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Rick James didn’t just have a hit with ‘Super Freak’; the singer lived it

A Showtime documentary tells a tale of sound and fury signifying excess

Rick James in "Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James."
Rick James in "Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James."Mark Weiss

What would the life of Rick James have been like, and how might rock ’n’ roll history have changed, had he not lost his chance to be part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young? Or if he attended his friend Jay Sebring’s party in 1969 and been among the victims of the Charles Manson cult? Or if in 1982 he hadn’t confronted Jay Lasker, the head of Motown Records, snorted coke on his desk, and waved his penis in the executive’s face? (Lasker replaced him with Lionel Ritchie.) Or if he had not imprisoned, tortured, and raped a young woman in 1991 and ended up serving two years in Folsom Prison after being convicted of kidnapping and assault?

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Sacha Jenkins’s Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James does not answer these questions, but it suggests that James likely would have found other means of self-destruction and brilliant accomplishment. Drawing on the memories of family members, friends, and collaborators, and tapping into a trove of archival material, including tapes of James’s raucous, raunchy live shows, Jenkins keeps pace with his subject’s breakneck progress. Along the way James encounters opportunities that are missed or exploited and tragedies that are averted or courted. He transforms hard times into artistic success, and squanders success in debauchery.

James was born in 1948 as James Ambrose Johnson Jr., in Buffalo, a place described by his brother Carmen Sims as “one of the most racist cities in the world.” In an interview James says he got “a lot of whuppin’s as a boy . . . what today you might call child abuse.” His mother had him run numbers as a kid, the first of his criminal activities, and also took him to jazz and blues clubs, where he had firsthand experience of Bo Diddley, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk, all to become ingredients in his musical fusion.

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James joined the Navy Reserve in the mid-’60s to avoid Vietnam, but when it looked like he was going to be sent anyway he fled to Toronto. There Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, later of The Band, introduced him to the city’s thriving music scene, after rescuing him by chance from a racist gang. He became friends with Joni Mitchell; and he and Neil Young formed a band called the Mynah Birds. They got a contract with Motown, a gig that fizzled when the Navy finally caught up with James and he spent five weeks in the brig. Then he moved to LA, floundered, and was frustrated until he returned to Buffalo and put together his backup group the Stone City Band. Motown recorded his first album, “Come Get It!,” in 1978. It was a hit.

James was 30. He was no overnight success, but he made up for lost time. He bought William Randolph Hearst’s mansion, threw orgiastic parties, and indulged his dark side and his taste for voyeurism and sadism. He put on spectacular shows for huge stadium crowds, with pyrotechnics, 7-foot-tall fake joints, and flamboyant costumes, pushing an image of sybaritic excess that became his reality. His fifth album, the 1981 “Street Songs,” was his biggest, in part because of the crossover hit “Super Freak.” For James it was “a parody, a [expletive] joke.” But as one interviewee in “Bitchin’” puts it, “In the 1980s “‘Super Freak’ was the kind of song played at white frat parties.”

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Parody or not, “Super Freak” kept the party going. In 1990 when James was having hard times, MC Hammer “sampled” the song’s opening riff for his hit “U Can’t Touch This.” James sued, got joint credit for Hammer’s song, and, it is surmised, received more money than he did for the original recording.

Another parody offered an unexpected boost of recognition after James had been largely forgotten. In 2004 Dave Chappelle imitated him on his show and popularized the catchphrase “I’m Rick James, bitch!” James would repeat the line on the BET Awards program later that year and receive a standing ovation. Five weeks later he was dead, at 56.

“Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James” can be streamed on Showtime, beginning Sept. 3. Go to www.sho.com/titles/3474770/bitchin-the-sound-and-fury-of-rick-james.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.