By Joshua Maloni
On Sunday morning, the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame officially unveiled a brand-new piece to its collection of items inside the Hard Rock Cafe, Niagara Falls USA: a sky-blue jumpsuit worn on stage by Rick James.
Hard Rock already had concert posters and a plaque for the performer, but "It's Rick James," Hard Rock Sales and Marketing Assistant Justin Rizzo said. "We need something big. We need something loud to represent the man and the music."
James Johnson Jr. was born in Buffalo. As Rick James, he played with Buffalo Springfield members Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson; scored with hit singles such as "You and I" and "Bustin' Out"; and rose to stardom with the hit "Super Freak." (Incidentally, the song's instrumental parts were used in MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This.")
On hand at the reception Sunday was James' brother, LeRoi Johnson, and guitarist Alyn Syms, as well as BMHOF inductee Jessie Galante and several board members.
Johnson, said, "I know Rick would be happy about this because ... Rick is a Buffalo person, and he did everything for and about Buffalo. His songs were about Buffalo. His life was about Buffalo. And his energy was."
Johnson noted, "When Hard Rock Cafe first opened up in Los Angeles, we were there. Rick was invited and, during those days, Rick was a major star. And it's important that we are here at Hard Rock in Niagara Falls/Buffalo, because it's part of the legacy."
He added, "I'm glad, because a lot of people in Buffalo do not recognize the importance of Rick beyond music. The musical part is important, but Rick was also the person who stepped up and (did) MTV. And he's the reason why MTV videos and music are what they are, because they were going to drop that, but for the efforts of Rick. And he never got the benefit of that. Rick was a major star without the major tool that Michael Jackson and Prince and all the others used. ...
"We opened the doors to other acts - not just black acts, but all different types of acts, particularly hip-hop. ... He changed the whole music business."
BMHOF Vice President Tom Lorentz said, "What I want to say about Rick, unlike many of the other big, big celebrities that sort of really made it out there, Rick really made it a hometown thing. I don't know of any other act - when I think of the bigger celebrity acts that made it, (they) disappeared and never came back. So many (local) musicians were touched by Rick."
He added, "The musicians that got involved with Rick through the years all stuck by him, and vice versa. He stuck by them, and he helped catapult many, many, many careers for many artists. Even if they didn't perform out live with him, he was an influence on them.
"And out of all our celebrity inductees out there, I can't think of anybody else that really almost created their own genre of music. Funk-super funk, it just became synonymous with Rick James."
Syms said James never listened when people said someone couldn't make it outside of Buffalo.
"Rick said, 'I'm going to make it big.' He made it big," Syms said.
He added, "We were talking one day about how musicians should dress on stage. OK? And Rick said, 'Al, you can dress any way you want, but don't look like an English teacher.' I never forgot that."
"I love Rick; I miss conversations with him," Syms said. "I still write funk jams that would work in the dance club. And I picture playing them for him. 'What do you think?' He had a really good ear. He would say, 'Well, yeah, this is good, but you need a better change then what you got,' or 'What makes that song commercial is the chord change.' I think in those terms."
Though the BMHOF will officially celebrate its placement at the Hard Rock this fall, trustee Richard Sargent said, "We didn't want to wait until September, for the fourth anniversary party. We wanted to show off a very important, integral part of the Buffalo and Western New York music scene.
"He did so many things for so many people. ... And he adds a great deal not only of class, but of importance to this room. ... (Rick) was always at the top of his game. His work ethic was unbelievable."
Rizzo said, "It was very important to us to mark the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame room here at the Hard Rock Cafe. It's still the only one of its kind in a café, and in a company that prides itself on its musical history. There is no other café that does what the Buffalo/Niagara Falls café does, which is dedicate an entire room and partner with the local organization to make sure that everything on these walls is local - is 716 - and is represented by those that have worked tirelessly, whether being a musician or being on the behind-the-scenes-type stuff. We pride ourselves on this room."
Rizzo's own band, More Than Me, has a signed guitar in the BMHOF. The band won the 2010 Hard Rock Rising battle of the bands competition, and opened for Paul McCartney at Hard Rock Calling in London.
"Millions of tourists visit this region ... from all over the world," he added. "Since this room has opened, the hits, from an international standpoint, for the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame website, has gone up."
Musicians inducted into the BMHOF include Harold Arlen, Ani DiFranco, Cory Wells of Three Dog Night, Spyro Gyra, Galante, Sims, Lance Diamond, Tommy Tedesco, Aretha Franklin and the Goo Goo Dolls.
Hard Rock has BMHOF brochures (with the full list of inductees), and staffers are trained to speak about the café's signature room. The restaurant also hosts the organization's annual Jack Yellen Foundation Songwriter's Scholarship event.
The Rick James jumpsuit, a photo and plaque.
Sarge addresses the crowd.
Jessie Galante stands in front of her own collection.