January 18th, 2013

Rick James’s Early Years

Salt and Pepper
Salt ‘N’ Pepper, mid-1970, left to right: Coffi Hall, Ron Johnson,
Dave Burt, Ed Roth and Rick James

Who can forget the infectious bass riff that rapper M C Hammer looped on his signature tune “U Can’t Touch This”? A monster hit in 1990, it scooped a Grammy award and a string of accolades. But not everyone was impressed.Incensed by Hammer’s unauthorised use of the riff, lifted from his own 1981 hit “Super Freak”, the king of punk funk Rick James sued the rapper for infringement of copyright and won a credit as co-composer in an out of court settlement.

This shot in the spotlight could have given James’s career a new lease on life but instead the singer spiralled out of control, descending first into drug addiction, then serving time in prison, before tragically succumbing to an untimely death in August 2004, aged just 56.

It wasn’t written in the script when James landed a deal with Motown in 1977 and stormed the charts with the memorable “You and I”. But then James Ambrose Johnson Jr’s career had always been a rollercoaster ride.

And his dealings with Berry Gordy’s soul music empire were hardly new. As Ricky James Matthews, the charismatic yet troubled singer had recorded on three separate occasions for the label in the mid-1960s as a member of Toronto R&B legends The Mynah Birds, one of the first interracial rock bands.

Neil Young had been a one-time member as had several musicians that went on to Buffalo Springfield and Steppenwolf. But Rick James’s various run-ins with the law, most notably his AWOL status from the US navy, scuppered the band’s fledgling career.

Tragically, James’s propensity for self-sabotage also derailed the various groups that he led from the late 1960s through to his re-signing with Motown in 1977.


The first of these was another multiracial outfit formed with Greg Reeves, a young bass player the singer had met at Motown while working as a staff producer and songwriter in early 1968. That autumn, the pair snuck down to L.A. where they snapped up drummer Steve Rumph from Trust In Men Everywhere and former Yellow Payges lead guitarist Michael Rummans.

“His concept was to form a band that was part white and part black and call it Salt ‘N’ Pepper,” says Rummans. “He had this charisma about him. He also had this energy and this total belief…this certainty of what he was going to do. He knew Berry Gordy and he told me Greg learnt his style from James Jamerson.”

Joined by a Hammond B3 keyboard player (whose name no one can remember), Salt ‘N’ Pepper rehearsed during the day at a bar on the north east corner of Melrose and Le Brea avenues and worked up an impressive set list, including a slowed down version of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”.

However, the band never got any momentum going, splitting in May 1969. Within weeks James heard that his former Mynah Birds cohorts Neil Young and Bruce Palmer were rehearsing with Crosby, Stills and Nash and took Reeves along for the reunion.

“After the band broke up, he called me a few weeks later and he asked me if I wanted to collaborate and write songs,” remembers Rummans. “I asked him what had happened with Greg and he said, ‘Oh, I got him a gig with CSN&Y’. I thought he was bullshitting me but then [later] I saw that album [”Déjà vu”].”

Instead James pieced together a second version of Salt ‘N’ Pepper after running into an another former Mynah Bird - Neil Lillie aka Neil Merryweather, who’d brought his band down from Toronto in late 1968 and recorded two albums for Capitol as Merryweather.

“We were staying at a motel in Hollywood when [guitarist Dave] Burt showed up and we had a fight,” remembers Merryweather. “I’d had enough, so I quit. When I was going out the door, [James] was about to knock. He was coming over to see me. I said, ‘Rick, here’s a ready-made band - they’re yours’.”

Left without their frontman lead guitarist Dave Burt, drummer Gary ‘Coffi’ Hall and keyboard player Ed Roth, who would become a mainstay of James’s band up until 1973, joined forces with Rick James.

Adding CSN&Y’s equipment manager Chris Sarns on bass, Salt ‘N’ Pepper began gigging at venues in southern California, including Neil Young’s hangout in Topanga Canyon, the Corral, where a live recording was captured and remains in Burt’s possession awaiting release.

Another notable date was opening for English folk/rock band, Renaissance at the Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood from 11-15 March 1970.

According to Roth, Young’s manager Elliot Roberts briefly expressed an interest in signing them but perhaps sensing that “Rick was a handful” decided to pass. Instead, he secured a booking at the bastion of hippie rock, the Fillmore West, where Salt ‘N’ Pepper opened for Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention and Clouds from 30 April-3 May 1970.

Soon after, their bass player was ousted. “I loved the way he fired me,” recalls Sarns. “We sat down in the kitchen and he said, ‘Chris, this is the deal, I don’t want you in the group anymore and we are going to go on without you’. It was like man-to-man, face-to-face, no bullshit, no talking down, just straight, ‘You’re f****** fired dude’ and I appreciated that. I respect honesty above all else.”

With Ron Johnson from Kaleidoscope taking over bass duties, the group flew down to Miami to prepare for some recording sessions, arranged through Phil Walden at Capricorn Records. However, before recording was due to start with noted producer Tom Dowd, the group was released from the label.

“On the first day in the studio one of the guys from Capricorn Records came over and before we even laid a note down, he gave us our plane tickets home,” remembers Burt. “That’s when I broke out laughing in the studio. It was so bad it was funny.”

“The reason we were thrown off the label is Rick’s fault,” adds Hall. “He kept the car rental as a personal vehicle and when they called to confront us/him, he took the phone from Dave and started to yell back at them. We went back to L.A and auditioned for Columbia but Phil [Walden] would not release us. I had Joy [my wife] call and ask for a release.”

Though nothing came of Salt ‘N’ Pepper’s promised album, James and Johnson did get an opportunity to record that summer. According to Ed’s brother Ivan, Ricky and Ron were employed to play congas and bass on a Sam Moore, of Sam and Dave fame, session, including a cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”.

However, aside from cameo appearances on Curt Newbury and Bruce Palmer’s solo albums, there was little work for the band members, and Salt ‘N’ Pepper fizzled out in early 1971.

Burt has this to say about James: “He scared me a lot of times - driving a car through Topanga Canyon at breakneck speed. He could have killed us 10 times but he didn’t care. Rick was laughing hysterically while I screamed for my life. He was like the angel and the demon all in one person. You never knew which one was going to show up.”

Heaven and Hell
Heaven and Earth, July 1971, left to right: Denny Gerrard, Stan Endersby, Ed Roth, Rick James, Gary Holmes, Pat Little

Back in Toronto that summer, James’s next recording venture was Heaven and Earth, a studio project initiated by Stan Endersby, the guitarist from Roth’s mid-1960s bands, The Just Us, The Tripp and Livingstone’s Journey.

Home after a two-year stint in England where he’d recorded with Peter Quaife’s post-Kinks band, Mapleoak, Endersby had used his contacts to help English engineer John Stewart land a job at Eastern Sound studios.

Stewart, who’d worked with Endersby in London, reciprocated by offering some studio time and the guitarist rounded up drummer Pat Little from Luke & The Apostles, former Paupers and McKenna Mendelson Mainline bass player Denny Gerrard and up and coming guitarist Gary Holmes. James and Roth dropped by and ended up joining.

Abetted by several side musicians - famed blues guitarist Mike McKenna, sax player Bert Hermiston and bass player Dennis Pendrith, Heaven and Earth signed a deal with RCA Victor and laid down about eight tracks.

Big Showdown
Propelled by Gerrard’s funky bass lines and Hermiston’s chugging sax, Rick James’s “Big Showdown” backed by the brilliant “Don’t You Worry” had hit single written all over it.

Likewise, the Rick James/Mike McKenna follow up, “You Make The Magic”, coupled with the funk instrumental “Rip Off 1500″, should have been another monster hit - it even secured a cover version via The Chambers Brothers.

But it wasn’t to be. With the tracks logged, James left abruptly to start White Cane, taking Gerrard and Roth with him. Horn players Bob Doughty and Ian Kojima; guitarist Nick Balkou; organist John Cleveland Hughes; and drummer Norman Wellbanks were all poached from local funk band Milestone.

Doughty remembers his first run-in with the charismatic singer when he sat in with Milestone at On the Bar, a club in downtown Toronto.

“One night this extremely flashy black guy approached us and asked if he could sing a couple of numbers with us in our last set,” he recalls.

“We jammed on a couple of blues tunes, Stones tunes and were introduced to this non-stop moving, harmonica playing, wailing fool, the likes no one had seen before. The crowd ate it up!”

Financed by James’s lawyer, Stan Weisman, White Cane cut some demos in October 1971. Then, within weeks, the band had relocated to L.A. where a deal was struck with Lion Records, a subsidiary of MGM. Matched with producer Jimmy Ienner, recording ensued at Village Recorders in Century City in February-March with the band reworking Heaven and Earth tracks alongside new material.

White Cane
White Cane, March 1972 in Los Angeles

In early June, with the single “You Make the Magic” catching airplay, the band set off on a North American tour opening for BB King but ran into problems on the first night in Vancouver.

“I think we did two songs and the crowd loved us. Then all of a sudden Rick wants to do a cappella version of ‘The Times They-Are-A-Changin’ and he wants to get the crowd to clap along with it,” remembers Roth.

“So, he says, ‘Put your hands together. I said put your f*****g hands together’. We lost the crowd every time. We pleaded with him to stop doing that, but this went on show after show after show. It was probably the coke.”

Soon after, James pressed the self-destruct button. “Rick got off the bus in New York and we finished the tour without him,” says Kojima, who went on to work with Chris de Burgh. “On our return to Los Angeles, we were faced with numerous lawsuits stemming from multiple management and publishing contracts that Rick had signed.”

Stan Weisman was particularly frustrated by James’s action. “They had all the money behind them, the promotion was going on, the album was about to be released and I think they would have made the top because that was a hell of a band,” he says.

Back in Toronto that September, James talked his way into American expatriate Bill King’s group, which comprised former Edward Bear guitarist Danny Marks; violinist Ian Guenther; conga player Bill Usher; bass player Chris Vickery; and English drummer Malcolm Tomlinson, who’d moved to Canada in 1969 after working with future Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre and playing on a radio session with Elton John.

Bill King paints an interesting picture of James. “He was loud, a lot of fun, vindictive and to be watched. He lost his temper in a basketball game at the Settlement House, which cost him security in Canada. He suckered punched a guy in the mouth and broke his teeth. The guy was a cop!”

On 3 January 1973, James entered Toronto’s Manta Sound to record a four-track demo comprising “Grim Reaper”, “Your Old Man”, “Rock and Roll Baby” and a song he’d written about Bruce Palmer’s wife called “Sally Walker” but it’s not clear who appeared with him on the recordings.

By now, however, James was backed by the original Stone City Band, which featured lead guitarist Danny Marks and drummer Malcolm Tomlinson alongside the ever loyal Ed Roth and bass player Peter Hodgson, a former member of Elektra band, Rhinoceros.

Hodgson, who’d known James in the mid-1960s when he was a member of Jon and Lee & The Checkmates was impressed: “He had a musical personality that was very charismatic. He could talk and get his way through doors that other people couldn’t because he was so determined.”

During late May and early June, The Stone City Band laid down a dozen tracks, combining re-recordings of three of the demo tracks with new songs like “Sweet Cocaine”, “Annie”, “Give A Little Bit” and “American Legion Crowd” but for some reason the material remained in the can.

Not long after, the band unravelled and James headed to New York. Marks, who’d left earlier, to be replaced by Danny Weis, didn’t escape the singer’s wrath.

“I asked Malcolm [Tomlinson] to collect my 1960 Fender concert amp because I didn’t want to go up to the house,” remembers Marks, still indignant after all the years.

“He brings it back and I look at it, and go ‘wow, it’s fine’. Somehow, I thought Rick would carve his initials in it. And I plug it in and turn it on standby and it lights up and I am thinking, ‘oh cool, it’s fine’. Then I turn the amp on and ‘poof’ a big pall of smoke comes up. I turn it around and look in the open back of the cabinet and each of the four vintage Jensen speakers has a hole poked like with a knife or a pen right through the paper core of the beautiful vintage speaker.”

My Mama

Over the next two years, James returned to Toronto on numerous occasions, sitting in with local bands and recording. He also cut material in the States. In early 1974, James scored a one-off single deal with A&M Records, which resulted in a brilliant funk/soul single “My Mama” c/w “Funkin’ Around”. After recording as Gorilla, he cut another rare single with Hot Lips - “Hollywood Star Parts 1 and 2″.

Then, in 1976, James returned to Toronto and formed a new version of The Stone City Band with South African-born guitarist Aidan Mason; bass player Peter Cardinali; and former Mainline drummer Tony Nolasco.

“Rick used to run these jams at the Moonstone club in Yorkville,” remembers Mason. “[His] jams were always exciting. He’d sit and play a Fender Rhodes and when he got worked up he’d run into the audience and get them so moved that by the end of the night they’d all be screaming for more.”

The guitarist had penned an instrumental piece that James liked and after putting words to it, the pair brought in Nolasco and Cardinali to record the finished product - “Get Up and Dance”, released on Polydor Records.

“Peter was a fine horn arranger and so it was natural that Rick would want to use this talent on ‘Get Up and Dance’ and ‘Mary Jane’,” explains Mason. “Those two hit it off and Peter consequently went on to work with Rick on a demo which eventually got him his deal with Motown.”

Resigned to Berry Gordy’s soul stable in 1977, it didn’t take long for James to become a superstar with his unique brand of Punk/funk.

This material is drawn from a book that the author is currently researching on Rick James’s career from the 1960s through to the mid-1970s.

Many thanks goes to Michael Rummans, Dave Burt, Ed Roth, Coffi Hall, Neil Merryweather, Chris Sarns, Stan Endersby, Stan Weisman, Bob Doughty, Ian Kojima, Bill King, Kelly Shanahan, Peter Hodgson, Danny Marks, Tony Nolasco, Aidan Mason and Carny Corbett. Thank you Stan Weisman, Stan Endersby and Dave Burt for photos.

Copyright © Nick Warburton, 2014, All Rights Reserved.