Reprinted from Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, by Mike Sager. An excerpt of this piece originally appeared in Rolling Stone.
It must have been very late, around the time that night begins to turn on an imperceptible pivot and 2 o’clock becomes 6 in the morning. The place, if hazy memories serve, was the Red Parrot in New York City. The year was 1981. Or maybe it was ’82. Definitely one of those, ’81 or ’82, toward the end of the Disco Era, a jangled, fuzzy, grandiose time when sex partners were changed more often than bed sheets and brain cells were slaughtered by the hundreds of millions. At clubs like Studio 54 and Xenon—the Studio for the Warhol Crowd, Xenon for the Eurotrash—beautiful people with pin-hole pupils were doing the Hustle and even the wild thing on strobe-lit dance floors, snorting crystalline cocaine out of little plastic bullets, gulping Quaaludes and champagne to dull the edge. What month? What year? Who the fuck can remember? The pace hadn’t slowed since 1974. If you can remember exactly, you weren’t there.
Rick James was there. His first rock and roll band had included Nick St. Nicholas, later of Steppenwolf. His second included Neil Young. He was a staff writer/producer for Motown when the Jackson parents brought their five sons through the door. Prince was once his opening act. James’s trademark song, “Super Freak,” sold more than 40 million copies in 1981. Later, a rapper named MC Hammer would cop the bass line of Super Freak for “U Can’t Touch This.” It sold millions more internationally.
By the time this night had come, Rick James was known around the world as the King of Funk, one of the biggest names in the music business. He had written and produced songs or albums for Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Teena Marie, Chaka Kahn, the Stone City Band, Eddie Murphy, many more. His live shows were legendary. His long braids dusted with glitter, he strode the stage in thigh-high boots and spandex, crouching to accept joints and kisses from his adoring fans.
“Between Parliament and Prince, Rick James carried the banner of black pop over that fertile territory known as funk,” wrote critic David Ritz. “As the seventies melted into the eighties, Rick was bad, superbad, the baddest of the bad. His orchestrations were brilliant, his shows spectacular. He worked in the celebrated R&B instrumental tradition—percussive guitar riffs, busy bass lines, syncopated horn punches—extending from Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Ike Turner, James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton . . . His funk was high and mighty while his attitude stayed down and dirty. His eroticism was raw. He was an early gangsta of love, outrageous, unmanageable, both benefactor and victim of his own inexhaustible energy.”
So it must have been sometime in 1981, because James was at the height of his powers. He was in New York to celebrate the conclusion of a long national tour to support sales of Street Songs, the album that launched “Super Freak,” as well as “Give It to Me Baby,” “Ghetto Life,” and “Fire and Desire.” Sitting with him around the table at the Red Parrot—drinking Courvoisier and Perrier-Jouet, chatting up a seemingly endless stream of women—was James’ usual coterie: seven or eight or nine of the boys in his Stone City Band, each one, like James himself, a black man standing over six feet tall, wearing long extension braids, leather pants, a rhinestone belt, a parachute-silk shirt and python cowboy boots. They didn’t call it a crew back then, but Rick James had one; he never went anywhere without the boys in his band. They were somewhere between a family and a musical commune.
For a while, they’d all lived together in the Hearst Mansion in Beverly Hills. Then James bought a ranch in Buffalo, and they all moved in together there. They rode James’s Arabian horses (his favorite black stallion was named Punk), raced his ten snowmobiles, swam in the indoor pool, meditated amidst the jade sculpture and banzai trees in the “Oriental Room,” played full court basketball or marathon games of Bid Whist, recorded in the basement studio, did drugs, lots of drugs, all the time. Rick James believed in drugs. As he’d said to the crew when he’d first assembled them: “Look at my lyrics to my songs. All of the songs are about drugs. They’re about women and about drugs, and they’re one and the same. That is the persona of this band.”
When it started feeling a little crowded in the 28-room “ranch house,” James bought the house next door, let everyone live there. He took care of his crew. If someone’s momma had a medical bill, he’d give them the down payment. He never let a birthday pass without a catered party, though none bested the one he gave for the comedian Eddie Murphy, with hundreds of guests and a different kind of food in each of the themed rooms of the house.
James also let the crew drive his cars—he had more than a dozen, from Jeeps and Mercedes to an Excaliber and a vintage Rolls. Often, he’d give them upwards of $80,000 in cash to go shopping. He loved shopping. He’d stand in the middle of a store and point. Thirty pairs of cowboy boots. A half-dozen Cartier tank watches as gifts for different women. Ten exotic hides—including a lion, a bear, a zebra—for his “African Room.” Intricately carved wooden furniture for his “Sausalito Room.” Three hundred and sixty-five suits, one for every day of the year, even though he never wore suits, seemed to live in the same old pair of leather pants. He’d go to Bloomingdale’s, in Manhattan, just to cause trouble. He’d walk through the store. A riot would ensue as women rushed for his autograph. One trip through Bloomies brought him face to face with Linda Blair, grown up considerably since her role in The Exorcist. Though he never talked about any of his women, other than to say how sweet or beautiful or thoughtful they were (he was known in private as a romantic), he did allude once to Linda’s talents: “It’s not just her head that swivels,” he’d been heard to say.
Sometimes he’d get a bug up his ass and fly the whole crew to New Orleans for gumbo. He rented a yacht for a Caribbean cruise—fuel alone ran $30,000. Moonlit dinners for sixty on a terrace at a hotel in Hawaii. A $5,000 sushi dinner at Yamamotos in L.A. Along with the crew were the others, a cast of luminaries that included Dizzy Gillespie, Rod Stewart, Louis Farrakhan, Princes Elizabeth von Oxenberg, Steven Stills, David Crosby, Donny Osmond, Duane Allman, George Clinton, Sly Stone, Diana Ross, Willie Nelson, OJ and Nicole Brown Simpson, Denise Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye.
And, wherever James went, there were women. They threw crotchless panties on the stage when he played. They climbed the gates and knocked on his door at three a.m. They arrived in cars sent for them. Teena Marie, Catherine Oxenberg, Catherine Bach, Grace Jones, Jan Gaye, hundreds of others: groupies, twins, mother and daughter teams, one time five women at once. All he had to do was open his bedroom door and point to someone at the party going on in his living room.
Now, at the Red Parrot in 1981, the security manager came over to James’s table, told him there was someone upstairs who wanted to meet him.
“Who is it?” James asked.
“Can’t tell you right here,” said the manager.
“Well, whisper in my ear,” said James.
“I think you’ll want to meet him.”
James shrugged his shoulders, Why not? He made a motion in the air with his finger like a trail driver: Head ‘em up, move ‘em out. The crew began to rise.
“Just you and one other person, if you please, Mr. James.”
Rick James hovered there a moment, half out of his chair, slightly taken aback. Who, he wondered, could command more juice than the King of Funk himself? Now he was really curious. He gestured to his friend Taylor Alonzo, the manager of Xenon. They’d met one night at the club when the bouncers had refused to let James and his crew inside. Their friendship was solidified the day James took Alonzo along with him to buy a Rolls-Royce. James settled on a vintage silver blue Cornice. Then he asked the salesman to install wire wheels. “Rick,” said Alonzo, “only a pimp would put wire wheels on that car.” From that point on, James had come to rely on Alonzo to help him, as he put it, “separate the flash from the trash.”
Now James and Alonzo followed the manager upstairs to the private room.
“Rick James, this is Mick Jagger.”
Jagger rose unsteadily from his seat, at a table strewn with bottles of Cristal and Jack Daniel’s. He was totally drunk. “Rick James!” slurred the legendary front man of the Rolling Stones. “Oh man! Super Freak! I just had to meet you!”
Fourteen years later, on a spring day in 1995, Rick James shuffles into a small office within the Gothic walls of Folsom State Prison, near Sacramento, Calif. He is chaperoned by a prison official, who will stay at his side for the duration of the interview. James’s trademark extension braids are gone, his hair is cut short, combed forward to conceal a receding hair line. He’s put on 30 pounds in jail—a combination of fatty prison food and care packages from his fiancée, Tanya Hijazi: tiny marshmallows, hot chocolate, jelly life savers (when she can’t find Dots, his favorite), peanut butter and jelly, after dinner mints, raman noodles, and cartons of cigarettes to trade.
Now 48, James is serving the final days of a sentence for assault, false imprisonment and furnishing drugs, the result of two separate crack-fueled incidents involving James, Hijazi and two other women. To prison authorities, the King of Funk is just another resident of a two-man cell, with bunk beds and a shiny metal commode with no seat: James Ambrose Johnson Jr., Inmate #J29237.
James has passed his days inside the prison with grace, humor and good behavior, prison officials say. He has worked in the prison library. He’s nearly finished with his autobiography, Memoirs of a Super Freak, and he’s written several screenplays, a lot of new music. From a computer in the library, he contributes to his personal web site, put up by some fans. He speaks every day by phone to Hijazi and their 4-year-old son, Tazman. Taz has long yellow ringlets, blue eyes, his daddy’ sensual lips. He works occasionally as a model. He likes to bang on the piano and sing “Super Freak.”
Rick James sits down and folds his hands demurely on the table. “I’ve been up and I’ve been down,” he says, a mixture of pride and pain discernible in his large brown eyes. “I been to hell and back. What you want to know?”
Monday afternoon, Aug. 30, 1993, California superior court, Los Angeles County. The defense lawyer, Mark Werksman, continues his cross examination on the witness, a woman named Mary Sauger: “Did (Tanya Hijazi) then commence to beat you again?”
“There was more hitting, yes,” said the woman on the stand, one of two alleged victims of James and Hijazi.
“Was she doing it in such a way that suggested she thought it was a sexual act?” asked Werksman, turning toward the jury. His client, Rick James, was facing three life sentences: there were things these 12 workaday citizens had to be made to understand—they were a jury, yes, but they weren’t exactly his peers.
“No,” answered the witness. “It seemed they were getting their kicks out of hitting someone, beating someone up.”
“There had never been any sexual involvement between you and Mr. James?”
“Between you and Tanya Hijazi?”
Werksman paused a moment, scanned his notes. The trial was entering its second week; the prosecution was still presenting its case, leaning hard on the lurid details. Werksman was doing his best to rebut.
Werksman was a Yale graduate, a former assistant DA, in his third year of private practice. Yet even in his rarified world, he had never before had a client come to the office with his girlfriend and his personal lawyer in tow. James had sat on the leather couch for a few minutes, then asked his lawyer for $5,000 in cash so he and Hijazi could go shopping. Here was a man at liberty on $750,000 bail, facing fifteen felony counts, including supplying cocaine, assault with a deadly weapon, false imprisonment by violence, torture, aggravated mayhem and forced oral copulation. The district attorney had told Werksman: “I’m going to get him. He’s evil and I’m going to send him away for life.”
James, however, appeared unfazed. In his constellation of reality, this whole case was a bunch of shit, period. “Fill each other in on what’s happening,” he’d said over his shoulder to his lawyers, strutting out of Werksman’s office in thigh-high boots.
Since that first meeting, Werksman had begun to like James quite a bit. Reviewing the facts, getting to know his client, he began to sympathize with the King of Funk—and to disdain the alleged victims in the case. In his mind, the two women were drug users and groupies, drawn by the magnet of his client’s fame from the ooze of the Sunset Strip, a five-dollar cab ride up Laurel Canyon Drive to James’s mountaintop aerie, formerly owned by Mickey Rooney. The place was palatial, complete with guest house, gazebo, swimming pool and prize rose bushes. James would tell Werksman that he had noticed the roses for the first time when police were carting him away in handcuffs. He’d spent the six months since he’d leased the house inside, mostly in his bedroom, sometimes in a walk-in closet, freebasing cocaine. For the past ten years, James had smoked up to $400,000 worth of the drug each year, most of which he cooked himself, though he had for a time employed an assistant he called Chef Boyardee.
Now, in court, Werksman cut his eyes to the witness, Mary Sauger, a brown-haired secretary at a small film company. She had told the jury that she’d visited James and Hijazi in a hotel room in Los Angeles to discuss working for his new label, Mamma Records. She said James and Hijazi beat her up. She also said she still had recurring headaches and constant throbbing in one eye. For her pain and suffering, she would later be awarded $2 million in civil suits filed against James and the hotel.
“Miss Sauger,” Werksman began.
Suddenly, the quiet air in the courtroom was shattered by a series of thick, adenoidal snores.
All heads turned.
The King of Funk was sound asleep at the defense table, pencil still in hand, head lolling. His long extension braids, slicked into a pony tail with Let’s Jam jell, were leaving stains on the back of the state-issue leather chair. He wore a red uniform coat—a rocked-out HMS Pinafore number with epaulets, stripes on the sleeves, and double rows of big gold buttons crowned with anchors.
The judge looked down at James, incredulous, the tips of his ears growing scarlet. A former LAPD police captain who’d attended law school at night, he’d served ten years as an assistant DA. This was the second time James had nodded out in his courtroom today.
“Mr. Werksman?” the judge intoned.
“Your Honor, may we have a sidebar conference please?”
James A. Johnson Jr. was born under the sign of Aquarius, the third eldest in a family of eight kids living in an all-black housing project in Buffalo, N.Y. His father was a handsome rogue with Native American blood who worked the assembly line at Chevrolet. “Mostly, he wasn’t much of a dad,” remembers James. “When I think of him, I think of the constant fights. He would beat my momma, and I’d sit at the top of the stairs with my brothers and sisters, crying, wishing I was grown up so I could kill him.” He left the family when James was 7.
Momma was Mabel Gladden Johnson, known to her friends as Freddie. She had her first child at 13. Later she danced with Katherine Dunham’s troupe, worked as a showgirl at the Cotton Club. She regaled James with stories of her days as the queen of the Rum Boogie during the Harlem Renaissance.
In time, Momma moved her family to a housing project across town, peopled mostly with Irish and Italians. James remembered cross burnings, rocks through windows. A gang of greasers claimed the turf near the corner store; they terrorized James and his siblings until the day his eldest brother Carmen came home from prison and whipped their butts. James remembers his father showing up to join the fight; it was the last time he ever saw him.
By day, Momma mopped floors. By night she ran numbers for the Italian mob, James says. Though she made a lot of money, she kept the cleaning job and the apartment in the projects as a cover, she would later explain to her son. There were rats and roaches in their apartment, but the refrigerator was well stocked, the kids had nice clothes, Momma always had a nice car. Though James would come, over time, to regard his mom as his best friend in the world, he remembers his childhood being rough, Momma beating him with a knotted electrical cord “to let out her frustrations,” he told a court therapist.
James attended Catholic school for a time, was an altar boy. In public junior high, he played football and basketball, took drum and trombone lessons, marched with a hi-stepping drill team, hung on the corner with friends singing do-wop and drinking Thunderbird. Entering his teens, James joined a gang, began smoking pot, committing petty crimes. Then his closest brother, Roy, was knocked from his new bike and dragged down the street by a car. Roy was in the hospital in a body cast for a year. Momma visited every day. In the family, Roy was known as the smart one. He would later become a lawyer. James was known as the troublemaker. James felt his mom somehow blamed him for Roy’s accident. Between her jobs and visiting Roy, James hardly ever saw her. He began skipping school. Sometimes, he’d steal money from her purse and take a bus to New York City, haunt the coffee houses in Greenwich Village. At 13, police in Rochester found him hiding in the bathroom of a bus and he was placed in a juvenile home for several weeks. “Momma finally came to get me,” James recalls. “She asked me why I was running and what did I hope to find. I told her with tears in my eyes, I didn’t know. I just wanted something more out of life. She would just look bewildered and cry. I hated to see my mother cry.”
At about 14, following a gang rumble in which a boy was shot, James was sentenced to several months in juvenile detention.
It was in high school that he settled on his life’s course. “I signed up for a talent show. I was center stage, alone. A spotlight on me and I started off with a bongo beat. Then I began to sing out this chant. I asked the crowd to sing along and they did. As they sang, I picked up my mallets and my tom drum and played this funky beat, adding rim shots… The crowd chanted louder and louder until the auditorium seemed to be moving. The rhythm seemed voodoo-like. I don’t remember how long I played before I started dipping off the stage while the audience continued the chant. The feeling of the crowd singing, the people dancing in the aisles, calling out for more . . . All of it cast a magic spell on me. From that day on, music was my life.”
James eventually dropped out of school. At 15, with his mother’s permission, he joined the U.S. Naval Reserves. His obligation was two weekends a month. He went the first time to basic training with his stripe sewn upside down. At home, James started a group called the Duprees. They sang Motown tunes, practiced their harmonizing every day. He also had a jazz quintet; James played drums on covers of Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane, and on funky, straight-ahead bebop. The groups did well; they started to gain a local following. The big problem was that the gigs were on weekends. James failed to attend his mandatory reserve meetings.
In 1964, after numerous warnings, James was placed on active duty, ordered to report to the USS Enterprise. Though he made it to Rochester, where he was supposed to register, he overslept. Faced with disciplinary action, he fled to Toronto.
In the mid sixties, Toronto was home to Yorkville, a gathering spot for draft resisters, a petri dish for a nascent coffee house and rock scene similar to the one developing in New York’s Greenwich Village. Many future big names were there: Richie Havens, David Clayton-Thomas, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Kenny Rogers.
New in town, James was walking down the street in his Navy uniform when he was accosted by several men in sharkskin suits. A fight ensued; three hippie strangers came to James’s rescue. Among the trio were Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, later of The Band. One of the guys took him to a coffeehouse; James ended up performing with the group on stage, singing “Stand By Me” and “Summertime.” The leader of the group, Nick St. Nicholas, asked him to join.
As James had no civilian clothes, it was decided that the band would wear the contents of James’s dirty bag—denim bellbottoms, blue workshirts and dixie cups, white sailor caps. They billed themselves as the Sailor Boys. Being AWOL, James took a new name, Ricky James Matthews, after the dead cousin of a friend. He became well known in Yorkville as Little Ricky. The Sailor Boys begot the Myna Birds, financed by a wealthy Englishman who fancied himself another Brian Epstein, the manager behind the Beatles. He dressed the group in yellow and black leather outfits, had them cut their bangs into a V. He staged publicity stunts, paying women to chase the Mynas through department stores. Soon, Neil Young joined the band. There were Canadian TV appearances, sold out concerts, groupies swooning in the front row.
Motown called: The Mynas were signed. They recorded a single written by James and Young. Then Motown discovered that James was AWOL. The record was not released; James was advised to turn himself in.
Nine months later, sitting in the Brooklyn naval brig, awaiting his court-martial, James picked up a teen magazine. There was an article on the “new California sound.” Mentioned were Buffalo Springfield, featuring his old Myna partner Neil Young; and Steppenwolf, with Sailor Boy Nick St. Nicholas. “I was happy, sad and pissed, all at the same time,” James recalls. “I decided I’d been in the brig long enough.” He busted out.
Eventually, at the urging of his momma—who said her phones were being tapped by the FBI—James turned himself in. He received a dishonorable discharge and several more months in the brig. Following his release, he went directly to California. He hooked up with his old friends, made new ones: David Crosby, Steven Stills, Jim Morrison, Donovan, Michelle Phillips. After a few months of dropping acid, smoking pot, jamming with other bands, collecting free love, James decided to fly back to Toronto and assemble a group of his own.
Within hours of arrival, James was in a club in Yorkville when the owner told him someone wanted to see him outside.
“Welcome back to Canada, Mr. Johnson,” said one of the two Toronto cops who were waiting on the sidewalk. James was charged with possession of stolen property and jailed without bond, detained by the Canadian immigration department. Nine months later, he was deported.
Back stateside, Motown took James on staff, put him up in a hotel. His first project was with Tommy Chong, a guitarist who would later become a comedian and actor. The song was an interracial love story about Chong’s wife and the birth of his daughter, Rae Dawn.
Eventually, James quit Motown, unsatisfied with the glut of talent in line ahead of him. For the next several years he kicked around the U.S. and Canada. He was a pimp for a while, he says. He smuggled cocaine from Colombia and hash from India, where he also took time to learn the sitar. In 1977, he finally got the financial backing to record an album at the Record Plant in New York City. After hawking it himself, enjoying local success, he was signed once again by Motown. The single “You and I” went to No. 1 on the R&B charts. It became the anthem at Studio 54. The album, Come Get It, was touted in trade magazines as the year’s biggest album by a black artist.
About this time, James attended two performances that would shape his public style as the King of Funk; spandex jumpsuit, superhero boots, bare chest, big bulge, long extension braids. The hair concept came from a troupe of Masai Dancers. Their coiffures were elaborate configurations, braided with extensions of horse and lion hair. For $300, James had the troupe’s stylist give him a new look: long, flowing braids with beads and bangs. Then, he saw a performance by Kiss. They wore tight black costumes, had big-time pyrotechnics going on, loud drums on risers 25 feet in the air. “I knew then that my concerts would be like the Fourth of July—a big party. I knew what my image would be,” James says.
With Come Get It hitting double platinum, James received his first royalty check, $1.8 million. He leased a mansion formerly owned by William Randolph Hearst. He set up a rehearsal studio in the great room, began assembling a permanent band.
Danny Lamelle was the arranger and director of the horn section of what came to be known as the Stone City Band. Between 1979 and 1986, he made 16 albums with James, nine of which James produced for such finds as Teena Marie, the Mary Jane Girls, and Process and the Do-rags. Making his records, James was exacting, demanding, obsessive, instructive. He had an instinct, an ear. He’d order tracks recorded again and again until every note was perfect. He brought out the best in everyone. Once, Lamelle remembers, just after a marathon recording session, James and the band were headed from L.A. to Sausalito in a Winnebago. They were drinking and smoking herb, listening to the final cut of “Give It to Me Baby,” which was being sent to NY the next day for mastering. “We’re laying back, listening to the song, when suddenly Rick has the driver stop the Winnebago. ‘Did you hear that?’ he asked us. And we’re like, ‘What?’ He rewound the tape again and again, playing this one section. We sat on the I-5 for an hour. He cursed us out, fired us, threatened to drop us off on the side of highway.” During the entire time, no one in the band had an inkling of what the problem was.
Finally, James condescended to explain: in one section of the song, for several bars, the horns, which were supposed to be stereo, played only out of one speaker. “Y’all would have mastered this, printed it, and it woulda been out there and it woulda been wrong,” he told the band. “My shit gotta be perfect.”
“We used to rehearse, boy,” says Candi Ghant, one of the original Mary Jane Girls. “The band would rehearse from 12 to 5. Then the girls would rehearse from six till two in the morning. Whatever it took, you know, with him there were no hours. We had a choreographer we worked with five days a week. We had a vocal teacher. Rick was like a slave master. We didn’t party, we didn’t go wild. We weren’t suppose to have boyfriends. After the shows it was interviews, pictures and we was escorted to our rooms. And they would take a bed check to make sure you were in there. He was like a boss, a husband, a mother. He was hard on us. But if he did something to hurt your feelings, in the end he always gave you a gift to say he was sorry.”
In 1980, the entire entourage moved onto a seven-acre ranch near Buffalo. When they weren’t working, James and the crew played equally hard. The house was equipped with a jukebox, a stereo system in almost every room, a pool table, video games. James was competitive. He’d bed hundreds of dollars on Galaxian, his favorite video game. When other groups were touring the area, basketball tournaments were held. James played power forward, was a good assist man, never a ball hog. Grandmaster Flash fielded a team against James’s crew, as did Cameo and Luther Vandross’s band. Eddie Murphy was also a frequent player. James’s teams always won.
Though James employed a 24-hour, on-call chef (for a time it was one of his sisters; most of his family was on the payroll, including his momma), he often woke early and cooked enormous breakfasts: eggs, pancakes, bacon, grits, toast, milk. He was a consummate host. At parties, he’d go from room to room, checking to see if there was enough food, enough drink, enough toilet paper in all the bathrooms.
Frequently, James would go to New York City, driven in a van or in one of his cars at high speed by an off-duty New York State patrolman who was on his payroll. He’d pick up Taylor Alonzo, manager of Xenon, and check into the Plaza Hotel. Then the party would begin. “He charmed everyone he met,” say Alonzo. “He was always on. He loved this Indian restaurant Bombay Palace. He’d do his Indian accent the whole time he was in there. Or he’d just start singing at the table. I remember once he sang Beatles’ songs the whole evening.”
“Rick was kind of a connoisseur,” says his brother, Carmen Johnson Sims, who headed James’s security staff for several years. “He liked his Japanese food, his French food. He used to amaze me. We’d be in Mr. Chow’s in New York, and he could order in French. He was down with the wines too.”
Back at the Plaza, James would usually have a whole floor at his disposal. Says Sims: “We had guys stationed at the elevators to give us privacy and control. We’d have suites for all the crew, and two or three suites that were loaded down with groupies—the choice ones, the weeded out ones. We called them the ‘Stockpile.’” The parties would go until dawn. Often, Alonzo remembers, James would be the last one left standing. Stepping over the sleeping bodies, James would come over and wake Alonzo. They’d leave the suite, walk for hours through Central Park.
James was a regular at Studio 54, the reigning Mecca of Disco. He partied with supermodels Iman and Janice Dickerson, with whom Alonzo say he had “this Fatal Attraction relationship. He’d sometimes have to duck her, if you know what I mean.” Peter Max, Ted Kennedy Jr., Andy Warhol, Jim Brown, Ben Vereen, Robin Williams, Jack Nicholson—James partied with everyone. Drugs, of course, were abundant. In his own words, James “had never done a drug he didn’t like.” His second single, “Mary Jane,” was a love song to marijuana. Cocaine, however, was his drug of choice. By now, he was snorting about an ounce a day.
“Nobody knew coke was so bad at the time,” says James. “Nobody knew anything about detox. There was no Betty Ford. When you snorted it you could function just fine. We made records doing it, sitting at the console with ounce-full bags. It was just a part of life. Everybody kept a big box full of pills: Quaaludes, Valium, Halcyon. Dishes of cocaine, trash bags of weed, bottles of bourbon. It was all about, hey, good drugs, leather clothes, horses, cars and fucking women. That was the criteria for the times. When we went on tour, my accountants figured out that we were spending like $250,000 on coke for everybody. They wrote it off as payment to this employee they named Jose Coca.”
In the spring of 1981, James and Lamelle went to see Sly Stone in San Francisco. Sly was freebasing—sitting in a back room at a recording studio with his butane torch and his pipe, totally out of it. “When we left, Rick turns to me and says: ‘Look, we smoke herb, we snort, we drink. But we will never do this. Sly is a legend. He’s in the history books. Now look at him, and he did this to himself with this drug. We can never allow this to happen to us.’ And right there, on the spot, we made a bond that this would never be.”
A few days later, in a hotel room in Chicago, James took his first hit of freebase, supplied by one of the leaders of the fabled Blackstone Rangers.
And a few days after that, James flew back out to the coast, went to see Sly again. This time, he joined him in the back room. They stayed in there for a solid week.
For the next ten years, with brief periods of sobriety, James would smoke up to $10,000 worth of coke a week. He had a special briefcase for his paraphernalia. It was the only thing he always carried himself.
Incredibly, he continued to make hit records. In the five years that followed “Super Freak,” James recorded four albums, earned two Grammy nominations. He produced “Ebony Eyes” with Smokey Robinson and “Standing on the Top” with the Temptations. He made the rounds of the television shows—from The Merv Griffin Show to The A Team. He was a presenter at the Grammy awards; People magazine named him to its best dressed list. He was also black music’s most outspoken voice in the fight with infant MTV over equal time for black artists, a powderkeg of an issue at the time.
In the inner circle, however, things had changed markedly. “It wasn’t a group effort anymore. We would be downstairs working and Rick would be partying in his bedroom. He would come down, listen, give his okay, or tell us to change something. Then he would disappear again,” says Lamelle. “He was the classic Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. When he was smoking, he became downright abusive. Like, before, he may have been blunt, but he was never brutal. Now the words were like knives. You started taking it personal.”
In time, things around the ranch began to erode, says Linda Hunt, who still works as caretaker of the place. “He got rid of the horses because he didn’t ride anymore. He stopped paying for rental cars for people. The games, the trips with the whole crew, everything stopped. Fewer people worked here, fewer people lived here. He just didn’t want them around. I guess it was paranoia from the drugs.”
“I found myself isolating more and more,” James writes in his autobiography. “If I wasn’t in my room (where my housekeeper would leave food by my locked bedroom door). I was flying here and there in private planes getting high in the clouds. I was slowly but steadily losing control. I’d stay up six or even ten days straight. I had my staff put aluminum foil on all my windows so no sunlight could get in.
“I OD’d a couple of times, but it had been kept a secret. My security or a doctor I had on the payroll would bring me back. My life on the inside was dark and lonely, while on the outside I always made it look like I was together. I felt like I was the loneliest person in the world. When I would try to explain my pain to friends, they would just laugh. ‘You’re Rick James,’ they’d say. ‘It will be all right.’
“It got to the point where I lost my desire to write music. When it was time for my eighth album, I had nothing in my head. It seemed my creativity was gone, lost in a world where smoke was all I could create and rock coke was the only music I understood.”
At 4 one July morning in 1991, a young women came up the hill to James’s house on Mulholland Terrace; she was one of hundreds of people who had made the trip in the four months he’d been living there. This one was a blonde with a southern accent. She called herself Courtney.
Courtney’s real name was Frances Alley. Twenty-four years old, she’d recently dropped out of a drug rehab program near her home in a small town outside Atlanta. Now she was working at a massage parlor in Hollywood, living in a transient hotel on the Sunset Strip.
Alley was visiting a run-down motel on the Strip called the Seven Star when she encountered a friend of James’s named Kathy Townsend. Townsend was a former backup singer who’d descended into a life of drugs. She was leaving the motel room occupied by a friend of hers, a pimp. She’d wanted to borrow some of his girls to take to James’s house. James, she’d told the pimp, had been very unhappy because his mom was dying. Some girls would cheer him up, she’d said.
The girls would also serve to get Townsend some free drugs. She visited James occasionally, would smoke coke for free for days. Everybody at James’s smoked for free. There was always a couple of dealers attending the 24-hour party going on in the living room. They often charged him as much as $100 above the going rate for an eightball. As a binge went on, they’d add more baking soda to the weight.
Townsend, unlike most of the hangers-on, would try to do something for James in exchange for the drugs. She’d help around the house—cleaning or cooking, running errands. Or she’d bring him a girl. James wasn’t interested in Townsend that way. He called her, lovingly, “Fat Ass.”
At any rate, the pimp refused Townsend’s request, fearing his girls would never return. Upset, Townsend slammed the door behind her, whereupon she encountered Alley, who was knocking at that moment on the door of a room occupied by a Mexican coke dealer. This was the first time Townsend had ever seen Alley: she looked kind of pretty in the dark. Townsend asked Alley if she wanted to go to Rick James’s house and do some drugs. Oddly—or maybe not so oddly, this was the second time in her two months in L.A. that someone had offered to take Alley to James’s house to party. “I guess I just felt like I was destined to meet him,” she would later say.
For the past five years, James had been unable to work. At first, his problems were legal. In 1987, James filed a suit against Motown, seeking $2 million and a release from his contract. Motown, meanwhile, was suing James for not fulfilling his contract. As the lawyers exchanged paper, as the civil suits wended their way through the legal system toward a court date, James moved to L.A., on call for his lawyers. He spent his time at home, sucking on his glass pipe. He called it the devil’s dick.
Then, just as the suits were being settled, mostly in James’s favor, he learned that his mom was dying. Her passing, he says, “was a stunning, terrible, terrible experience for me. She was my best friend, the best woman I’ve ever met in the world.”
James became depressed. He’d smoke straight through a week or ten days at a time, women coming and going through the binge. Then he’d take a handful of Halcyon and sleep a few days. Then he’d wake up and start again. Month after month. “One of the things about it that really attracted me was the consummation of time with basing,” James says. “The ritual of preparing it, the ritual of doing it, the manipulation and almost mind control that you would have over everything and everyone while you were doing it. It was complacent. It consumed your mind. There wasn’t time to think about everything that was bothering me.”
Arriving at James’s house, Alley was admitted to James’s bedroom right away. She partied with James and his girlfriend, Tanya Hijazi, for six straight days and nights. James liked Alley, he would later say, because he’d never before met a woman who could smoke as much coke as he. Finally, when Alley got tired, James had one of his staff make her up a bed in a spare room. She was given a boom box and a night table to make things homey.
After sleeping for 24 hours, Alley woke up, walked naked down the hall to James’s room. She said hello, then went to the kitchen to get a soda and a candy bar. When she came back to James’s room, she recounted, they smoked a little freebase. Then, according to Alley, James discovered that an eightball of cocaine—3.5 grams, about $200 worth—was missing. He accused her of stealing it, she said.
According to Alley, James became enraged. He ordered Hijazi to bind Alley to a chair with some neck ties, one from Dior, the other from Barneys. Then, Alley alleged, he smacked her across the face with a gun and poured rubbing alcohol on her waist, stomach and legs. An interrogation ensued for the next several hours, Alley alleged, during which James continued smoking cocaine. After a hit, she alleged, he’d place the hot pipe on her legs or stomach, causing small circular burns. At on point, she alleged, he ran a hot butcher knife along her leg, causing severe burns. During the interrogation, she told police, Hijazi stroked and held her hand; later, she told police, she was forced to have oral intercourse with Hijazi, after which Hijazi urinated on her, causing great irritation to her burns.
Finally, after several hours, Alley convinced James of her innocence.
“Okay, fine then” James said. He proffered his pipe. “You wanna hit?”
“Sure,” said Alley.
The party resumed.
And so it was, about two days later, after coming and going several times from James’s house—where she was living as a guest, telling people she was James’s new girl—that Alley went to the hospital for treatment of her burns. Doctors called the police.
James and Hijazi, who was then 21, were arrested and charged with nine felony counts, including supplying cocaine, assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated mayhem, torture, false imprisonment and forcible oral copulation. Bail for James was set at $1 million; Hijazi’s was $500,000. Both spent three weeks in jail. Their lawyers claimed that Alley had been burned and tortured by a pimp, that she and the police were targeting James with trumped-up allegations due to his status as a superstar.
By November 1992, James and Hijazi were out on reduced bail, living with her mom in the L.A. suburb of Agoura Hills, awaiting trial. A son, Tazman, had been born in May of that year. One weekend, Hijazi and James left the baby with her mom and went to the St. James Club and Hotel for a little break. The usual partying ensued; a young secretary with experience in the music business named Mary Sauger was invited over to discuss a job at a new label James was starting. It was to be called Momma Records.
Sauger arrived around 10:30. The trio smoked coke, drank, talked, ordered room service, made phone calls to friends on both coasts. Sometime in the early hours, Sauger would testify, Hijazi became angry and slapped her. James joined the fracas, grabbing Sauger by the throat, dragging her into the bathroom, beating her. When she passed out, she told police, Hijazi and James revived her with ice water.
The torture and beating continued, Sauger said, through a room change—other guests had complained of the noise. Hours after that, she was finally allowed to leave, taking a cab home with $5 Hijazi had given her. Two days later, Sauger went to the hospital. A doctor called the police. Hijazi and James were arrested again. Prosecutors combined the two cases and brought James to court.
“Will Mr. Johnson please rise?”
On January 7, 1994, James stood in his place behind the defense table, his lawyer at his side, waiting to learn his sentence. Hijazi sat behind him in the gallery with Tazman and her mom. She had already plead guilty to one count of assault with a deadly weapon. She was due to begin serving a two-year sentence. In her purse, she had a set of gold wedding bands. The judge had hinted that he’d possibly consent to marry the pair before they went off to jail.
Though he had faced 15 felony counts, James was fount guilty of only three: false imprisonment, assault and furnishing cocaine—all of those charges stemming from Mary Sauger’s visit to the St. James Club. The jury found him not guilty on three other charges, deadlocked on all the rest. James faced a maximum of nearly nine years in prison.
However, while James was awaiting sentencing, information surfaced that an investigator from the district attorney’s office may have been having a love affair with a woman in jail who’d been called as a witness against James. Further it was alleged, he was supplying the woman with heroin during the trial. The woman, who was serving time on burglary charges, had testified about a night in which James supposedly smoked a kilo of cocaine and then broke her arm. James contended he’d never met her. Hijazi, however, knew her well. They’d shared a jail cell.
Now, with an investigation of the alleged police misconduct underway, the district attorney’s office was forced to cut a deal. James would be sentenced to five years and four months. With good behavior, he’d end up serving about two years. Given the development, the judge had to reduce Hijazi’s sentence as well, cutting it in half from the original four years. She would end up serving a little more than one year.
“Mr. Johnson,” said the judge, looking down from his bench, addressing the King of Funk by his legal name, “when this is through, I want to rub your tummy, because you are the luckiest man on earth, and I want some of that luck to rub off on me. If I’d had my way, I’d have thrown away the key.”
With that, the judge banged the final gavel on People of the State of California vs. James Ambrose Johnson Jr., a.k.a. Rick James. Then he turned to the other business at hand, James’s and Hijazi’s nuptials.
The judge asked the lovebirds to stand. He regarded them a moment, the tips of his ears growing red. “There is no way on God’s green earth that I will marry you,” he said. He smiled, satisfied. Then he banged the gavel. Next case.
Back at Folson State Prison, the corrections officer chaperoning the interview looks at his watch and coughs. The rules specify that press visits may last no more than 90 minutes. Inmate #J29237 must follow the rules. He must eat, shower, sleep, work, exercise when they tell him, where they tell him. His mail is opened and read before he gets it. Some of the items in his care packages are always missing. Phone calls must be collect; time limit: fifteen minutes. His visitors are closely screened. Hijazi, a convicted felon now, is barred from visiting. James hasn’t seen her or Tazman for three years, since that last day in court. A wedding is planned upon his release.
July 1996: That is when he hopes to walk out the gates a free man. Though he has declared personal bankruptcy, there is money enough left in the coffers of his record company to ensure a comfortable launching pad for Phase 2 of his career. Things look promising, he says. Bustin Out: The Best of Rick James—a collection released in 1994 by Motown, has done well. His collaboration with Evan Dando on a Lemonheads song was touted by critics as the “most powerful cut” on Come On Feel the Lemonheads. Another collection of previously recorded songs, entitled Wonderful is due out from Reprise Records later this year.
Though the King of Funk remains in contact with the recording industry, his old friends seem to have abandoned him. At James’s suggestion, Neil Young, David Crosby, Steven Stills, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Murphy, Smokey Robinson and Teena Marie were all contacted for this story. None chose to comment.
James looks on the bright side. The current resurgence of 70s sounds and styles, “excites me, gives me lots of hope. Gold old funk is back. People got to have it in their lives; there’s too much thick shit out there. It’s a relief. Reality sucks, and that’s what they’re selling today. There’s too many rappers out there talking about death and Mac10’s and all that shit. What happened to the fun, man? What happened to the funk?”
James insists, vehemently, that he wouldn’t be in jail if “I wasn’t black, if I wasn’t who I am, if I didn’t say what I was saying, if I didn’t fuck so many white girls. Torturing a girl for stealing an eightball? Shit. There was probably a half pound of crumbs stuck in the carpet! Gimme a fuckin break. And the DA gives that bitch heroin to testify!”
He realizes, however, that he was bound for fall. He couldn’t stop himself. Someone had to. These last two years in prison haven’t been so bad, really. He’s been reading a lot, finishing his book, his screenplays, writing new music on his guitar. In a way, he says, prison is the best thing that could have happened.
“It stopped me from doing drugs. It gave me a good chance to get clear. It gave me a chance to rest, to get my thoughts together, to eat three meals a day, to get healthy again. I see now that I can love again, that I can love me again. I’m not a has-been and I’m not just a nobody. I’m not a cold-blooded maniacal killer and I’m not a black Marquis de Sade.
“What I am is James Johnson, also know as Rick James, who happened to let his life run amok because of a fucking pipe and a rock of cocaine.”