20 ESSENTIAL ALBUMS
Who: Rick James.
What: The biggest-selling album by Motown’s most outrageous star of the 1980s. Fuelled by a pair of smash hits, “Give It To Me Baby” and “Super Freak,” it spent 20 weeks – count ’em, 20 – at the summit of the Billboard Soul LPs countdown. In total, the long-player was on those charts for 18 months, sustained by the singles’ popularity and the most successful concert tour of Rick’s career.
When: The recording sessions for Street Songs took place towards the end of 1980 and the opening weeks of ’81, after Rick had spent time in Buffalo, New York, to get back to his roots. “Give It To Me Baby” was issued in March, and the album followed April 7 as the 45 headed for a five-week run at the top of the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart. (For more on Rick James, read here.)
Where: Street Songs was created at the Record Plant studio in Sausalito, California, where Rick locked himself in a room from dawn to sunset, with his guitar and bass, and a drum machine, to focus on the material and the vibe. There was even a bed there for him to sleep on. “I wanted to make some kind of statement with this album, something people would never forget,” he recalled in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Super Freak.
Why: Rick knew exactly what he wanted: “a street album, an album that talked about ghettos, pimps, hoes, dope, police, passion, and love.” He hadn’t been excited by his previous release, Garden Of Love, a laid-back set with “mostly slow, summer tunes” written while he vacationed in Barbados. With Street Songs, the passion returned. There were new members in his Stone City Band, too, adding to the sense of change. “I needed to feel the essence of the ghetto and the projects again,” said Rick.
What else: Street Songs included contributions from Stevie Wonder, playing harmonica on “Mr. Policeman”; Teena Marie, duetting with Rick on “Fire And Desire”; and Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams and Richard Street of the Temptations, singing on “Ghetto Life” and “Super Freak” (Franklin’s also on “Give It To Me Baby”). Rick told Billboard, “I wanted to get the old Motown spirit back. One of the great things about Motown was the family relationships between the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the other acts.”
What are the 20 most essential Motown albums? It’s a difficult choice, but this is ours, picked and presented through the course of this 60th anniversary year. Each album is featured with its background story, keyed to a relevant date in its history. This is not a countdown, leading to a “winner.” It’s just a way to showcase some of the finest music ever made. After all, isn’t that why you’re here?