Tumultuous life story of Rick James

“Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James” tells, in James’ own words, of the tumultuous life of the disco-age music superstar.— Submitted photo

Funk legend Rick James and acclaimed music biographer David Ritz met in 1979 in Marvin Gaye’s studio while Ritz was interviewing Gaye for a biography. Intrigued, James urged Ritz to interview him, too, for a biography. Decades of those interviews and research have become “Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James” (Atria, $26), a posthumously published memoir — in James’s own words — of the tumultuous life of the disco-age music superstar.

Little James Ambrose Johnson was a voracious reader and musical prodigy whose mother worked as a cleaning lady and ran numbers at night to support her eight kids in Buffalo, N.Y. Noticing his interest in music, she sneaked him into nightclubs — where, hidden underneath cocktail tables, he was mesmerized by the performances of jazz musicians such as Etta James and Miles Davis.

“This adventure began in 1948 in Buffalo, [N.Y.], when a boychild was born to a wonderful woman who worked hard so that he might have a life easier than hers,” wrote James. “The boychild became a manchild who managed to turn that life from triumph to tragedy.”

Years later, he would wander to Toronto, where he ended up playing with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, and then to California, ultimately creating music that led him to become a household name in the 1980s, with hit songs like “Super Freak,” “Mary Jane” and “17.”

Famous for his shamelessly raunchy dance songs, James never made a secret of his sex- and drug-loving lifestyle. In “Glow,” he narrated his life from the setting of Folsom Prison, where he spent time in the 1990s as part of his sentence for assault and kidnapping. There, he met a fellow inmate named Brother Guru, and “Glow” is written as a conversation with Guru, whose probing questions forced James to assess his past behavior.

“I’ve always wanted to write my own life story,” James revealed. “But outside of prison I could never sit down and be quiet. My energy was scattered. I was always going in a dozen different directions at once. But now I got no choice. Got nowhere to go and nothing to do. I’m forced to read. ... See if I can make sense of a life of nonsense and understand how I got to be caged up like an animal. I am an animal, a fckin wild animal. I lost my human soul. I lost my human mind. But in this animal cage, my intention is to win back my humanity. Animals can’t write. I can. I will.”

He described his epiphany, as a young man, at seeing John Coltrane and Jackie Wilson on the same night; explained the inspiration behind many of the tracks on his albums; shared how Stevie Wonder was the one who suggested he change his name to Rick James; revealed that the story crediting Diana Ross with discovering the Jackson 5 was fabricated — and who really discovered them; admitted that he had several secret overdoses and sought one of the many Beverly Hills “Dr. Feelgoods” to prescribe pain pills; and regrets how he ruined a precious sketch of himself just created by the great artist Salvador Dali.

In “Glow,” James described himself as a “rebel, a renegade and artist-singer-writer-producer-bandleader intent on branding my identity in the most dramatic terms. My music was about me — a man deep into drugs, sex and funk.” Yet, despite his bad-boy behavior, James was an undeniable talent and a unique, unforgettable human being. Later in life, his unstoppable addictions to sex and drugs led him to prison. James died of a heart attack in August 2004 at the age of 56.

“Glow” is bound to go down in the annals of music lore as one of the most unabashed rehash of a life lived to the absolute fullest. James recounted his timeline from his early years on the periphery of the music business to his downfall with drugs (and, for family reading purposes, I will not detail the number of orgies, S&M and even bestiality James depicted).

Since his passing a decade ago, Rick James has remained a legendary icon whose name is nearly synonymous with funk music — and who popularized the genre, creating a lasting influence on pop artists from Prince to Jay Z to Snoop Dogg, among countless others. “Glow” is a wildly entertaining, no-holds-barred autobiography of the man who left an indelible mark on American popular music.

Contact staff writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5747 or bbooker@phillytrib.com.

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