away from the projects. As Rick sang in his 1997 release "Mama's Eyes," "She took it to the streets on her feet and she fed us well."
Johnson said their mother's numbers earnings also financed Rick's musical career until 1973. That year, however, the massive steel mills that had made Buffalo an industrial powerhouse and a magnet for wage earners shut down, and the family's good times were over. Gladden told Johnson that although Buffalo residents still played the numbers, they were betting pennies, not dollars.
* * *
Rick's father, James Ambrose Johnson Sr., was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and lived in Canton, Ohio, before moving to Buffalo. He worked in a Chevrolet assembly plant, then at Republic Steel's South Park Avenue plant, and later in construction. He served in the navy during the Korean War. James Sr. retired from Laborers' Union Local 210 around 1988, and Rick remembered him dressing up in a Shriner's hat and escorting Mabel to an Elks Lodge ball.
Later in life, Rick told a California court psychologist that Johnson Sr., also known as Hitchy-Boy — for reasons no one can remember — was "an abusive alcoholic." Rick also told California criminologist Sheila Balkan that his father was "very sadistic" to his mother and beat her often. "Once in a while I would try to help her, but my father told me I'd get it if I didn't stay out of it." He told another interviewer that when he heard his father beating his mother, he'd wish he was grown up "so I could kill him."
Levi Ruffin, a childhood friend of Rick's and later a member of Rick's Stone City Band, describes Rick's father as a hustler. "He hit Mom every now and then. Came home when he felt like it. Screamed 'cause his meals weren't cold or hot enough, whatever, that kind of dude."
Johnson Sr. left the family when Rick was seven, and eventually divorced Rick's mother. "I woke up one morning and he was gone," Rick told Behind the Music. Rick also said his father was "never really into family life." Rick's brother LeRoi defended their father, however, noting that after breaking up with Rick's mother, Johnson Sr. partnered with a woman with whom he spent the rest of his life.
Although Rick described his mother as "an incredible, incredible woman," she passed the abuse she'd received from her husband on to Rick. "My father would beat my mother on a daily basis, and my mother would take it in turn and beat on me," Rick told author Pamela Des Barres in Rock Bottom. After his arrests in the 1990s he told California authorities that his mother would beat him with a knotted electrical cord for little or no reason, "letting out her frustrations."
Social service workers visited the family's home several times, but Rick said the children refused to leave because "we were all a team." And as he grew older, his relationship with his mother improved. She became supportive of his musical career and later became his "best friend." Nevertheless, his father's abuse, neglect, and eventual absence severely damaged Rick's understanding of how to be a husband and father.
* * *
The Buffalo ghetto, where Rick was born in the pre–civil rights era, also damaged him, as it did others who lived there, even though it provided the themes for his best songs.
"I always thought there was something mentally wrong with me," Rick said in 1979, attributing his perceived problem in large part to "being black and born in the ghetto and not thinking that you can get out." He described the place as dominated by poverty, drugs, pimps, gangsters, prostitutes, and guns. "Most black people born in the United States today have a psychological defect. We're born into something that's not what we perceive life to be. Black people are mental patients in the hospital of fucking life ... and to get well, we have to say we are somebody, we are relevant to life, we can get out of here."
Rick devoted much of his life to accumulating enough wealth to avoid ever sinking back into the ghetto. He returned to Buffalo after becoming a music business success in the 1980s but lived in splendor inone of its suburbs, Orchard Park, rather than in the inner city, and later moved permanently to Los Angeles.
* * *
Rick began rebelling against his family at an early age, much to his mother's chagrin. Rick's sister Camille, now Camille Hudson, describes their mother as "a devout Catholic who went to church all the time" and insisted that her children do the same. Camille says both LeRoi and Rick were even altar boys "until Rick was kicked out 'cause he was a little too hyper for them." Rick was "bad ... real hard to handle ... a real handful." It's possible Rick's rebellious behavior was a typical response to being raised in a strict environment. But Camille provides a different possible cause of Rick's behavior pattern: both Rick and his Mom were "hyper," neither of them could sit down and be still. "If you tried to put him in front of the TV, you had to chase him around, because he couldn't sit down."
His mother thought there was something wrong. "My other children were always so calm, but Rick had so much get-up!" she once said. She was so alarmed at what might now be diagnosed as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that she took him to a psychiatrist early in the 1950s. "The doctor couldn't explain it, but he didn't think it was a mental problem."
Rick, speaking with California psychologist Raymond E. Anderson after his arrests in the 1990s, said that he would run away often to get attention. Sometimes he would walk ten to fifteen miles, absorbed in thought. LeRoi said Rick began running away from home at age five and that Rick dragged him along on this first attempt to escape. Because of their age, and the fact that they were dressed like cowboys, their attempt ended at the local police station.
When his mother would draft Rick and LeRoi to carry her numbers books in big shopping bags while she went door to door on her rounds, the two boys would often cry and wail in protest. Rick told one interviewer, "I hated it. It was so fucking cold." Finally, Johnson remembers, during a snowstorm when the buses weren't running, their mother wanted them to accompany her as she crossed Buffalo's Hamburg Street bridge on foot even though the blowing snow had cut their visibility to zero. Rick took a stand and threatened to call the cops if she forced him to go. That was the last time she took Rick with her.
* * *
Rick was often in trouble with the law. As a teenager, he was sent to two juvenile homes for stealing vehicles — including a bus, which he stole, he later said, because "it was big and there were keys in it."
He didn't restrict himself to vehicles. According to LeRoi, Rick was arrested as a teenager for stealing some leathers from the C&B Men's Shop in Buffalo. "He stayed in it after it closed, then broke out." It was hardly an intelligent theft; the police tracked Rick home by following his footprints in the snow. Rick committed a very similar robbery, and made very similar mistakes, just a few years later. Perhaps his love for clothes warped his judgment in both instances.
Rick also was a youthful drug user and dealer. He started smoking marijuana at fourteen. According to court records, he experimented with cocaine and heroin in his teens as well. In April 1978, at age twenty, he was arrested in Buffalo for possessing more than two ounces of what the Buffalo Police Department quaintly spelled "Marihuana." Camille was hardly surprised. "They could have caught him any day with marijuana," she said. LeRoi contributed the mug shot and police report from that 1978 arrest to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives in Cleveland, where they are preserved.
* * *
Rick became sexually active at an early age as well. According to LeRoi Johnson, Rick started having sex at the age of nine, with a girl of the same age. "Rick was always ahead of his time with women," Johnson said. At fifteen, Rick had an affair with an African dancer in her twenties who was renting a room in his mother's house.
Later on, Rick favored prostitutes, "both as people and as an inspiration for music," Johnson says, adding, "In our life, hookers were just people. We didn't demean them because of what they were doing to earn a living." As Johnson sees it, sex workers "were a part of life, black life. The girls we knew were attracted to pimps, and a lot of them became hookers." He also notes that the sex workers Rick was around were "gorgeous, high-end beauties."
Drugs and precocious sex weren't Rick's only problems: he tried to avoid school entirely. Levi Ruffin, his childhood friend, says "Rick got kicked out of almost every school he went to. He wouldn't go to class. So they'd put him in another school, and he wouldn't go to class there either. He didn't like it, and to hell with it."
When Rick and his brother were at Catholic school together, LeRoi Johnson says, one of the nuns tried to discipline Rick by rapping him on the knuckles with a ruler, but Rick took the ruler from her and broke it in half. Rick soon started attending public schools. After being expelled from Buffalo's Bennett High School, he attended Grover Cleveland High School and East High School, but he had dropped out of school entirely by 1964, when he was fifteen years old. Ruffin says the reason Rick saw school as a waste of time was that he wanted to become a musician and get out of the ghetto.
Excerpted from Super Freak by Peter Benjaminson. Copyright © 2017 Peter Benjaminson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 Birth of a Super Freak,
2 Out to Sea,
3 Toronto Was Cold but Its Music Was Hot,
4 A Defiant Rick Forms the Sailor Boys and Becomes Rick Jagger,
5 Rick James, Thief,
6 Rick Joins a Flock of Mynah Birds,
7 Rick James, International Drug Smuggler,
8 Rick James and the Birth of Buffalo Springfield,
9 From Yorkville to Motown,
10 Rick Is Court-Martialed ... Twice,
11 Rick Goes a Second Round with Motown,
12 Rick Quits Motown in Disgust and Forms Salt 'n Pepper,
13 Rick Has Two Children with One Woman and Marries a Second,
14 Rick Creates Heaven and Earth ... and Then Destroys Both,
15 Rick Breaks His New White Cane,
16 Rick Continues the Pursuit of Glory,
17 Shadowy Investors Make Rick a Motown Star,
18 The Emergence of the Stone City Band,
19 Rick Creates Punk Funk,
20 Rick Helps Save Motown,
21 Rick Writes a Song about Himself and Kelly,
22 Hash and Cash,
23 Rick Uses White Slang to Bust Out,
24 Rick and Teena Marie Make Beautiful Music Together,
25 The Magical Funk Tour,
26 A Bottomless Pool of Female Flesh,
27 Rick Writes a Song about His Penis,
28 Rick and Prince Duke It Out for Sex and Glory,
29 Rick Takes a Nap in the Garden,
30 Rick Absolutely Hits the Freakin' Top with Street Songs,
31 "Super Freak",
32 "Fire and Desire" Highlights Rick's Messy Relationship with Teena Marie,
33 Rick Sings about Sex and Poverty,
34 Rick Denies He's Gay and Confronts the Cops,
35 The Street Songs Tour,
36 Cocaine Begins to Take Its Toll,
37 Rick Scores as a Minor TV Personality and Dreams of Hollywood Stardom,
38 Rick Scores Big-Time as a Songwriter and Producer ... for Other Musicians,
39 The Mob Comes Calling,
40 Rick Denounces the Reagan Recession While Throwin' Down,
41 Rick Struggles to Integrate MTV,
42 Rick Fantasizes the Mary Jane Girls into Existence,
43 Rick Romances Linda Blair in Cold Blood,
45 Rick Involves Himself in a Murderous Family Feud,
46 Rick and Eddie Murphy "Party All the Time",
47 Rick Tries and Fails to Shake Off the Drug Yoke,
48 A Glowing Rick Chases a Woman Along a Beach,
49 Rick Lets His Freak Flag Fly,
50 Rick and Motown Duke It Out in Court,
51 Rick Meets the Love of His Life,
52 Rick Makes Loosey Feel Wonderful,
53 Rick Kicks Out,
54 Please Hammer, Help Him!,
56 Rick and Tanya Strike Again,
57 Tanya Pleads Guilty,
58 The Prosecutors Summon Their Star Witness,
59 Guilty ... Sort Of,
60 Shocking New Allegations,
61 The Prosecutors Accuse an Investigator,
62 Rick and Tanya Attempt to Marry,
63 Rick Busts Out!,
64 Rick Takes the Train to Folsom Prison,
65 Rick Tries Again,
66 Organized Crime Makes Rick a Post-Prison Star,
67 Rick Revels in an Urban Rapsody,
68 Rick and Tanya Finally Marry ... and Then Divorce,
69 The Super Freak Becomes a Senior Freak,
71 "I'm Rick James, Bitch!",
72 Rick Works to Publicize the Phrases That Would Outlive Him,
73 Deeper Still,
74 Rick Dies Alone with Drugs in His Veins,
75 Reactions Run the Gamut,
76 Two Funerals,
77 Rick's Legacy,