Heritage Moments: Rick James and ‘the city that has led me to my thang’

Oct 10, 2016

Rick James belongs to the world: the hit funk anthems, infectious grooves, lyrics celebrating sex and drugs, wildly entertaining videos and stage act, tales of bizarre excess, self-destructive binges that finally tipped over into crime and jail time -- but most of all, the great music that, even today, still gets people to dancing across oceans and continents.

But Rick James was also a Buffalonian, born and bred. And unlike most other Buffalonians who found fame in the wider world, he kept coming back, whether standing atop the heights of wealth and glory or mired in the depths of vice and addiction. His life in the city continually shaped his music. Sometimes he even made it the main character in his songs.

“I wanna talk about the city where I was bred … the city that has led me to my thang,” James sang. So let’s listen to what he said about it.

“I was born in a city we call Buffalo / Zero degrees below is too damn cold and funky.” So starts “Below the Funk,” the propulsive closing tune from James’s 1981 Street Songs, a No. 1 album that included two of his biggest hits, “Give It to Me Baby” and “Super Freak.”

James paints a portrait of his life growing up in poverty on the East Side, singing on street corners, “hanging out with hoodlums.” On another cut from the album, “Ghetto Life,” James remembers “tenements, slums and corner bums, playing tag with winos” as “the only way to have some fun.” His view of Buffalo is clear-eyed, shorn of boosterism, a picture of the city that too many Buffalonians choose not to see. And all the more inspiring because of it.      

Rick James was born James Ambrose Johnson Jr. in 1948, the third of eight children brought up mainly by their mother, a dancer who also ran numbers to make ends meet. “Mom was one of the toughest ladies in iron-tough Buffalo,” James said in Glow, his posthumously published autobiography.* She took him on her rounds to East Side nightclubs in an era when Etta James, Miles Davis and John Coltrane performed regularly, opening his eyes and ears to great music.

The family moved from the Willert Park projects to the Commodore Perry houses, which at that point were predominantly white, and basically fought their way through the bigotry they encountered there: James’s first experience of Buffalo as a “black-hating, racist city.” He got involved in petty crime, bounced from high school to high school (Bennett to East to Grover Cleveland) and discovered marijuana and heroin as well as Malcolm X and black cultural nationalism. He joined the Navy, but soon went AWOL and did what many Buffalonians have long done to get away, especially during the Vietnam era – he went to Toronto.

There, James hooked up with Neil Young and fronted a band called the Mynah Birds, starting him on a path to stardom that took him to Motown in Detroit and then to Los Angeles. But he kept coming back home to the hard town he called “Stone City.” And in 1978, when it came time to form a big funk band, James picked Buffalo musicians, “because Buffalo was where I had originally built up my own musical strength.” That backing group became the Stone City Band, who would go on to lay down some of the hardest, deepest grooves of the funk era.   

By 1981, James was a certified hitmaker with four albums under his belt and a sprawling mansion and farm in Orchard Park. But for his fifth album he wanted to get back to his roots. So he tucked his long, Masai warrior locks under a Buffalo Bills cap, put on a sweatshirt and jeans and, thus disguised, walked the East Side streets of his youth, absorbing the vibe of Buffalo, “the baddest of all the chocolate cities.” That album became Street Songs, the apex of James’s career.

The years that followed were increasingly marked by James’s struggles with addiction. The lowest points came in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, when he and his girlfriend did time behind bars for holding and assaulting two women in separate, cocaine-fueled incidents. Other brushes with the law followed, along with stints in rehab, more relapses and, remarkably, a rich series of musical collaborations and comeback performances. But his body couldn’t take the strain. After several illnesses, James died of heart failure at his Los Angeles home in 2004. He was 56.

His headstone, inscribed with his portrait and the epitaph “I’ve had it all, I’ve done it all, I’ve seen it all. It’s all about love – God is love,” stands above his grave at the only place, really, he could have been buried: Forest Lawn Cemetery. Even at the end, Rick James was a Buffalonian, through and through.

* Glow was written by David Ritz, who interviewed James often over several years and used extensive notes left behind by James. It is never clear how much of the autobiography is in James’s actual words, but the book was approved by James’s estate.  

Cast (in order of appearance):

Rick James: Kwame Feaster

Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Micheal Peters and Connor De Junco (WBNY, Buffalo State)

Sound editing: Micheal Peters

Music: Excerpt from “Assassin A Go Go,” by Pimpstrut Local #13 (2015)

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)

Performed by Aaron Dai

Text excerpt from "Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James," by Rick James and David Ritz (Atria/Simon & Schuster), used by permission.

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Casting: Jesse Tiebor (Casting Hall Productions, Buffalo State Theater Dept., 2014-15 academic year)

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director

Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director

Brian McDermott, WBNY general manager, 2014-15 academic year

Nick Lippa, WBNY general manager, 2015-16 academic year

Micheal Peters, WBNY general manager, 2016-17 academic year

Anthony Chase, assistant dean, School of Arts and Humanities, Buffalo State

Ronald Smith, professor, and Thomas McCray, assistant professor, Buffalo State Communication Dept. 

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)