Mark Armstrong
August 06, 2004 03:35 PM

Rick James, the funk singer and wild man who rose to fame in the ’80s for his hit song “Super Freak,” was found dead in his Los Angeles home by his caretaker on Friday, a police spokeswoman said. He was 56.

James died at 9:45 a.m. at a residence near Universal City, Officer Esther Reyes tells the Associated Press.

“He died apparently of natural causes. We learned of his death after responding to a radio call,” Reyes said.

Publicist Maureen O’Connor, speaking for James’s three children, said they believed he died of heart failure, and “passed away peacefully in his sleep.”

James, who strutted around in braided hair and spandex pants, sold some 3 million albums thanks to his 1981 hit about “a very kinky girl,” and he went on to produce hits for artists such as Eddie Murphy (“Party All the Time”), Teena Marie and the Temptations.

But the Grammy winner had his share of demons, struggling with drug addiction and legal trouble. In 1993 he and then-girlfriend Tanya Hijazi were convicted of beating and imprisoning a woman in a Hollywood hotel room a year prior, and he also was convicted of furnishing cocaine to another woman. James was sent to Folsom State Prison for three years.

By 1997, James was out of prison and ready to attempt a comeback, both professionally and personally. He released a new album (Urban Rhapsody) and married Hijazi after an 11-year relationship. “I’m too old to do crazy things anymore,” James told PEOPLE in 1998. “Before, I’d just smoke dope and have sex. I never knew if it was day or night. Now I got to bed at 11 and get up at 7. I don’t have aluminum foil on my windows anymore.”

James, however, faced health setbacks that same year, suffering a stroke during a show at Denver’s Mammoth Events Center, and he also underwent hip-replacement surgery.

Still, after prison, James said his ultimate goal was to set a good example. “When I was doing drugs, I was the last person I’d want my kid to follow. Now I want to be a role model for my son, and I want to live the right life.

“You never feel sure,” he added. “I pray that I am. I just live one day at a time.”

James’s death occurred just as Hollywood began to take a renewed interest in his life and career. He was developing plans for a movie based on his autobiography, Memoirs of a Super Freak, which he was reportedly still writing.

Comedian Dave Chappelle was named as a possibility to star as James – a role that he already had played (for laughs) in various sketches on his Comedy Central series Chappelle’s Show.

James is survived by a daughter, Ty, sons Rick Jr. and Tazman, and granddaughters Jasmine and Charisma.

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