Benjaminson (Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown's First Superstar, 2012, etc.) delivers a matter-of-fact biography of a musician whose extremes—both the highs and the lows—defy belief.
Has popular music ever spawned a more unlikely superstar than Rick James (1948-2004)? Incorrigible at school and at home, sexually active since the age of 9, he was an unlikely and underage Navy enlistee and then a deserter while still in his midteens. He fled across the border to Toronto, where he found himself in a musical hotbed that led to connections with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and future members of Steppenwolf but also to all sorts of criminal activity that led him to be deported at least twice. Any hope for a musical career depended on America, where he would be subject to military justice if he returned. Then there was the fact that he really wasn’t much of a musician. “Although Rick would occasionally boast about being a great instrumentalist,” writes the author, “no musician who ever heard him play any instrument for more than a couple minutes ever believed him”—and he was only serviceable as a singer. Yet he was always an outsized personality, a flamboyant figure, and a gifted mimic (“Rick Jagger” in his Toronto days), someone whose ambition was exceeded only by the appetites that eventually destroyed him. It’s a good story, but one that has been told often and generally better than in the pedestrian fashion found here; each chapter is short and heavily reliant on previously written accounts. For those who know James only through the hit that gives this biography its title and from comedian Dave Chappelle’s killer caricature of “an obnoxious, coked-up lunatic” the book suggests how much more there was to both the artistry and the insanity. However, any suggestion that his legacy matches those of George Clinton, Sly Stone, Prince, and others among his influences and contemporaries is misguided.
For music fans who must read everything about James or who have never read anything about him.