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'Super Freak' singer Rick James dies

Album 'Street Songs' brought instant fame in 1981


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Rick James struts in the video to the 1981 single "Super Freak," his biggest hit.
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CNN's Sibila Vargas reports on the career of music legend Rick James.

CNN's Kyra Phillips speaks with Rolling Stone's Toure about the death of Rick James.
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(CNN) -- Singer Rick James, a musical icon of the 1980s who helped define the "punk funk" style of that decade, was found dead in his home Friday morning by his caretaker, a Los Angeles police Department spokesman said. He was 56.

James' personal physician signed his death certificate, and said his death was the result of "existing medical conditions," police spokesman Jason Lee said.

One of James' producers told CNN that the singer died of a heart attack.

"Today the world mourns a musician and performer of the funkiest kind," said Neil Portow, president of the Recording Academy, which is responsible for the Grammy Awards. "The 'Super Freak' will be missed."

James became an instant icon in 1981 with his album "Street Songs," a funk masterpiece that featured such hits as "Super Freak," "Give it To Me Baby," and "Fire and Desire."

"I'm trying to change the root of funk, trying to make it more progressive, more melodic and more lyrically structured," James once said.

"Street Songs" went triple-platinum and catapulted James into the forefront of the funk movement.

The album's gritty content earned James a bad boy reputation that he often had a tough time living down. Some critics said it led to his eventual involvement with drugs and a conviction for aggravated assault and false imprisonment in the 1990s.

James suffered a stroke after his release from prison in 1998, months after he had hip replacement surgery.

James was honored in June at the 17th annual Rhythm & Soul Awards. As he surveyed the smooth glass surface of the award, he said, "Years ago, I would have used this for something totally different. Cocaine is a hell of a drug."

In recent months, James had been working on a biography, Memoirs of a Super Freak. It was not immediately known if he completed the book before his death.

Born James Johnson Jr. in Buffalo, New York, James was the third of eight children of an autoworker and a former dancer.

At age 15 he joined the Naval Reserve, but he began missing weekend training when it interfered with his musical career.

James was reported AWOL, and he fled to Canada, where he continued his musical career. The charges came back to haunt him when his success brought him back to the United States, and eventually he served time.

After his release, James went to work with Motown Records, first as a songwriter, then as a singer and producer.

Despite his meteoric rise and recording success, James won only a single Grammy, for co-writing M.C. Hammer's monster hit "U Can't Touch This," a song sampled from James' "Super Freak."


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