Singer Rick James died 10 years ago Aug. 6, but the song that he’s known best for may never fade. “Super Freak,” released in 1981, was the biggest hit of James’ career.
Singer Rick James died 10 years ago Aug. 6, but the song that he’s known best for may never fade. “Super Freak,” released in 1981, was the biggest hit of James’ career. As Washington Post writer Hank Stuever noted in 2004, the funky tune is a staple of “class reunions, bar mitzvahs (and) wedding receptions.” How many of us have watched our grandmothers groove to the racy recording.
James called his blend of musical styles “punk funk.” His most well-known songs, including “Give It to Me Baby” and “Mary Jane,” promote a wild lifestyle featuring drugs. In life, James struggled with substance abuse. His death at 56 was attributed to a heart attack, but cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs also were found in his system, according to The New York Times.
Put your dance shoes on as Legacy.com shares some fun facts about James and the Motown Records hit that made him a household name:
1. James said he wrote “Super Freak” quickly, just looking to assemble “a silly song that had a bit of new wave texture to it.” As he explained to Musician magazine in 1983: “So I just came up with this silly little lick and expounded on it. I came up with the bass part first. Then I put a guitar on it and keyboards, doing the ‘ehh ehh,’ silly keyboard part. Then I found a tuning on my Oberheim OB-Xa that I’d been wanting to use for a long time – it sounds like ghosts. And I put a very operatic vocal structure on it ’cause I’m really into opera and classical music.”
2. In the song, when James commands his backup singers to bust out, he shouts, “Temptations, sing!” Those are the actual Temptations providing vocals. One of the vocal group’s members, Melvin Franklin, was Rick James’ uncle.
3. In 1990, MC Hammer borrowed the “Super Freak” opening bass line for use in his hit “U Can’t Touch This.” James sued, alleging copyright infringement. The case was settled out of court, and both James and Hammer were given co-writing credits for the tune. Later, they shared a Grammy Award (along with co-writer Alonzo Miller) for best rhythm and blues song. It was the only Grammy James received in his lifetime, according to Grammy.com.
4. Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Super Freak” No. 477 on its 2004 list of the 500 all-time greatest songs. When the list was revised in 2011, the song slipped to No. 481. The accompanying write-up notes that James “wasn’t exactly modest about his ambitions” when he declared in 1981 that he wanted to make “Paul McCartney” money. James got his wish “with the self-described ‘punk funk’ of ‘Super Freak,’ from his breakthrough album, Street Songs,” the magazine said.
5. James’ ashes are buried in Buffalo, N.Y., where he was born and raised. His grave is marked with a two-ton stone of black granite bearing an image of James from the early 1980s – wearing tight pants and holding a guitar, his long hair styled into minibraids. The stone’s inscription reads, “I’ve had it all/I’ve done it all/I’ve seen it all/It’s all about love/God is love.” His family has said the words are from a song James wrote but never released.
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”