In the 1999 American buddy comedy-drama film “Life,” Rick James plays the role of Spanky. James Ambrose Johnson Jr., who went by the stage name Rick James and died on August 6, 2004, was an American singer-songwriter, musician, and record producer.
James was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. He started making music when he was in his teens. Before he joined the U.S. Navy Reserve to avoid being sent to the army, he played in different bands.
James ran away from home in 1964 and went to Toronto, Canada, where he started the rock band Mynah Birds. In 1966, Motown Records signed them to a record deal.
Rick James in the movie life with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence pic.twitter.com/uLMEsFJ8NM
— 𝙳𝚊𝚐𝚐𝚎𝚛 𝙳𝚒𝚌𝚔 𝙳 . 𝚟𝚜 𝚃𝚑𝚎 🌍 (@Godsloneman) January 4, 2023
James’s time with the group came to an end when military officials found out where he was and charged him with desertion. He went to jail for a few months. James moved to California after he got out of prison. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he started a number of rock and funk groups.
James started the popular Stone City Band in his hometown of Buffalo in 1977. After signing with Motown’s Gordy Records and putting out the album Come Get It! in 1978, which had the hits “You and I” and “Mary Jane,” he finally found success as a recording artist. James’ most successful album, Street Songs, came out in 1981.
It had hits like “Give It to Me Baby” and “Super Freak,” which became his biggest crossover hit because it mixed funk, disco, rock, and new wave. Soulful ballads like “Fire & Desire” and “Ebony Eyes” made James famous as well. James also did well as a songwriter and producer for Teena Marie, the Mary Jane Girls, the Temptations, Eddie Murphy, and Smokey Robinson, among others.
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When James’s album Glow came out in 1985 and he appeared on the popular TV show The A-Team, he was at the top of his game. His next albums didn’t sell as well as the ones that came before them. James’s “Super Freak” was sampled by rapper MC Hammer for his 1990 hit “U Can’t Touch This,” which won the 1991 Grammy Award for Best R&B Song.
James’s only Grammy was for writing this song. By the beginning of the 1990s, James’s drug abuse and legal problems were hurting his career.
James was found guilty in 1993 of kidnapping and beating up two different women while he was high on crack cocaine. He was sent to Folsom State Prison for three years as a result.
James got out of jail on parole in 1996, and in 1997, he put out the album Urban Rapsody. James’s health problems again put a stop to his career after he had a mild stroke during a concert in 1998. He then announced that he would be taking a break from music for a while.
Rick James played his role so good in Life, it took me decades to realize who that was.
— Jarvius Le’Mune (@JPlaysItCool) January 8, 2023
James’s career came back into the mainstream of pop culture in 2004 when he was on an episode of Chappelle’s Show. A skit in the style of Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories made fun of James’s wildlife in the 1980s.
This made people interested in his music again, and the next year he went back on the road to perform. James died later that year at age 56 from a heart attack.
In November 2020, James’s estate confirmed that it had sold a 50% stake in his publishing and masters catalog to the Hipgnosis Songs Fund, which was started by Merck Mercuriadis, a Canadian businessman and music industry executive.
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