Well, all right, you freaks...
A hug from Rick James, and other confessions
The latest score: Rick, 3; Marvin, 7.
In books, that is. Once upon a time, it was difficult to imagine the existence of even one devoted to a single Motown artist. Today, they continue to accumulate. Newly published this month is Super Freak: The Life of Rick James by Peter Benjaminson. Like the seven about Marvin Gaye and his work, this third book to shed light on James Ambrose Johnson – p/k/a Rick James – arrives after his death. (One author, David Ritz, has written about, and with, both musicians.)
As with its predecessors – Rick’s first autobiography, The Confessions of Rick James, and his, uh, second, Glow, with Ritz – the Benjaminson volume focuses mainly on the music, the lifestyle and the demise of this provocative star. That’s what the audience expects, right?
The backroom believers at Motown, who helped Rick to reach that audience by promoting and marketing his music, don’t get much recognition in any of the three books. Sure, Berry Gordy is referenced, although in The Confessions of Rick James, Rick had trouble with spelling. “Meeting Barry was a trip,” he declares at one point. “Barry treated me with respect and love, and he’s a man with a lot of dignity, but I was still nervous as a motherfucker.”
The mistake does not appear in the other two tomes. In Super Freak, Benjaminson cites approving comments made about Rick in Gordy’s own autobiography, while also quoting from an Associated Press interview in which the artist said that Motown “just didn’t allow me to have the freedom I needed to really make the kind of records and do the kinds of things in the industry I wanted to do.”
Leaving aside his brief ’60s spell at Motown when he was in the Mynah Birds, Rick signed to the company in July 1977, nine months before his Come Get It! album was released. Barney Ales was president of Motown Records at the time, but apparently merits no mention in Super Freak. Barney earns a photo in Glow, and an insult in The Confessions of Rick James. Ales “got right in my face at Suzanne de Passe’s wedding,” wrote Rick, “and ordered me to finish Bustin’ Out. When he said, ‘Fuck [producing] Teena Marie,’ I knew he meant business.”
Barney corroborates that, recalling the conversation during de Passe’s wedding reception at the Beverly Hills Hotel, while his wife, Mitzi, was dancing with Berry. “I had no problems with Rick whatsoever. He knew he couldn’t fuck with me. After I left, that’s when he got the big change [from Motown] in contracts. I don’t blame him, if they’re stupid enough to do that.”
The executive who dealt with Rick after Ales’ exit was Jay Lasker, appointed president of Motown Records in 1980. Absent from Super Freak, Lasker is mentioned only once in Glow and recalled briefly in The Confessions of Rick James when Rick demanded a million dollars for three new tracks to include in a greatest hits album.
I used to speak to Jay during his Motown tenure, and later he shared recollections with me. “When I first met Rick in 1980, his career, based on his declining sales, seemed to be falling apart.” At that point, the artist was afraid of being dropped, according to Jay, “and so humble that he asked me if I was going to pick up his option.”
Lasker said that he would, and Rick “jumped up, smiled and gave me a hug.” When the star’s Street Songs album broke wide open, Lasker’s faith was rewarded, not only with domestic sales of more than two million, but also widespread chart success that was “a morale booster for the whole company.” Unfortunately, Rick became a big shot again. “Within a year…of his humble speech to me in 1981, he came in like a towering inferno, demanding that his [improved] contract go into effect, doubling his royalty and giving him his publishing.”
Super Freak may not acknowledge Jay Lasker by name, but Rick’s subsequent conflicts with Motown are recorded in fine detail, particularly those concerning his proteges, the Mary Jane Girls. There was protracted legal action during the second half of the ’80s. “Motown’s major issue was that Rick didn’t adhere to deadlines,” Benjaminson writes, while James “complained that he wasn’t receiving adequate promotional support.”
The ring of familiarity is loud in those words, recalling many other such circumstances involving record labels and recording artists. Eventually, the MJG disputes were settled in court, with Motown victorious in some aspects, Rick in others. He received $2.5 million from the record company.
“Rick’s life was a struggle between his good impulses and his horrendous ones,” Benjaminson writes in a chapter appropriately titled “Trouble.” The tragedy of this inability to restrain or curtail his drug habit is magnified by James’ indisputable talent. He was one of only two Motown solo superstars whose careers owed nothing to Detroit, and whose creativity (along with that of Lionel Richie) gave sustenance to the company in the 1980s.
“We were starting to grow another roster of artists,” explained former Motown exec Miller London. “We had Rick, Teena Marie, DeBarge, but they weren’t consistent enough,” he told me a few years ago. (Barney Ales had recruited Miller in 1969 – he was Motown’s first African-American salesman – and later he became one of Lasker’s key marketing lieutenants.)
From Miller’s perspective, Jay did his best with the lacklustre A&R department in place in Los Angeles. “We lost creative control with the artists,” he said, “and we lost our ability to do what needed to be done. It was a rough time.” Perhaps if Rick James had come through Detroit and been disciplined during those days – or better still, self-disciplined – he would have been a consistent success, a saviour who might have halted, or at least delayed, Motown’s eventual sale to the California corporates.
Musicians don’t necessarily have to hug their record company presidents, but occasionally heeding their advice can help to sustain careers. In Rick’s case, it might have helped to keep him alive. Then again…