James Ambrose Johnson, 1 February 1948, Buffalo, New York, USA, d. 6 August 2004, Los Angeles, California, USA. The nephew of Temptations vocalist Melvin Franklin, James pioneered a crossover style between R&B and rock in the mid-60s. Having fled to Canada after going AWOL from the US Naval Reserve, in 1965 he formed the Mynah Birds with two future members of the Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, plus Goldie McJohn, later with Steppenwolf. Motown Records signed the band as a riposte to the British wave of R&B artists then dominating the charts, before their career was aborted when James was arrested for draft evasion. Resuming his career in Britain in the early 70s, James formed the funk combo Main Line. Returning to the USA, he assembled a like-minded group of musicians to perform a dense, brash brand of funk, influenced by Sly Stone and George Clinton. Signed to Motown in 1977, initially as a songwriter, he rapidly evolved a more individual style, which he labelled punk funk. His first single, You And I, typified his approach, with its prominent bass riffs, heavy percussion, and sly, streetwise vocals. The record reached the US Top 20 in summer 1978 and topped the specialist soul charts - a feat that its follow-up, Mary Jane, came close to repeating, though the songs blatant references to marijuana cut short any hopes of radio airplay. James chose to present himself as a social outlaw, with outspoken views on drugs and sex. In a move subsequently echoed by Prince, he amassed a stable of artists under his control at Motown, using the Stone City Band as his backing group, and the Mary Jane Girls as female pawns in his macho master plan. He also produced records by actor Eddie Murphy, vocalist Teena Marie, Val Young, and Process And The Doo-Rags.
James own recordings, predominantly in the funk vein, continued to corner the disco market, with Give It To Me Baby and Super Freak (Part 1), on which he was joined by the Temptations, achieving notable sales in 1981. M.C. Hammer sampled the latter track on his huge 1990 hit, U Cant Touch This. Both tracks came from Street Songs, a Grammy-nominated record that catapulted James into the superstar bracket. Secure in his commercial standing, he revealed that he preferred recording ballads to the funk workouts that had made his name, and his drift towards a more conservative image was heightened when he duetted with Smokey Robinson on the hit single Ebony Eyes, and masterminded the Temptations reunion project in 1983.
James flamboyant lifestyle took its toll on his health and he was hospitalized several times between 1979 and 1984. His career continued unabated, and he had major hits in 1984 and 1985 with the more relaxed 17 and The Glow. The latter also provided the title for a highly acclaimed album, which reflected James decision to abandon the use of drugs, and move towards a more laid-back soul style. He was angered by constant media comparisons of his work with that of Prince, and cancelled plans to star in an autobiographical film called The Spice Of Life in the wake of the overwhelming commercial impact of his rivals Purple Rain. After releasing The Flag in 1986, James ran into serious conflict with Motown over the status of his spin-off acts. When they refused to release any further albums by the Mary Jane Girls, James left the label, signing to Reprise Records, where he immediately achieved a soul number 1 collaborating with Roxanne Shanté on Looseys Rap.
James drug problems had not disappeared and following years of abuse he was jailed in 1991, together with his girlfriend Tanya Hijazi, for various offences including dealing cocaine, assault and torture. The King Of Funk confessed to Rolling Stone that at least by being in prison he could not do drugs. He was released in 1996, and made his recording comeback the following year. On his 1998 comeback tour James suffered a stroke, and the same year he required hip replacement surgery. The artist was found dead at his Los Angeles home in August 2004.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.