The odd thing about Super Freak by Rick James from 1981 is that I read ABOUT it a lot, but I didn’t actually HEAR it very often, due in part, I was led to believe, by its then-controversial subject matter.
And while it’s #481 in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame list, it wasn’t his highest charting single. He had several hits starting with 1978’s You and I. Of course, what gave Super Freak a second life is when M.C. Hammer used it, with permission, as the basis of U Can’t Touch This. James got a Grammy out of the deal.
He collaborated with fellow Motown artists such as Smokey Robinson (Ebony Eyes), and The Temptations. The Temps sing background on Super Freak. James is featured on Standing On The Top, from their REUNION album, when the group briefly had seven members rather than five.
Rick James, born James Ambrose Johnson, Jr., was an upstate kid, born in Buffalo, New York. He was in various bands before joining the Navy Reserve, mostly out of fear of being drafted. But he took off to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where he formed the rock band the Mynah Birds, which, for a time, featured Neil Young.
His music career ground to a halt when the “military authorities discovered his whereabouts and eventually convicted James on 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.”
Unfortunately, success did not bring joy. He reportedly spent $7000 a week on cocaine for five straight years. He was convicted of assaulting two women in the early 1990s, and spent a couple years in jail. “After divorcing his first wife, he married Tanya Hijazi on December 24, 1997 and they divorced in 2002.”
Then he died of a heart attack on August 6, 2004 at the age of 56. He would have been 70 on February 1, 2018.
You and I – #13 pop, #1 soul for two weeks in 1978 (long version)
Mary Jane – #41 pop, #3 soul for two weeks in 1978
Super Freak – #16 pop, #3 soul for five weeks in 1981
Standing On The Top (Temptations featuring Rick James)– #66 pop, #6 soul in 1982 (long version)
Cold Blooded (long version) – #40 pop, #1 soul for six weeks in 1983
Ebony Eyes (Rick James featuring Smokey Robinson) – #43 pop, #22 soul in 1984
Loosey’s Rap (Rick James featuring Roxanne Shante)– #1 soul in 1988, looking very Prince-like
U Can’t Touch This (M.C. Hammer) – #8 pop, #1 soul in 1990 but it felt WAY more ubiquitous than that