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10 Things You Didn’t Know About Rick James

From Neil Young to Diana Ross, discover how these 10 people are connected to Rick James

Rick James

Though Rick James died in 2004, his autobiography just came out in early July. Glow (Atria Books), written by James with music biographer David Ritz, contains all the tales of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll you’d expect from the self-described “Super Freak.” But the memoir also details a musical trajectory as fascinating as his stage persona.

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Thelonious Monk

The night before the reservist received his letter to serve on active duty in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, a teenage Rick James sat in on drums with iconic jazz pianist Thelonious Monk at the Royal Arms nightclub in Buffalo, N.Y.

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Neil Young

Hightailing it to Canada to avoid service, James fell in with musician Neil Young in Toronto. The unlikely pair formed a folk-blues band, the Mynah Birds, with Bruce Palmer and several other musicians. They were good enough to land a recording contract with Motown Records — quickly nullified, alas, when it emerged that James was a fugitive.

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Joni Mitchell

Another burgeoning music talent who left an imprint on James during his Toronto sojourn was Joni Mitchell. James often crashed at her place, developing a strong (though platonic) relationship with the singer-songwriter.

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The Lovin’ Spoonful

James became a fan of the folk-rock jug band during his hippie phase in Toronto, and the group had an enduring influence on his music. “Later in life when I told writers that the Lovin’ Spoonful was one of the groups that influenced me the most, they thought I was kidding,” James wrote. “I wasn’t.”

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Stevie Wonder

Rick James met Stevie Wonder when the Mynah Birds auditioned for Motown in 1966. While in Toronto, he had already changed his name from James Ambrose Johnson Jr. to Ricky James Matthews, but Wonder thought his stage name was too long; he suggested the shorter Ricky James.

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Stephen Stills

After returning to the U.S. and serving time for draft resistance, James wound up in Los Angeles, where he befriended singer-songwriter Stephen Stills, then with Buffalo Springfield. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young coalesced soon after, giving James high hopes of joining the group on bass. Instead they hired Greg Reeves — the other member of James’ duo at the time.

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Bobby Taylor

Motown eventually hired James as a songwriter. One of his first compositions for the label was “Out in the Country,” which he hoped the Temptations would record. When they passed, Bobby Taylor included the track on his 1969 LP, Taylor Made Soul.

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Diana Ross

After launching his solo career with Motown as a funk pioneer in the late 1970s, James began producing other artists for the label. After discovering that he was slated to produce only part of an album for Diana Ross, James backed out of the project. But a tune he had written expressly for Ross — “I’m a Sucker for Your Love” — became a hit for Teena Marie, James’ most famous protégé.

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Prince

Before Michael Jackson, Rick James was Prince’s biggest rival in the early 1980s.  Prince opened a series of concerts for James in 1980. James caught some of Prince’s act, then claimed the Purple One was stealing ideas from him. The accusation ignited a bitter rivalry between the two performers.

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Linda Blair

James had a hit in 1983 with “Cold Blooded,” which centered on his romantic relationship with actress Linda Blair (Regan in 1973’s The Exorcist). Blair had an abortion without consulting him, he wistfully recalled in Glow. “She told me that it was our child but gave me no voice in her decision. I call that cold-blooded.”

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