Throughout the ’80s, rhythm-and-rock pioneer Rick James was known as the King of Funk — a nickname as catchy and boastful as many of his slick R&B hits. But after Aug. 2, 1991, when James and his girlfriend, Tanya Anne Hijazi, were arrested in L.A. on charges of torturing a young woman, both the media and the music industry saddled the singer with a far less regal handle: the Super Freak.
James, 43 at the time of his arrest, had fallen in and out of the groove during a chronically turbulent career. He scored a series of hit singles (including ”You and I” and ”Mary Jane” ) in the late ’70s, before his newfound fame fueled a costly and crippling cocaine addiction. Respect wouldn’t be fully restored until 1990, when M.C. Hammer sampled James’ ”Super Freak” for the crossover rap hit ” U Can’t Touch This” (the two shared a Grammy, James’ first).
But the horror stories that surfaced during the 1993 trial once again made him an untouchable in the business. James was tried for two separate incidents, and the testimony in both cases was damning: Frances Alley, the 24-year-old woman who pressed charges in James’ initial arrest, claimed that the singer and Hijazi kept her prisoner in his Hollywood Hills estate for two days. During that time, Alley alleged he burned her legs and abdomen with a crack pipe. Another woman — Mary Sauger, a music executive who was taking a business meeting with James and Hijazi — claimed that about a year after his first arrest, the couple beat her and held her prisoner for 20 hours in a West Hollywood hotel room.
The charges carried the threat of life in prison for James, who pleaded innocent. And fittingly for such a flamboyant showman, the three-week trial was a high-drama spectacle: James wept openly while testifying and at one point asked the judge for a weekend release so he could marry Hijazi (the request was denied). James was convicted on assault, imprisonment, and drug charges and sentenced to five years and four months in prison; Hijazi pleaded guilty to an assault charge (the others were dropped) and served only 15 months.
During his two-year stint at California’s Folsom State Prison, James composed more than 300 songs. ”Prison has been a blessing in disguise,” he said during his incarceration. ”Otherwise, I probably would have been dead by now.” Upon his release in 1996, the 48-year-old began working as an antidrug advocate and started recording many of his prison-penned tunes. And he finally got to wed Hijazi in 1997 — six years after they were arrested and five year after the birth of their son, Tazman. Pretty freaky, huh?