Known for his 1981 hit “Super Freak,” Rick James also gained notoriety for his wild lifestyle. Later in life, his drug abuse led to widely publicized legal problems. After serving a two-year prison term for assault, James was on tour to promote his comeback album Urban Rapsody in November 1998.
At Denver’s Mammoth Gardens, right before his first encore, the self-described king of “punk funk” became ill backstage, barely able to move. He regained his strength to perform “Super Freak” but he had ruptured a blood vessel in his neck, causing a blood clot. After the concert, James returned to his hotel and collapsed.
“I was kicking it with my security guys when I felt a funny sensation in my neck and elbow, a tightening on the left side. Rubbing it didn’t help. Then my whole right side, from my head down to my toes, went to sleep. Whatever it was, I knew it was no joke,” he said.
Doctors in Denver examined James and advised him to return to Los Angeles, where he lived, for further evaluation. The doctors performed a battery of tests and diagnosed a stroke.
“When I was onstage, I noticed it was really hot. Maybe being a mile above sea level had something to do with it. I can’t really say. I played Denver before, in the ’80s and I was doing cocaine up the ying-yang and shaking it up.
“But I don’t do those things now—I’m older.”
Doctors called James’ stroke the result of “rock ‘n’ roll neck,” caused by the head’s “repeated rhythmic whiplash movement.”
“It’s just me moving my head too fast, while I’m playing bass,” James said. “Like any athlete, you shouldn’t go out there cold—you should warm up backstage. I don’t.”
Clean and sober at 50 and thinking times were promising, James was sidetracked. And the irony wasn’t lost on him.
“It’s God’s way of saying, ‘Well, me and you got to chat. It doesn’t seem like you know how to talk to me, moving around like this, and I’ve got some things you really got to know. So let me just sit you down for a minute—bam! I’m going to give you this stroke. I’m not going to make it real heavy, but you’ll feel it.”
A recuperation period at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center was necessary before James could walk again, and the stroke effectively ended his musical career. He died of a heart attack at his Los Angeles home in August 2004.