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Neon Rick James display nixed over his 'controversial' past with women

A proposal for a Rick James neon public art display outside a public parking garage in Buffalo has been dropped.

Organizers planned to erect the homage to the Buffalo-born funk star on Elmwood Avenue, near the former Women & Children's Hospital.

But James' 1994 conviction for assaulting and imprisoning a woman, as well as his acquittal at another trial where violence against a woman was alleged, dissuaded them.

"We are changing our direction to stay away from the controversial aspects of this entire thing," said Newell Nussbaumer, publisher of Buffalo Rising.

Nussbaumer came up with the idea with developer Rocco Termini and designer Tom Mooney to celebrate Buffalo's music history. James was to have been depicted towering over a 24-hour public parking sign, clutching a guitar and dressed in leather and knee-high red boots.

Neon Rick James sign may light up Elmwood Avenue

"We came up with a rock and roll silhouette instead, in which we can put a multimedia video installation," Nussbaumer said. "We can include all of Buffalo's famous musicians, from Ani (DiFranco) to Rick James to whoever else."

A mural featuring musical figures will still be painted on the parking ramp.

"But I'm really bummed," Nussbaumer said. "It's going to be great, but nothing is going to surpass this crazy, iconic Rick James figure on Elmwood Avenue."

James, whose real name was James Johnson Jr., was known for his danceable funk music, colorful clothes and trademark braids. His biggest hit, "Super Freak," was released in 1981 on the album "Street Songs," which also included the popular singles "Give it to Me Baby," "Fire and Desire" and "Ghetto Life."

An autographed guitar that belonged to James, with the words "Funk and Roll," is on display in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

James, who died in August 2004 at age 56, denied imprisoning, beating or forcing women to have sex against their will.

"I abuse drugs, not women," he said during a 1993 trial.

A rendering shows a proposed neon sign featuring Buffalo musician Rick James at the entrance to a parking ramp near the Bank of America on the 400 block of Elmwood Avenue. The proposal has been pulled.

'Not a saint'

LeRoi Johnson, Rick James' brother, told The Buffalo News on Wednesday that he was involved as co-counsel in the court case in which charges of torture and other crimes were made. He claimed the alleged victim tried to extort James for money before she went to the police. Later, she tried to retract her story, but the police continued anyway, he said.

Johnson, an attorney and artist who lives on Grand Island, said he left the case after his brother hired another lawyer who he felt was "a publicity attorney."

"I don't think people understand that artists and anyone with money, such as Rick, are targets," Johnson said. "Rick was not a saint, and he acknowledged he used drugs."

But he said his brother is worthy of the honor.

"What he did or was alleged to have done occurred on what I would call a sickness on drugs, and it was a very small part of his life," Johnson said. "The accusations were one thing, what he was convicted of was another.

"Rick should be judged by his music," Johnson said.

Mixed public reaction

But Laurie Ousley, an English teacher at Nichols School, is glad for the change of heart.

"It's one thing to continue to enjoy the music of Rick James, and it's entirely another to memorialize someone on Elmwood Avenue who was convicted of violence against women. This was tone-deaf at best," she said.

Ousley said it was an especially bad idea in light of the #MeToo Movement, which has raised exposure of sexual and physical abuse of women.

Buffalo resident Charles Alexis also disliked the idea.

"He imprisoned the women, so I don't think so. It ain't right," he said of the proposal.

The idea of honoring James resonated with others.

"I love Rick James, and I really hope that they do something for him," said Mattie Moore, who keeps a painting of James given to her by the Record Theatre's late owner Lenny Silver on her bedroom wall.

Moore's brother took her to see James perform at a concert at East High School early in his career.

"His musical talents had nothing to do with his wrongdoing, so that shouldn't take away what he brought to the City of Buffalo," said Moore, who like James grew up on the East Side.

"I think he should be honored with the neon sign," said Cece House, who also lives on the East Side. "He's a musician and he sold millions of records."

She also liked the idea of James being honored on Elmwood Avenue.

"That's the strip – that's the limelight right now," she said.

Two trials, one conviction

James, then 43, and 21-year-old girlfriend Tanya Anne Hijazi, his future wife and mother of his child, were accused of imprisoning Frances Alley, 24 years old at the time, over three days in mid-July 1991.

During that time, the woman claimed she was tied to a chair, tortured with the hot end of a cocaine pipe and a heated butcher knife, threatened with a gun and forced to perform sexual acts at James' gated Hollywood Hills home. James and Hijazi were acquitted after the jury deadlocked. Eleven jurors wanted to convict him on all charges, but one held out for acquittal.

Around 16 months later, Mary Sauger, 26, said she was with the couple on Nov. 2, 1992, at the St. James' Club hotel in Los Angeles, where she claimed both beat her without provocation into unconsciousness. After being revived, Sauger said they continued to hit her in the face for hours before letting her leave.

James was convicted and sentenced to five years and four months in prison in January 1994 for assault, false imprisonment and selling cocaine. Prosecutors characterized James' behavior as "violent, drug-induced attacks on women."

He served a little more than two years in Folsom State Prison, near Sacramento. The cocaine charge was thrown out while he was serving his sentence due to prosecutorial misconduct.

Mark Werksman, his defense attorney, said at that time that James had a $10,000-a-week cocaine habit. Werksman also said outside the courtroom that only Hijazi had struck Sauger, according to a Los Angeles Times account of the case.

 

'Iconic' artist

"Rick James is an iconic Buffalo artist," Termini said. "We wanted to celebrate musical artists that came from Buffalo, and he's probably the most famous of all."

Termini said the planning began a year ago, before the #MeToo Movement was underway.

It wasn't on the radar when the idea was first discussed, but it also wasn't done in a vacuum, Termini said. Public meetings with very little or no opposition were held and the proposal was approved by Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, which operates the parking garage for the City of Buffalo.

"It is controversial," Termini said on Wednesday. "Art is controversial."

But Termini acknowledged his wife wasn't pleased.

"My wife is giving me a hard time," he said. "I almost had to sleep on the couch last night."

Nussbaumer also said James seemed like the perfect choice.

"There's just no replacing Rick James," he said Wednesday. "Lance Diamond is great, but someone coming from Chicago is going to think who is that guy? And I love Lance to death.

"Seeing Rick James with a guitar lit up on Elmwood, they're going to go, 'Wow, there's Rick James!' "

Nussbaumer said he wonders whether James received a fair shake at his trials.

"He was black and a crazy rock ’n’ roller who dressed bizarrely and probably acted in a bizarre manner, with a lawyer who probably wasn't the best," Nussbaumer said.

At the same time, Nussbaumer said it wasn't their intention to "idolize someone who may have done horrific things."

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