A candid conversation with Rick James Manager, Brother, Lawyer, Leroy James Johnson

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Submitted by Michael E. Williams

MW: How did Rick get started?
L J: It was in Buffalo. Rick was a born talent from the time he was five years old banging on the pots and pans. His first performance was in Chicago, with the Buffalo Afro Society, as a percussionist .The difference between Rick and a lot of people was that Rick took music seriously. It was the only thing he was serious about and he stuck with it until he made it! He made it when he was 15-16 years old in Canada and he did not make in the States till he was almost thirty.

MW: when he came to Canada he was dodging the draft?
LJ: True. He signed up in the Navy at 15. Our mother said “get out of the house, take my son and make him a man’’. He went to the Great Lakes Training Center in Michigan. That lasted three weeks and he ran up to Toronto where he played with a number of bands. He was influenced by everything and everybody that was here in the 60’s and 70’s including Joni Mitchell, Mainline, Neil Young, Steppenwolf, the Mynah Birds…that is where he got his real music talent from. A lot of people don’t know that he learned so much in those years as a musician, performer and songwriter in Canada from the Canadian Musicians he was exposed to and played especially Neil Young in the Mynah Birds.

MW: Rick James the songwriter!
LJ: A little bit more history for you. Before Rick went into the service at 15, he and Stevie Wonder were the youngest writer/producers signed to Motown. Bobby Taylor and the Vancouver’s needed a hit and Rick came in with a song called “Belinda”. Smokey Robinson heard the song, changed a few things and it became a song called “Melinda”- the 2nd biggest hit of their career. He also has credits on Steppenwolf. His given name was James but as Rick loved Ricky Nelson, and he needed a name to escape the service, he chose Rick. He played with the early mixed bands in Toronto like Mainline, Salt and Pepper.

He always wanted to play with the best musicians. His first choice was rock n roll but they were not ready for the third integrated band. The first being Jimi Hendrix and second being Sly and the Family Stone. He and Neil Young went to California trying to make it. The Mynah Birds were big here and in the UK.

MW: Rick’s Canadian experience is the stuff of legends and folklore. I even have a Rick James Story from Montreal. I did the lasers at the First Canadian Disco awards show. The after party was at the club 1234. That weekend Rick James left each night with the staff at 4am and he always got the girl!
LJ: He always got the girl. He was a ladies’ man and he did not care if it was your girl, my girl or anybodies girl. Rick James had what we called “The two minute rap”, he would wrap the case up in two minutes. He had this strong attraction to women, but once Rick had the girl she was finished for life and you did not want the girl.

MW: The day Rick James got out of jail I saw him in L.A. going into the club Billboard Live. The album he released after jail “Urban Rhapsody” was brilliant.
LJ: I think what Rick did while he was in prison, and before, was ahead of its time which is why the music sounds fresh even by today’s standards. It was a mixture of rock, folk, reggae, soul and what would become known as urban music. He was consummate musician, an exceptional producer, recording engineer, and songwriter. As well as, conductor, arranger, and orchestrator.

When you made a mistake he knew it and you could not fake the funk. He was also an extraordinary business person because he had done everything music since he was young. By the time he had made it he’d been ripped off so many times ,he exactly what to do!

MW: How was he has a business person?
LJ: Great. What Rick would do was to go straight to the top. You don’t fool around with an A&R person. He would go into the record company President’s office and say “here I am, this is what I have and if you don’t want it the next one will “. They would think with that kind of character and strength that he might have something. When he would play the product then they knew he had something. He was a readymade package ready to go!

MW: The music got him noticed but it’s the business that keeps you there.
LJ: You have to decide to make music a career. Its opportunity and preparation. You make the opportunity and if you are not prepared you fold. Music is a long term think. It’s not something you come into and have one hit song; it’s a career. You have to know what you are doing. You do not want to be frustrated because can be taken advantage of by people in the business. The music business is dangerous business; dog eat dog. You get a lot of people who are after you for that fame and the fame is a flash unless you hold on to it!

MW: Are you handling Rick James, your brother’s, estate?
LJ: No, no not at all.

MW: Do you like the way it is being handled? Dead stars are bigger than live ones and I hear the music out there.
LJ: It’s not out there like it should be out there but that’s for his children and his business people to decide. I did what I have to do. I can look back and see what we did over the 15 years with Rick James and I walk into a club and his music starts playing and I know I had something to do with it!

MW: People might not know, tell us.
LJ: I was his Rick James manager from 1980-1993. That was the period of his main success. It was hell of a life. I enjoyed it and would do it again.

MW: Are you managing anyone now?
LJ: No! I gave up managing.

MW: Ruined after Rick, like the girls?
LJ: Just like the girls ruined for life. But no, I am better off giving advice as to what you can and should do, putting business teams together and ensuring they have good contracts, or advising what they might need to do if you have a bad contract. To manage your affairs properly.

MW: You are in town for an Urban Music Conference, what are going to tell the kids?
LJ: Whatever they want to hear. If they want to hear some advice from somebody who has been there then I will give them my advice. My advice worked for Rick, maybe it could work for them. People have a tendency not to listen and think they know more than they do. Maybe some people are creative like Rick James, and maybe they can make it but the odds say they can’t!

(Special thanks to Le Roi C. Johnson, Blu Orchid, Jill Ash, Ryan pictures)