Rick James on Buffalo: ‘It’s a great town, but it’s a strange place’

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

“The people of Buffalo are beautiful. There’s a lot of talent here,” said Rick James upon his return here in 1977 to start a record distribution company.

Rick James sits on the hood of his Cadillac in front of the Buffalo Savings Building, 1977. (Buffalo News archives)

Rick James sits on the hood of his Cadillac in front of the Buffalo Savings Building in 1977. (Buffalo News archives)

He told The News he left Buffalo not by choice, but because he’d been called to Vietnam with the Navy after missing too many reserves meetings. After a few more clashes with military brass, he fled to Toronto, where he formed the group “Mynah Bird” with Neil Young.

In concert at Memorial Auditorium, 1982. (Buffalo News archives.)

In concert at Memorial Auditorium in 1982. (Buffalo News archives)

Just as Motown was ready to release that group’s first album, the old Navy trouble resurfaced and James spent a year in prison. Young split to join Buffalo Springfield, and the future Super Freak went to work writing and producing for Motown.

Rick James and former heavyweight champ Leon Spinks chat with a couple of Buffalo Bills on the Rich Stadium sidelines, 1979. (Buffalo News archives.)

Rick James and former heavyweight champ Leon Spinks chat with a couple of Buffalo Bills on the Rich Stadium sidelines in 1979. (Buffalo News archives.)

When James came back to Buffalo in 1977, his name was not a household one, but his star was on the rise. C. Antony Palmer wrote in The News that James “is a performer who gives that little extra effort.”

After several well-received singles, James’ 1981 release “Super Freak” made him a world-renowned funk star.

MC Hammer and Rick James stop feuding, and meet before Hammers concert at The Aud, 1990. The two battled after Hammers hit U Cant Touch This sampled music from James hit Super Freak. (Buffalo News archives.)

MC Hammer and Rick James stop feuding and meet before Hammer’s concert at the Aud in 1990. The two battled after Hammer’s hit “U Can’t Touch This” sampled music from James’ hit “Super Freak.” (Buffalo News archives)

The rocker returned to Buffalo again in 1997, this time shooting a “Behind the Scenes” documentary for VH-1. He hadn’t been back to Buffalo in six years. Three of those years away were spent in prison. James told News reporter Anthony Violanti that the years in prison were the first of his life that he tried to clean up, dry out and grow up.

A reflective James said he could never move back to Buffalo or his Orchard Park home — the memories were too painful. He did visit School 53, the Masten Boys Club and Masten High School — though school officials demurred on the chance for James to meet with students.

James joined by his girlfriend-- Exorcist actress Linda Blair, and Bobby Militello at Mulligans, on Hertel Avenue in 1982. (Buffalo News archives.)

James was joined by his girlfriend, “Exorcist” actress Linda Blair, and Bobby Militello at Mulligan’s on Hertel Avenue in 1982. (Buffalo News archives)

“It’s a great town,” James said of Buffalo, “but it’s a strange place.” He said there was nowhere else that had more influence on his music than his hometown.

Seven years before he died of heart failure, he had one wish for the city.

“There should be more love between blacks and whites in Buffalo,” James said. “It’s so cold, and winter’s coming.”

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. The operator of Buffalo Stories Tours writes about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo special at blog.buffalostories.com and daily at buffalonews.com/history. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and spent 20 years working in Buffalo radio and TV, climbing his way to news director at WBEN Radio. Since then, he's been an adjunct professor and produced PBS documentaries. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.