Rick James was born James Ambrose Johnson, Jr. in Buffalo, New York. One of eight children, his father, an autoworker, abandoned him and his siblings when Rick was a child.
James grew up singing on street corners with fellow neighborhood boys. James was briefly involved in street crime. James dropped out of high school at 15 to avoid a possible draft and joined the U.S. Naval Reserve. A year later, James left the Reserve after he began to miss weekend training, because it interfered with his music career.
After failing to report for active duty on the USS Enterprise and in fear of arrest, James fled north to Toronto in the summer of 1964. Now using the stage name Big Jimmy, he formed his first band with future Steppenwolf member Nick St. Nicholas, initially called the Sailor Boyz. The band soon changed their name to the Mynah Birds, bassist Bruce Palmer took over for St. Nicholas in early 1965, and the group soon released their first single, "Mynah Bird Hop"/"Mynah Bird Song" for Columbia Records of Canada.
James and Palmer soon formed a new Mynah Birds lineup with guitarists Tom Morgan and Xavier Taylor, and drummer Rick Mason. In early 1966, the Mynah Birds auditioned for the Motown label in Detroit. Morgan was unhappy with the label's attitude towards the musicians and left, with Neil Young taking his place. With Young on board, the Mynah Birds returned to Motown to record an album, but their manager pocketed the advance money the label had given the band. The band fired their manager, who in turn told the label that James was actually a seaman who had gone AWOL. Motown told him to give himself up to the FBI, and the Mynah Birds' album was shelved.
James spent a year in a naval prison, after which he briefly returned to Toronto. During the summer of 1967, he formed a new version of The Mynah Birds (sometimes spelled "Myna Byrds") with Neil Merryweather. The band returned to Detroit and recorded a new version of James and Neil Young's "It's My Time", but the band broke up soon afterwards. During early 1968, James returned to Motown and became a songwriter and producer, writing under an assumed name and working with Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Canadian band Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers and The Spinners.
In late 1968, James and Greg Reeves moved to Los Angeles, California and formed a rock band called Salt and Pepper (under the name Rick Matthews) with drummer Steve Rumph from T.I.M.E and Michael Rummans from the Yellow Payges. A later version consisted of Coffi Hall from Mama Lion and Merryweather and guitarist Dave Burt and Keyboardist Ed Roth from Merryweather. Former Buffalo Springfield roadie Chris Sarns played bass for a while, before Ron Johnson from Kaleidoscope stepped in the following year. The group recorded a demo for Atlantic Records, and played at The Fillmore West with Jethro Tull.
In 1971, James and Roth both appeared on Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer's solo album, The Cycle is Complete. Then they returned to Toronto, where they recorded two singles - "Big Showdown" and "Don't You Worry" - as part of Heaven and Earth, a band that also featured guitarist Stan Endersby, bass player Denny Gerrard, and drummer Pat Little. Heaven and Earth, minus Little, then merged with another local group, Milestone, to form Great White Cane with horn players Bob Doughty and Ian Kojima, drummer Norman Wellbanks, guitarist Paul C. Saenz, and keyboard player John Cleveland Hughes. The group recorded an album for Lion Records in Los Angeles in March 1972, but by that summer, they had disbanded.
In 1973, A&M Records released the first Rick James single, "My Mama", which is likely to have been recorded in Los Angeles. In 1976, James and South African guitarist Aidan Mason co-wrote "Get Up and Dance!", which was released as a single but failed to chart. In 1977, he returned to Motown as a songwriter/producer. He soon began recording for Motown's Gordy label, first with the Hot Lips and then with a new version of the Stone City Band.
In 1978, James released his debut solo album, Come Get It!, in which he played most of the instruments on the album (as he would for his next two albums afterwards before including members of his Stone City Band to back him in the studio). The album launched his solo career, thanks to the funky disco hit, "You and I", and the much smoother, soulful "Mary Jane". He followed this success with Fire It Up, and headlined his first tour in support of the album, which saw then rising funk-pop artist Prince opening for him. James' cordial relationship with Prince during the tour strained after Prince, according to James, stole all bits from his act to hype the audience. He got so fed up with this that he canceled the rest of the tour.
Rick James released his third album, Bustin' Out of L Seven, which like his previous two albums, focused on producing a concept project. "L Seven" was named after a street on which James grew up in Buffalo.
In 1982, he was asked to produce a song for The Temptations' upcoming album, Reunion. Rick James used The Temptations vocals for the songs “Give It To Me Baby” and “Super Freak”. The Temptations former members Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin returned to the group for this project. The song, "Standing on the Top", became a top ten R&B hit and James was credited in the song not only as a writer but as a duet singer, as well.
In 1982, just as the hype from Street Songs dropped, he released the gold-selling Throwin' Down album.
James continued to score hits with Motown into 1985 but by the end of that year he had begun to have struggles with the label.
Following the release of The Flag in 1986, James left Motown. He rebound quickly signing a lucrative deal with Warner Bros. He released the album, Wonderful, in 1988, which yielded the R&B hit, "Loosey's Rap". The video for the song was banned on MTV and BET for sexual content, which James labeled hypocritical. After the release of the UK-only 1989 album, Kickin', James' recording career slowed as he struggled with personal and legal problems. In 1989, James met 17-year-old party goer Tanya Hijazi. The two began a romance in 1990.
In 1993, he and future wife Tanya Hijazi were accused of holding 17-year old Katie Lauren Rowley of Gloucester hostage for up to six days (accounts vary on how long she was actually held), tying her up, forcing her to perform sexual acts, and burning her legs and abdomen with the hot end of a crack cocaine pipe during a week long cocaine binge. In 1993, the couple welcomed the arrival of their only child and James' youngest, Tazman.
In 1993, while out on bail for that earlier incident, Rick James, under the influence of cocaine, assaulted music executive Mary Sauger at the St. James Club and Hotel in West Hollywood. Sauger claims she met James and Hijazi for a business meeting, but said the two then kidnapped and beat her over a 20-hour period. He was found guilty of both offenses, but was cleared of a torture charge in the crack-pipe incident that could have put him in prison for the rest of his life. He served two years in Folsom Prison, and lost US $2 million in a civil suit to one of the women.
In 1997, a year following his release from prison for assault charges, James released his first new album in eight years, Urban Rapsody. Though James returned to live performances to promote the album, he stopped performing for a while after suffering a stroke following a show in Denver in 1998. Prior to the concert, James was interviewed on VH-1's Behind the Music, where he openly talked about his life and career and also mentioned his drug use, which he said was behind him.
James' lifelong drug abuse began in his teens. A longtime marijuana user, he began using cocaine in the late 1960s. Cocaine use became an addiction for James by the late 1980s and he began freebasing by the end of the decade. James recalled smoking crack cocaine in his Beverly Hills mansion and often had aluminium foil on the windows to escape onlookers. James claimed he quit cocaine when he entered prison.
1998 Rick James had a stroke. James needed a pacemaker to help him breathe and by his death was dealing with overweight problems, which also affected his health.
Rick James and Teena Marie performed at the 4th annual B.E.T. Awards Show it would be his last televised performance. Rick James would later recite a catchphrase associated with him, when a young female backstage mistake him for someone else.
Before his death, Rick was working on an autobiography, The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super freak, as well as a new album.
The morning of August 6, 2004, Rick James was found dead in his Los Angeles, California, home at the Oakwood apartment complex on Barham Boulevard by his caretaker. James had died from pulmonary failure and cardiac failure with his various health conditions of diabetes, stroke, a pacemaker, and a heart attack. Through his autopsy, alprazolam, diazepam, bupropion, citalopram, hydrocodone, digoxin, chlorpheniramine, methamphetamine and cocaine were found in his blood. However the coroner also stated, "None of the drugs or drug combinations were found to be at levels that were life-threatening in and of themselves." He was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York.