Rick James’ story will make a fantastic movie one day. While most people’s knowledge of James boils down to two facts — that he had a tremendous hit with the song “Super Freak,” and that he crashed in spectacular fashion, going to prison for a pair of incidents involving crack cocaine and several women claiming physical abuse — his story is even richer, deeper, and more sordid than that.
James entered the Naval Reserve while still a teenager, but his misbehavior got him assigned to active duty. He was scheduled to ship off to Vietnam when he went AWOL. He took a bus to Toronto where he was immediately harassed by locals, and was saved from the fight by three musicians, two of whom turned out to be Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson of The Hawks (later to become The Band.) He soon joined a band led by the future founder of Steppenwolf. Another member of that band was Neil Young. James and Young wrote songs together, and they got signed to Motown Records. But a dispute with a manager led that manager to inform the Navy of James’ whereabouts. James surrendered, and spent a year in the brig for desertion.
Upon his release, James joined Motown as a staff writer and released several records that did well in the black community. Then 1981’s “Street Songs,” featuring “Super Freak” and “Give It To Me Baby,” made him a superstar. But with success came excess, and James quickly spiraled into full-blown crack addiction. James tried several times to get clean, but before he did, several incidents involving violence against women landed him in Folsom Prison.
Today, James is clean and productive, touring the country and preparing a series of new projects. Bankrate spoke to him about how his portfolio withstood the storms, and how his vices tapped into his wallet.
BANKRATE: How much money do you think you blew on coke?
RICK JAMES: I spent $7,000 a week, and I did that for five years. I had a serious five-year hiatus where I didn’t record, and didn’t want to because me and Motown were in a lawsuit that I eventually won. But I couldn’t record for another company, so I had a five-year sabbatical where I was just smoking, just freebasing. So I was smoking $7,000 every week. That’s a couple of ounces a night.
BANKRATE: Did “Super Freak” make you rich in the long term, or did you blow that money on excess?
RICK JAMES: I made so much. You have to understand, I wrote and produced millions and millions of selling records, so my publishing company alone was worth millions of dollars. I didn’t have to work anymore in life because when the rappers started sampling … I’m the most sampled artist in history. Right now. I mean, Mary J. Blige just sampled me, LL Cool J, Will Smith, you name it. MC Hammer, the biggest rap record of all time is “Super Freak,” (Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This”), Salt n Pepa, Ja Rule and Jennifer Lopez, Ole Dirty Bastard.
BANKRATE: So even with all the money you blew, you didn’t come close to blowing it all?
RICK JAMES: Right. I could have never been broke. See, that was the thing. Even when I was down to a couple hundred thousand, I would always get a check for 600, 700 more thousand, from the “Super Freak” album, or Teena Marie. That’s the way it was. That’s the way it is. That’s because I kept my publishing throughout the years, and I was probably one of the first black acts getting $1 million an album at Motown in those days.
BANKRATE: How much are you worth?
RICK JAMES: I don’t know. $30 million, $40 million, something like that. You don’t really know your own worth because you don’t know what may happen tomorrow. I may release an album tomorrow that gets me $10, $20 million, then I’m worth $70, $80 million more.
BANKRATE: Did you invest any of that money wisely?
RICK JAMES: I have very good accountants who look out for me. CDs, land, oil drillings, stocks, bonds, many different things. I have great people.
BANKRATE: Are you into the market yourself?
RICK JAMES: No I’m not, but I have played the market, and I have won.
BANKRATE: Any stocks or investments in particular you did really well with?
RICK JAMES: Pork bellies I’m a fan of, because people, especially black people, whenever there’s hard times, times of financial insecurity, black people going to eat some bacon. Some ham hocs, pork bellies. And, because of the baby boom, pharmaceuticals are a very good investment. And holograms are going to be great. Holographic imagery. I think it’s going to be the next step for music and TV.
BANKRATE: Looking back, what’s the dumbest thing you ever spent your money on?
RICK JAMES: Cocaine.
BANKRATE: Not counting drugs — material possessions.
RICK JAMES: A jacket and a pair of boots I bought from Bijan’s in Beverly Hills. I walked by the store, and this old white woman was sitting at a big ornate desk, and she snubbed her nose at me. But Bijan waved me in, and I walked in and gave her this look, like, I’ll show you. So I found this leather jacket cut to the waist with black mink inside, and this plain pair of black boots. $28,000. When I saw the bill, I said, “There must be a mistake here.” I only did it out of ego. I may have worn that jacket maybe twice, then I realized it was too small for me.