James Ambrose Johnson, Jr. (February 1, 1948 – August 6, 2004), better known under his stage name Rick James, was an American singer, songwriter, musician and record producer. James was a popular performer in the late 1970s and 1980s, scoring four #1 hits on the U.S. R&B charts performing in the genres of funk and R&B. Among his well known songs are "Super Freak" and "You and I". In addition to his music, James gained notoriety for his wild lifestyle, which led to widely publicized legal problems, and which was famously spoofed by Chappelle's Show in 2004.
James was born on February 1, 1948 in Buffalo, New York. His father, an autoworker, abandoned him and his siblings as a child. His mother, a former vaudeville dancer, later reportedly ran errands for a Mafia family to make ends meet. James grew up singing in street corners with fellow neighborhood boys. James' early idols included Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and The Temptations, which included Melvin Franklin, who was his uncle. After being briefly involved in street activity, James dropped out of high school at fifteen to avoid a possible draft and joined the U.S. Naval Reserve. A year later, James left the Reserve after he began to miss weekend training, because it interfered with his music career.
Fleeing north to Toronto, Ontario, Canada in the summer of 1964, James, now using the stage name Big Jimmy, continued his musical career. His first band, formed with future Steppenwolf member Nick St. Nicholas was initially called the Sailor Boys but soon changed their name to the Mynah Birds. Bassist Bruce Palmer took over for St. Nicholas in early 1965, and the group soon released their first single, "Mynah Bird Hop"/"Mynah Bird Song" for Columbia Records of Canada.