James started his singing career fronting doo-wop and rhythm and blues bands in his hometown of Buffalo, New York in the early 1960s, with his vocal style influenced by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and David Ruffin. He entered the United States Navy to avoid conscription after dropping out of high school; James deserted and relocated to Toronto, Canada where he resumed his music career. While there, James formed the rock-soul fusion band Mynah Birds, whose lineup once included a young Neil Young. James' tenure with the Mynah Birds was interrupted after he was discovered recording with the group in Motown in the 1960s, and surrendered to military authorities. He served a one-year prison sentence in Buffalo. Afterwards, James returned to Canada, where he resumed the Mynah Birds, though the band eventually split; James moved to California where he started a series of rock bands. He also had a period where he served as a staff writer with Motown (under a pen name) before he left the label.
In 1977, he signed with the Gordy Records subsidiary of Motown as a recording artist where in 1978, he recorded his first album, Come Get It!, which sold over a million copies at the time of its release. He would go on to score several popular hits on the pop and R&B charts, including four number-one hits on the latter chart. James became noted not only as a hit maker on his own recordings but also produced successful recordings for the likes of Teena Marie, the Mary Jane Girls, the Temptations, Eddie Murphy and Smokey Robinson. His best-selling recording, 1981's Street Songs, sold over three million copies, helping to renew sagging fortunes in Motown.
Known as the 'King of Punk Funk' for his mix of funky soul and underground-inspired rock, a term used by publications such as Jet, James began to face major issues. In April 1984, he was hospitalized after being found unconscious in the middle of his house by a friend. Addictions to cocaine and crack, hampered his career by the late 1980s. In the 1990s, his legal troubles, which would include assaulting two women while under the influence of crack, led him to serve a three-year sentence at California's Folsom State Prison. James was released on parole in 1996 and resumed his musical career releasing the album, Urban Rapsody, in 1997. A mild stroke suffered during a concert in early 1998 interrupted his career for a brief time. James received new notoriety in 2004 when he appeared on an episode of Dave Chappelle's Chappelle Show in the Charlie Murphy "True Hollywood Stories" segment of the show, in which James' past wild lifestyle was satirized. James died later that year from heart failure at the age of 56.
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