TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Debuts in the Top 30 of the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart for the week ending Saturday, August 15, 1981.
SONGWRITERS: Rick James, Alonzo Miller.
PRODUCER: Rick James.
BACKSTORY: “Super Freak” was exploding on radio stations across the country during the summer of ’81, from WRBQ Tampa to KRLA Los Angeles, from WBBQ Augusta to KFRC San Francisco. The competition was intense: Rick James was battling hot new 45s by Stevie Nicks, Foreigner (“Urgent,” with Jr. Walker playing the sax break) and Journey, even as some radio programmers were dubious about his song’s raunchy lyrics. The irony was that a broadcasting professional had already helped the musician to tone them down.
Rick was friendly with Alonzo Miller, music director of KACE-FM in Los Angeles, who had heard an early version of “Super Freak” while the Motown star was recording the vocals. At that point, Miller said that stations would be unlikely to play the song because of its risqué lyrics. “Then he told me he’d always thought I was slicker than that with my lyrics,” Rick revealed in his 2007 autobiography, Memoirs of a Super Freak, “and that’s what separated me from Prince. I agreed and sat down with him to change the lyrics.” The result was a more radio-friendly song – and a ten percent share of the song for Miller.
“Super Freak” went on to become Rick’s most popular 45 of the 1980s, perhaps even his career signature song. It reached the Top 20 of the Billboard pop charts, peaking only a few slots behind his ’70s breakthrough, “You And I.” The track was first featured on Street Songs, released in April 1981 and, soon enough, his biggest-selling album. What helped to boost both the 45 and the LP was Rick’s nationwide concert tour that summer, with the Stone City Band and Teena Marie. It was a huge success, with two late-July nights at the Long Beach Arena in California, for instance, drawing almost 28,000 fans. In 2001, an expanded edition of Street Songs included the live recording from Long Beach. Naturally, “Super Freak” was part of Rick’s set. And the MC for those two nights? Alonzo Miller.
REMAKES: Rick’s larger-than-life recording of “Super Freak” was a challenge to anyone who later chose to tackle the song, but some tried, including Beatfreakz (the Dutch group’s version reached the U.K. Top 10 in 2006), Big Daddy and the Dubstep Junkies – not to mention Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby, who teamed up for a bluegrass rendering. But the best-known “remake” was as a sample, with the “Super Freak” bass line forming the foundation of M.C. Hammer’s monster 1990 hit, “U Can’t Touch This.” In Super Freak: The Life of Rick James, author Peter Benjaminson noted that Rick earned well over $1 million from this usage (James, Hammer and Alonzo Miller were credited as songwriters of “U Can’t Touch This”) and a gained a Grammy© award for Best R&B Song, to boot.
FOOTNOTE: Rick’s competition while “Super Freak” was chart-climbing happened to be another Motown release, “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie. But his connection to the company was made even stronger by the presence of three of the Temptations (Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, Richard Street) on the record, singing background. Later, he wrote, arranged and produced “Standing On The Top” for the group – and sang on it, too. The outcome was a Top 10 slot on the Billboard R&B rankings, the Temptations’ first such accomplishment in six years. The track was also featured on the quintet’s Reunion album, and on Rick’s Throwin’ Down long-player.