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.”

What it looked like Wednesday: Pilot Field, Marine Midland Arena and Rich Stadium

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

With new names appearing on two of Western New York’s three major sports facilities, BN Chronicles looks back at the umpteen names that have graced these venues since the mid-’90s when the ballpark and arena first opened.

The math: 28 years, 5 names (Buffalo News archives)

The math: 28 years, 5 names. (Buffalo News archives)

The downtown ballpark opened as Pilot Field in 1988. After Pilot Air Freight stopped making payments on the naming rights, it was billed simply as “The Downtown Ballpark” for part of the 1995 season, until it became North AmeriCare Park. In 1999, it was rechristened Dunn Tire Park, and in 2009, the signs were changed again to the current name, Coca-Cola Field.

The math: 20 years, 4 names (Steve Cichon/Buffalo Stories photo)

The math: 20 years, 4 names. (Steve Cichon/Buffalo Stories photo)

As it was being built, the structure that was replacing Memorial Auditorium was known as “The Crossroads Arena.” Before it opened, Marine Midland Bank bought the naming rights. Marine Midland Arena remained the name until 1999, when the bank was bought out by HSBC. HSBC Arena became First Niagara Center in 2011 when First Niagara bought out most of Buffalo’s HSBC branches. KeyBank is in the process of acquiring First Niagara right now, and the signage at the arena has begun to reflect that.

The math: 43 years, 4 names (Buffalo News archives)

The math: 43 years, 4 names. (Buffalo News archives)

Rich Products bought the naming rights to the Orchard Park home of the Bills in 1973 for $1.5 million. The rights weren’t renewed when the agreement expired in 1998. For part of that year’s football season, national and local media referred to the building as Bills Stadium. As a new lease was signed for the stadium in December 1998, Governor George Pataki persuaded Bills owner Ralph Wilson to allow the stadium to be named in the team owner’s honor.  It was announced this past weekend that New Era has purchased the stadium naming rights, and New Era Field will be the home of the Bills for seasons to come.

Buffalo in the ’90s: Dead Heads outside Rich Stadium

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The Grateful Dead seemed to be on a single, constant, unending tour through the ’80s into the ’90s.

Buffalo News archives

They played at Rich Stadium in 1986, 1989, 1990, 1992 and 1993. There were also a number of solo concerts from each of the band’s members during those years, giving Grateful Dead fans — Dead Heads — ample opportunity to hear from Jerry Garcia and the boys.

Buffalo News archives

“Truckin’ Up to Buffalo” was a double CD/DVD released by the Dead in 2005, a recording of the 1989 concert at Rich.

The photos on this page were from what was the most memorable experience for many — the 1992 concert marred with box office problems that resulted in what police later called a near riot among many in the sellout crowd of 65,000.

Fans who were familiar with both Bills games and Dead shows said stadium officials dropped the ball at the concert.

“At the Dead show, there were no garbage cans in the parking lot, no toilets, and the wait in the ticket line was horrendous, as bad as I’ve ever experienced,” one fan told The News. “Everybody was pushing up against each other trying to get in. But we had to keep waiting and waiting. People were getting angry. You never see this kind of stuff at a football game. They’ve got to do something at Rich Stadium, or there’s going to be big trouble at one of these concerts.”

Following the show, two men were found dead in separate areas outside the stadium in suspected drug overdoses.

The following year, the Grateful Dead returned with Sting for what would be their last show at Rich Stadium.

Buffalo in the ’80s: When Bills fans tore down the goalposts

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Twenty-seven years ago, an overtime field goal win over the Jets was enough to clinch the 1988 AFC East title for the Buffalo Bills and enough for fans to take down the goal posts at Rich Stadium.

Buffalo News archives

It wasn’t the first time the uprights came down.

In 1980, when Bills fans stormed the field following the team’s first win against Miami in more than a decade, team owner Ralph Wilson famously told reporters he shared in the fans’ excitement and would be happy to buy new goalposts.

But team officials had grown weary of the tradition by the time the Bills were making it to Super Bowls every year.

When the Bills clinched the division against the Dolphins in 1990, fans wanted to take down the goalposts again. The perimeter of the field was lined with police on horseback. It was promised that fans would not be allowed to take down the posts.

As public address announcer and then-WBEN disc jockey Stan Roberts implored fans to “please stay off the field,” goal posts were passed over the mounted deputies and through the crowd. Somehow hacksaws showed up and were used to divvy up the uprights — which, Stan reminded the fans, to no avail, were needed for playoff games.

Buffalo in the ’90s: $3 beer, no waiting at Rich Stadium

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Answers abound and imaginations run wild when Bills fans are asked what they’d most like to have about the 1990 Bills for today.

Buffalo News archives

Jim Kelly? Thurman Thomas? The hope and expectation of great things about to happen with the team?

Before you get too far ahead of yourselves, think about stadium prices. The best seats at Rich Stadium in 1990 were $35, but you could get into the game for $20. Parking was $4, and an 18-ounce beer was $3.

Sure, Hall of Fame owner, Hall of Fame general manager, Hall of Fame coach, five Hall of Fame players — but think about walking into the stadium with a 20, buying six beers, and still having enough for a $2 tip for the beer guy.

Buffalo in the ’90s: Bills’ future in Orchard Park in jeopardy?

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

While renovations at Rich Stadium continued, Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski was looking toward the end of the Bills’ 25-year lease in Orchard Park.

The Bills would go on to sign a 15-year lease to remain in the stadium in December 1998. The deal, which included renaming the facility Ralph Wilson Stadium, called for $125 million from New York State and Erie County public funding.

More recently, a 10-year lease extension was signed in December 2012. That deal involved a total of $130 million being spent — $35 million of it from the Bills — on stadium upgrades.

April 24, 1994: Erie County, Bills have not met about lease

“County Executive Gorski and Bills owner Ralph Wilson agreed last Oct. 4 to do $23 million in renovations at Rich Stadium this spring. That work has begun. It also was announced then that the agreement committed the Bills to begin negotiations on a new lease in January.

“That was 4 1/2 years before its expiration date in August 1998. But both sides confirmed this week that this has not happened.”