Rick James

Bustin' Out (On Funk)Bustin' Out Of L Seven
Cold BloodedCold Blooded
Dance Wit' MeThrowin' Down
Fool On The StreetBustin' Out Of L Seven
Ghetto LifeStreet Songs
Give It To Me BabyStreet Songs
Mary JaneCome Get It!
Standing On The TopThrowin' Down
Super FreakStreet Songs
You Turn Me OnReflections



Contributor: Ceri Taylor

Falling somewhere between the end of the James Brown funk era and the beginning of Prince’s pop funk era, Rick James bridged the gap with his very own brand of ‘Punk Funk’, a more hard edged rock funk that wasn’t disco enough and not quite glam rock. He recorded for Motown’s Gordy label and Rick pretty much kept Motown ticking over in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Moreover, he is responsible for setting new trends for other artists (Quincy Jones openly admits ‘borrowing’ ideas from James for Thriller), reuniting The Temptations (he managed to get all the original members from the original line-up through to the 70s to record on one record, this included David Ruffin!) plus also producing hits for and discovering Teena Marie, the Mary Jane Girls and Eddie Murphy (!).

My Top 10 – I’ve chosen to omit the love ballads and quiet storm recordings as they have not passed the test of time so well, in fact they were pretty saccharine then! But Rick James’ floor fillers and (punk) funk records really last well and still rip holes through the dancefloor like nothing else today. The rumbling basslines on Bustin’ Out and Ghetto Life are fine examples, they are bulldozers of records – they mow down anything in their path!

The classic ode to the funny cigarettes, Mary Jane, with its chants and beautifully camouflaged subject matter is still a blinder of a record. Unlike other artists of the time, Rick James also used certain instruments not so commonly played; both Mary Jane and Fool On The Street rely just as much on flutes as they do bass and drums.

In terms of blueprints, check out Give It To Me Baby and you’ll get the concept idea for Thriller and again with Cold Blooded, a couple of years on and a change of style.

Standing On The Top and the slightly annoying but catchy Super Freak included the vocal talents of The Temptations (reuniting Ruffin and Kendricks with the current line up at the time – a rare feat indeed), both notable tracks. Super Freak of course allowed MC Hammer a number one record but we can’t blame Rick for that.

Other than the albums themselves most of these tracks can be found on the Rick James Anthology (a lot of the Greatest Hits releases seem to come up short giving you only 6 or 7 tracks) and also on the Reflections LP (1984), which was a mix of hits and previously unreleased tracks, one of which, You Turn Me On, makes my top 10. The other 9 of the 10 were all released in the UK between 1978 and 1983 as singles on the Tamla Motown label.

I’m aware of the omission of tracks such as You & I, 17 (tricky subject these days!) and Moonchild but this is my toppermost after all! These tracks are really worth checking out especially if you are having a Motown party. Plus, it is worth mentioning again the work he did with Teena Marie (another potential toppermost) and the production for the Mary Jane Girls – All Night Long – now there is a record!

The innovative Rick James (born James Ambrose Johnson), after an eventful and often volatile life, sadly died prematurely aged only 56 in 2004. Enigmatic Rick spoke in the third person which always made me laugh and that’s good enough reason to give these tracks a try!

Rick James official site

Rick James biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #52

1 Comment

  1. Peter Viney
    Aug 18, 2013

    A footnote in Rick James’ story. Originally James Johnson, he changed his name to Ricky Matthews when he went AWOL from the US Navy and went to Canada. He was in The Mynah Birds in Toronto in 1966, along with Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, where he was considered to be a “black Mick Jagger”. Their first local single, before Neil Young joined, was Mynah Bird Hop. Then they were the first (mainly) white band signed to Motown, and recorded for five or six nights according to Neil Young. They were produced by Mickey Stevenson, R. Dean Taylor and Michael Valvano who share writing credit with “Ricky Matthews”. That was just the way it was done in those days, so I’d guess the songs are basically by Rick James.
    Two tracks were assigned for their first single, It’s My Time/Go On & Cry and these were legendary lost sessions until the Complete Motown Singles Vol 6: 1966 box set a few years ago. The release of It’s My Time was abandoned when a disgruntled manager reported James to the US Navy, who caught up with him and he spent a year in military prison. It’s My Time isn’t great, but the chorus sounds Motown. Neil Young said they got “Motowned” and any time they struggled with a part, singers arrived in the studio to fill in. Go On & Cry is a better song for me, more in the Rick James’ love ballad area, and points the way somewhat more towards Buffalo Springfield, the group Neil Young and Bruce Palmer formed next. Neither are contenders for a Rick James Toppermost, but it makes you wonder what a full-blown Neil Young-Rick James band would have sounded like.

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