The front door swung wide open leaving ample room for larger than life Rick James to clear space for his sprawling white fur coat, hands crowned in raw silver and neck draped in turquoise rocks. I’d credit the necklace as being jewelry but in the state he wore – some refinishing was in order. Along with James a fellow wearing a Brooks Brothers suit packing an attaché case – let’s expound on that, a traveling jewellery store.
“Bill, check this out – all the way from Arizona, turquoise, turquoise, turquoise. Put this rock on your finger.” While Rick’s making a sales pitch his partner is arranging all of the shiny objects on the dining table as if a roving Tiffany store. “Rick, I don’t wear this shit – I’m from Indiana, I’d settle for a ball cap.” Rick pauses, “Man, you don’t know what kind of deal I have for you, there’s thousands of dollars to be made. Why not buy something for your woman?” Seriously? “Wearing that rack of beads would hobble her for life.” Such was the usual stopover with James; charismatic, the ultimate salesman, funny as shit and full of life. I really liked this version of James.
James wore many faces. I never really knew his back story until inviting his former financial backer and career repairman – retired lawyer Stan Weisman in for a chat Thursday past on the Bill King Show. The five or six years we hung out; shooting hoops, playing a bit of music, mostly concealed Jame’s bitter side – and man, was that a side I’m glad I never witnessed.
In 1973 I pulled together a fine band with Rick on conga drums, Ian Guenther violin, Danny Marks guitar, Chris Vickery bass, Bill Usher congas, and we performed an hour long special for City TV – these are the early days and a show hosted by jazz fan Larry Green called Music Friends. That March we play Bathurst Street Theatre, a fundraiser to save our beloved west-end streets from demolition and high rise infestation – the Gothic/Quebec avenue. The Gothic Rock-it, as billed, also featured Billy Bryans, songwriter Bruce Miller and illusionist Doug Henning. My band wasn’t comfortable with James showboating yet I’d backed musicians that played both sides of the stage – that of artist and that of entertainer -and wasn’t at all bothered by the antics. Somewhere in the early eighties I tried to retrieve a video copy of that show and was informed back in the early days video tape was used over and over and shows erased. Yet, one lone photo survives of our encounter.
Stan would negotiate my contract with HP & Bell, paving the way for my early recordings with Capitol Records.
There was a young girl I met in Yorkville who said there was this guy who needed my help. He was in the recording studio at the time and we should go see him. He wasn’t called Rick James then – he wore various names. Through these connections I learned a lot about the underside of Yorkville, not at all a happy scene. There was a lot going on with the drug trade. I was suddenly in a mix with people who had drugs labs and made MDA – blotter acid and other various types. I would go to clubs with them and listen to this music – rock and roll and really got into it. From my criminal practice I knew the plainclothes drug detectives in the clubs and I knew I was amongst dealers and was very uncomfortable knowing the cops knew me as well from dealing with them in the courts on a daily basis.
I began to defend these guys who came up from the states escaping the Vietnam War. There was a whole culture here. They had their own newspaper, they couldn’t work.
I went down to the recording studio to meet Rick and what I heard wasn’t rock but I loved the music. I loved the musicians he had around him and the band was called Heaven and Earth. I paid for the studio time. I saw a future in this guy and thought he was tremendous.
Going back a bit you’ve got to know who Rick James was. Back in Buffalo where he came from his mother ran some sort of numbers racket. Rick would collect money at drop places. He was charged as a juvenile many times and put in juvenile homes when he was thirteen and fourteen years of age. He was into gang warfare – all kinds of wild stuff. The father left when he was three or four years old and he was tough and continued to be tough all through.
Rick came to Canada; then ran several times back and forth. James was in the U.S. Naval reserve when he was a teenager. They often put him in the brig for insubordination, he then breaks out and comes to Toronto. Now they are looking for him – this is his first coming to Toronto. James then forms the Mynah Byrds, named after the Mynah Byrd club in Yorkville. There were at least three versions of the group. The most famous one is the one with Neil Young. They were good enough to go to Motown and have Smokey Robinson supervise a recording session – these are collector items. They recorded a few things. Some are still in Motown’s vault.
Berry Gordy said at the time they couldn’t promote the record while James was AWOL from the Navy. One of the earliest versions of Ricky’s bands was called the “Sailor Boys’ – even though he was AWOL he wore a sailor’s uniform while singing in that group. They persuade James to return to Buffalo and surrender. He lands back in jail and then there was a call-up – Rick was ordered onto an aircraft carrier bound for Vietnam and again he came back to Canada. This is a pattern – he’s hiding, then comes back to Canada and forms a band.
Neil Young comes to the Yorkville scene with bassist Bruce Palmer. Palmer was playing with John Kay and the Sparrow, which went on to become Steppenwolf. The Mynah Byrds weren’t happy with their bass player so the two clubs across the street from each other trade bass players. When the Mynah Byrds broke up Rick was in jail and that’s when Bruce hooked up with Neil, bought a hearse and drove to California. By luck they met Stephen Stills who they knew from Yorkville. Then Rickie Furay jammed and they formed Buffalo Springfield.
Now, the reason Ricky needed legal help was, he was given deportation orders just days before. He was in Canada illegally, had a record of crime – small thefts in Canada, previously deported and now under a second deportation order. What I did for him after hearing him in the studio, I appealed that deportation order. It took two years for that to come up and a lot happened in those two years.
Those two years Rick is creating a lot of different bands. He recorded a lot of music he intended for L.A. to play for various people. I decided to pay for the creation of these tapes for that purpose.
He was a very astute manager and bandleader. He would persuade wonderful Canadian musicians to participate in his various bands taken from fantastic bands I thought were equals to any in the States. He lured musicians from Milestone, Edward Bear, Luke & The Apostles, The Paupers, Rhinoceros; these kind of bands.
Like a lot of musicians at that time he would sign with managers, get an advance, then discover he didn’t like them – move on and form another band. I’m running around doing legal work. These musicians need partnership agreements between themselves – songwriter agreements, manager agreements, and then getting them out of the previous ones. All the time James is under two deportation orders from Canada - my money is at risk. I had faith in the guy. Despite all the crime I liked the guy’s character. He really appreciated me. He’d buy presents for my kids at Christmas, never forgot their birthdays.
With all of these bands that kept breaking up, Rick and I went to Los Angeles. I doubted the guy – he told me he knew everybody in L.A. He dropped big names – the Allman Brothers etc.. I traveled with him at my expense and he says we are going to Geffen/Roberts; David Geffen/Elliot Roberts. They know me and will listen to the tapes. I thought he was kidding me, so we went there and as we are going in the door, David Crosby is coming out. David grab’s Rick and hugs him and says, “I miss you, where have you been?” I’m thinking maybe this guy told me the truth all of these years. Next up we go into Elliot Robert’s office and he says, “Rick, where have you been, I’ve got your tapes from last time here and they are terrific. We’ve got to do something. Leave the new tapes with me and we’ll see what we can do.” Nothing came of that. Rick then introduces me to Taj Mahal, all kinds of people he did know.
Now we come down to White Cane. Again Rick forms a horn band, eight pieces – Denny Gerrard, a monster bass player. This is a much different band than he assembled before; driving horns, giving him room to be like a Mick Jagger. I pay for rental of instruments, the whole band go down to LA. I’m back doing litigation in Toronto and they are telling me there was a lot of interest, which there was. They eventually sign with MGM. They make an album – the White Cane recording. They are now dealing with big time managers and I’m supposed to come down and see if those guys are for real. The manager was looking out for Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, Five Man Electrical Band – totally legit. They sign with him. Now we have people coming around wanting to invest in these ragamuffins from money they are going to make and they ask me to check out these guys, are we going to make a lot of money, what are they going to do with our money.? I ask the guys who were all Canadian except for Rick, what they knew about Canadian tax laws? They admitted they knew nothing and decided not to go with those guys.
The album is printed up, ready to ship and MGM and manager arrange for an across the U.S. tour, twenty-seven cities. They head off, second billing to B.B. King of which Rick was jealous. The ladies were throwing their panties at King, not at Rick. Rick stops the audience and wants to get them to clap along with him and the band wasn’t rehearsed when to come back in with him. Keyboardist Ed Roth has a different interpretation than I do. I try to make peace and get them to carry on. When they eventually hit New York City, Rick announces he’s leaving, and leaves the band for good. The records were never shipped and that was supposed to be the way I’d get my money back. I saw them in delete bins in L.A. They are now collectors items.
I stop my financial involvement with Rick at this time and Tony Nolasco of McKenna, Mendelson Mainline picks up the ball, borrows a bunch of money to invest in him. Much more money than I ever put into it. In 1977 he took him into a studio in Buffalo (Cross-Eyed Bear Studios), brought in session musicians, The Brecker Brothers, Gene Mascardelli - did the arranging and horn parts, Motown released Come Get It in 1978 with James and his Stone City Band and this would become the Rick James everybody knows.
I sued Rick to get my money back and hire very expensive L.A. attorneys. James countered with top L.A. attorneys. A couple years pass and Rick phones me and says this is terrible I don’t want to be in litigation with you, you’ve done so much for me. He then says he’s flying me down so we can talk. He said someone would call me and they did. They said go to the airport, a ticket is there.
It’s 1982 and I arrive in L.A. and someone is holding a sign with my name on it and I get into the biggest limousine I’ve ever seen. It’s got a television set and a bar where I’m sitting and Rick’s brother Leroy takes me to the Sunset Marquee Hotel and tells me not to leave the hotel because when Rick gets free he’s going to come and see me. I was there four days, not leaving, hanging around and not hearing from anybody so I phone Leroy and ask where is Rick? He says Rick is at the Chateau Marmont and he’s really tied up. I say, “I really want to be where he is, get me out of here.” They drive me over to the chateau where all of the Hollywood stars stay. I would learn they stay in the hotel part. Rick is in a luxury bungalow on the grounds in the back and there’s another cottage. I move in next to him and find out John Belushi died in this cottage a month before.
Another couple days pass and I tell Leroy I’ve got to go back to Toronto and he says Rick is really tied up. I hear all kinds of music next door and approach a guard there and tell him I’ve got to see Rick. He opens the door and Rick is sitting with a movie star I can’t name on either side of a small table with a mountain of coke between them and whacked out of their minds. Music blares away as I announce I’m returning to Toronto.
Rick later phones and says he needs me back in L.A. – “I need you to come to the American Music Awards with me.” I fly back and he sends about ten of us for tuxedos and we are driven to the American Music Awards. I still haven’t seen Rick. He’s a presenter. I’m sitting with all of the big stars – Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross in the Motown section. We attend all kinds of post parties all over the place and one was at Diana Ross’s house. It was there Rick says to me, “we got to settle this, but I’m busy.”
I fly back to Toronto, continue litigation and the lawyers eventually settle. Now Rick phones me and he’s my best friend and wants me to come down to Buffalo – he’s having a showcase. I surface with trepidation because of the litigation and there’s a big crowd in his living room and this handsome guy with a doo-rag on his head asks who am I and I tell him I’m Stan Weisman and he says, “You’re Stan Weisman, we’ve been hearing about you for years from Rick – you saved his life in Toronto.” I expected the worst. I push through the crowd then Rick comes over and gives me a big hug and I look over his shoulder and notice there’s a big portrait of me and him on the wall. All through this litigation it was there amongst all kinds of awards.
A couple shorts:
Rochdale – Rick wanted to go there – it was a place of all kinds of drugs flying and Rick takes me to the head biker. The bikers won’t let you in the building. They were hired security watching undercover cops. We go into the head biker’s room and sit on the couch and the biker goes in a room and returns with an attack dog on a chain. He’s holding back the dog then gives the command word and the dog goes into attack mode, lunges about two inches from our faces while the biker laughs.
Prince was a young terminus and Rick was filling giant stadiums; Madison Square Gardens. Prince had the Purple Rain movie, Rick tried and tried through his connections to get into a movie and couldn’t. Prince during one of Rick’s concerts had himself carried in on a litter like a potentate – six guys carried into the stadium causing a whole disruption in the fans. They are all looking at Prince who they now knew from this movie that had just come out and Rick was furious. It was the beginning of their rivalry.