Rick James, the funk star of the '70s and '80s, was found dead today of apparently natural causes in his home near Universal City, Calif. He was 56.

Rick James, the funk star of the '70s and '80s, was found dead today of apparently natural causes in his home near Universal City, Calif. He was 56.

Born James Johnson in Buffalo, N.Y., he was the nephew of singer Melvin Franklin of the Temptations. James was active on the Toronto music scene in the mid-'60s as a member of the Mynah Birds, which also included future Buffalo Springfield members Neil Young and Bruce Palmer. After that project collapsed when James was arrested for draft evasion, he relocated in the early '70s to Britain, where he formed the group Main Line.

Signed to Motown in 1977, James drew inspiration from the rocked-up avant-funk of George Clinton and Sly Stone. James scored his first No. 1 R&B hit and top 20 pop hit for Gordy Records with "You and I" in 1978. The lubricious top five R&B hits "Mary Jane" and "Bustin' Out" quickly followed.

James hit the apex of his career in 1981, when his album "Street Songs" went to No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 3 on the pop charts. That collection spawned the No. 1 R&B single "Give It to Me Baby," but its No. 3 successor, "Super Freak," enjoyed a longer life: A distinctive sample from the song powered M.C. Hammer's breakthrough 1990 smash "U Can't Touch This."

James found success at Motown through the '80s, producing chart numbers for the Temptations, Teena Marie, Eddie Murphy and the Mary Jane Girls and scoring R&B chart-toppers like "Cold Blooded" (1983) and "Loosey's Rap" (1988) in his own right.

James' life and career went into a nosedive in the early '90s. In 1991 and 1992, he was arrested for assaults on two young women; one victim claimed that James and his girlfriend had imprisoned her in a West Hollywood hotel room and burned her with a hot crack pipe. During his trial, James admitted he was addicted to cocaine. In 1993, he was sentenced to five years and four months in jail; he was released in 1996.

James toured behind his 1997 album "Player's Way" until he suffered a stroke during a performance in Denver in 1998. In a July interview with Billboard's Gail Mitchell, he said of that episode, "God sat me down to pay attention. Then he told me to get back up and hit the stage, and I'm enjoying it."

James told Billboard that he planned to release a 30-song double CD on his Ma Records label, distributed by Sony/RED. He also was negotiating a deal for a book about his life. But James added that he planned to retire from the music business "to do something more spiritual."

James is survived by three children and two grandchildren.

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