Many of us at Popblerd HQ are big vinyl collectors. It allows us the chance to catch up on some of our old favorites, many of which aren’t available on CD (or digitally). With that in mind, we decided to create this here column. Diggin’ in the Crates finds us flipping through our own stacks of vinyl and reviewing some old favorites. Our first entry in this column comes courtesy of the bad-ass king of punk-funk: Buffalo’s own Rick James.
Yeah, for a lot of people, Rick James’ name is still a punchline. More than half a decade after the funk star passed away, his musical contributions have largely been forgotten, replaced by the coked-up caricature popularized during the infamous “Charlie Murphy True Hollywood Stories” sketch on “Chappelle’s Show”. I’m certainly not blaming anyone for this-no one’s more responsible for this image than Rick himself-but young’uns don’t realize that in his day, Rick James was one of the biggest stars in the country. His 1981 opus Street Songs, for a time, was the second biggest selling album in history by a black artist (until Thriller, Purple Rain, Can’t Slow Down and Private Dancer came along and the age of black artists selling 3 or 4 million copies at a clip became commonplace). His tours regularly sold out and were outsize spectacles featuring near-naked women, outrageous costuming, and Rick smoking a giant papier-mache joint on stage.
Most folks who are fans of Rick will easily admit that his last solid album was 1983’s Cold Blooded. Arriving in the fall of 1983, right before his drug problems got really out of control and Prince officially made him irrelevant, it’s as solid a set of funk as was released during the decade, and it found Rick trying to balance his usual live-band feel with something a little more synthesized. It also found Rick rocking something of a new look, as his Masai warrior-esque braided extensions had been transformed into long, lustrous jheri curls.
The title track was a huge hit, spending six weeks at #1 on the R&B charts. It also peaked at #40 pop. Rick was maybe a little too black for CHR radio at the time-he never had a Top Ten pop hit although he was a constant presence on the R&B charts from 1978-1988. Strangely, the album’s second single came about because a section of Rick’s fanbase felt like he wasn’t being black enough.
The Smokey Robinson duet “Ebony Eyes” was allegedly written to show appreciation for black women, who were more than a little sore with the fact that Rick was usually seen with a white lady on his arm (some of Rick’s paramours during this period included “The Dukes of Hazzard”’s Catherine Bach and “The Exorcist” star Linda Blair.) Enlisting the assistance one of the greatest singers and songwriters of all-time (not to mention someone whose vocal tones made the fairer sex swoon) was a brilliant move. And if that wasn’t enough Rick delivered the death blow a couple of tracks later by letting Billy Dee Williams deliver spoken verse to the steamy ballad “Tell Me What You Want”. Billy Dee AND Smokey? Rick was not playing.
Rick covered a lot of bases on Cold Blooded, including the forward-thinking move of having a rapper on his album. Practically unheard of in the early ‘80s, the streetwise cut “P.I.M.P. the S.I.M.P.” featured a rhyme from Grandmaster Flash. A year later, Chaka Khan would grab Flash’s homeboy Melle Mel and score the first hip-hop/R&B smash with “I Feel for You”-a cover of a Prince song. You know Rick must have been mad as all hell about that.
Cold Blooded was a hit album for Rick, but things sort of fell apart over the next couple years. He released a Greatest Hits album (usually the sign that things are about to go downhill) in 1984, the same year shit went nuclear for Michael, Prince, et. al., and by the time he returned with Glow (and a new blond jheri curl) in 1985, the landscape was completely different. Despite writing and producing smashes for his protégés The Mary Jane Girls (“In My House”) and actor Eddie Murphy (“Party All the Time”), he never hit the top 40 on the pop charts again, although he topped the R&B chart in 1988 with another hip-hop collaboration, the Roxanne Shante-featuring “Loosey’s Rap”. After “Loosey’s”, he never hit the R&B top 40 again, either, and the legal problems began to mount, eventually leading to his incarceration and a sudden end to his career.
Cold Blooded isn’t available on CD (unless you want to pay a pretty fuckin’ penny for it), but the inside gatefold featuring Rick rocking a white suit and staring menacingly (seductively? It’s hard to tell when the guy’s probably on coke) is best viewed on LP anyway. I wonder if he did lines off the cover?