Showtime's 'Bitchin' Dives Into the Many Lives of Young Rick James

·7 min read
Photo credit: Gale Rodriguez Jones
Photo credit: Gale Rodriguez Jones

Before Rick James became a tabloid sensation, before Dave Chapelle’s cocaine-loving caricature, long before the women and the prison stints, before he feuded with Prince and sold drugs to George Clinton, back, all the way back to the early 1960s, Rick James was just a kid.

It’s hard to picture him like that, isn’t it? That’s because somewhere between signature lyrics like, “She's a very kinky girl // the kind you don't take home to mother” and the viral catchphrase “I’m Rick James, bitch!” James, morphed from man to myth; his life reduced to a cautionary tale about excess and addiction.

Bitchin, a new documentary about the artist that airs tonight on Showtime, revisits in tremendous detail Rick James’s early years as a draft-dodging teenager in Buffalo, New York and Toronto, Canada. In its most interesting moments, Bitchin’ reminds its viewers that James’s life extended well beyond the outrageous allegations that came to define his legacy. It turns out funk music’s greatest gonzo experienced more highs and lows by the time he turned 18, than most of us do in a lifetime.

Rick James the Draft Dodger

By the time he was a teenager in the mid-60s, Rick James, who was born James Ambrose Johnson, had experienced enough racism and run-ins with the law in his hometown of Buffalo to make him leery of white American authority. But his wariness meant little to the U.S. military who began drafting young men to serve in the Vietnam War right as James was coming of age. Uncle Sam was coming for him, and James, empowered by the leaders of the Black Power movement, wanted nothing to do with it.

When a friend told him he could avoid the draft by joining the reserves, 15-year-old James lied about his age and enlisted in the Navy reserves. Unfortunately, that same friend forgot to tell him the deal hinged on attending meetings twice a month. James, who had a habit of skipping class as a kid, got put on active duty almost immediately. He reported to boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes. “Here I come from the street, playing African music, being very Afro-centric, all the sudden I’m in this white society of uniform and authority … It was a terrible change,” reflects James in an audio clip included in the documentary. “I wasn’t ready for it. My mind was saying, ‘Something is wrong here.’”

According to his memoir, Glow, James hated everything about the Navy—the rules, the marching, the calisthenics, the loading and unloading of M1s—and had been considering leaving as soon as he arrived at boot camp. When the admirals came to cut down his afro, he knew it was time to go. A few weeks later—right before he was scheduled to deploy— James made a break for the border. “I was not going off to this fuckin’ stupid war,” wrote James in Glow.

Showtime’s documentary doesn’t detail exactly how James scrambled out from underneath the Vietnam War’s gnarly claws. All we know is that he went AWOL and wound up in Toronto, Canada.

Rick James the Toronto Tourist

In the mid- to late-sixties, Toronto was home to a burgeoning folk and rock scene, much like the one spilling out across the cramped streets of Greenwich Village during the same time period.

Soon after he arrived, James followed his love of music to the basement clubs and coffeehouses that dotted Toronto’s Yorkville Avenue. That’s where all the bands and singers hung out. “Rick found his people, found his tribe in the mid-60s,” says the legendary music journalist David Fritz in an interview during the documentary. “He fit in with the Canadian musicians who were very inventive. Whatever this new music was, he could do it. It didn’t matter that he was a brother from Buffalo. He could adapt.”

Now, here’s where the story goes from strange to surreal. One night, James is walking down the street in Toronto when, according to Fritz, a group of guys call him the N-word. “Here I was thinking white people were cool in Canada,” said James in an audio interview that was included in the documentary. “And then these white boys started a fight.”

Across the street, three other white guys had noticed the scuffle. They rushed to James’s defense and beat up the racist assholes. Who were these kind men? Well, two of them happened to be Garth Hudson and Levon Helm. As in Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band. At the time, they were performing behind Ronnie Hawkins as The Hawks, but within a year, they’d be out on the road with Bob Dylan.

Rick James the Rock Star

That fight changed Rick James’s life. He became close friends with the young gentlemen of The Band —“They rescued me and took me under their wing,” says James—and through them he met Joni Mitchell and his future bandmate, Neil Young.

Yup, Neil Young and Rick James, or Rickie Matthews as he was known then (he changed his name multiple times to avoid getting caught by the Navy), were in a band together. They were originally called the Sailor Boys but changed their name to the Mynah Birds. James performed vocals and played a little harmonica as well. Neil Young was the band’s lead guitarist and future Buffalo Springfield member Bruce Palmer was the bassist. The three of them were joined by local musicians John Taylor on rhythm guitar and Rick Mason on the drums.

“We played rock and R&B. We didn’t mess around with folk.” said Mason. He described Rick James as a talented musician and an even better band leader. “He knew what he wanted to do and it got done that way. We followed him through a lot of tunes.”

As for his musical relationship with Neil Young, James considered it both natural and unique; surprising, perhaps, but fundamentally compatible. “I was singing those days mostly and playing a little harmonica,” said James. “Neil was playing really melodic, really pretty chords. I would write R&B lyrics over these chords. Really, it was an interesting combination.”

The Mynah Birds’ “interesting combination” of sounds eventually landed them a manager and a record deal with Motown. The group road tripped to Detroit and cut four songs at Hitsville, U.S.A. They were in the studio so much that one day, James, exhausted after a 24-hour recording session, passed out on the narrow staircase that divided the label’s studios downstairs from the Berry Gordys’ apartment upstairs.

The songs that came out of those recording sessions feature a totally different version of Rick James than the one the world came to know in the early ‘80s. This is Rick James the swingin’ rock star. On the track “It’s My Time” James’s voice is warm and scratchy, like a hand-me-down wool sweater. It sounds nothing like the buttery vocals that defined his later hit “Mary Jane.” On “I’ll Wait Forever,” he sounds gritty and sensual like Mick Jagger.

Unfortunately, the Mynah Birds never released their Motown album. The label shelved it after the group’s manager, angry about a financial dispute, reported Rick James to the feds. None of his bandmates had even known he was AWOL. The Navy snatched James up and threw him in the brig for seven months.

After he got out, James went back to Detroit and worked as one of Berry Gordy’s trusty songwriters. He spent a couple of years learning the craft but grew tired of the competition and the authority. Besides, he wanted to make rock & roll, not Motown. So he went to California, and that’s where, as David Fritz puts it, “Rick James becomes Rick James.”

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