Peter Benjaminson is no stranger to writing about the music industry. He has written about several Motown music stars although few had lives that were as scandalous as that of the late Rick James, the subject of his latest book, Super Freak: The Life of Rick James.
“This was my fourth book about the Motown Record Company…my daughter suggested that I write about a more recent Motown Records superstar and I settled on Rick James because he was so multi-talented. He was not only a singer but he played instruments, he was a record producer, he was a great performer, and he produced and organized and went on tours with other groups. He was one of the last Motown superstars before Lionel Ritchie and he was talented but also had a tumultuous life,” Benjaminson told the AFRO.
James was well-known for not only his infectious and groundbreaking music but for the drug induced drama that followed him wherever he went. “I went to Buffalo, New York to do research for the book and I interviewed his relatives and musicians that have worked with him and went to Toronto as well where Rick spent some of his life hiding from the U.S government because he deserted from the US Navy and then I went to LA where Motown moved in the early 70’s and where Rick scored his biggest hit and I went to Vegas to speak to Levi Ruffian one of his close friends,” said Benjaminson. “He was really knocked out of the running by all the drugs he took but he did a lot of things that made him a great musician. He didn’t have that great of a voice but he managed to sing very well, he combined jazz and blues and was the first to do that and he added meaningful words to disco music, he told a story over a disco beat and he was just as flamboyant as White musicians during that time.”
James’ drug habits were no secret and Benjaminson believes that his addiction held him back from ever truly fulfilling his true potential.
“In some periods of his life he was so high he’d just lay in a room with aluminum foil over the windows and just get high and do nothing else which of course wasn’t good for his creativity. When he was being sued by Motown the judge on the case pointed out that a lot of musicians are aided by drugs early on because it loosens up their minds and awakens their creativity but the judge and other people like Levi Riffian pointed out that if you take too many drugs you can’t get it back and your creativity withers.”
James was arrested several times for serious drug and sex related crimes which, although concerning, helped bolster his fame and his notoriety kept his “bad boy” image afloat.
“Even when he was arrested people asked him if he felt bad and he said his image was that of a bad boy. Being a racy guy probably helped but like many other things in his life, he pushed it too far, although he did some of his best work after he got out of jail.”
Although James’s exploits are one of the most discussed components of his legacy and immortalized in the Dave Chappele comedy sketch where he is portrayed uttering the words, “I’m Rick James, bitch,” he was an inventive force in the music industry and was one of the premiere Black artists with tremendous crossover appeal .
Super Freak: The Life of Rick James is available in stores now.