Rick James lived the rock 'n' roll life to excess--right up until he faced a life sentence in prison.

On Friday, the influential, but troubled funkmeister, known for his 1981 hit, "Super Freak," and a pair of cocaine-fueled assaults in the 1990s, died in his sleep at 9:20 a.m. of natural causes at his Los Angeles home, James' longtime label, Motown Records, said in a statement. He was 56.

James, who lived alone, was discovered by his assistant, who notified police.

His publicist says that James' family suspected the artist was felled by heart failure. Although authorities say the death did not appear suspicious, the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner said it would investigate the death because of James' history with drugs.

On Friday, two sources said James was back to his partying ways as of last week, when he was spotted doing cocaine at a party.

Professionally, the rocker and producer had been busy of late, working on an album, and writing an autobiography to be called Memoirs of a Super Freak. Comic Dave Chappelle was in talks to portray James in a planned biopic based on the book, the Hollywood Reporter said in June.

Last month, James told BET.com that the new album would feature as many as 30 songs.

"Music is a universal language, every color, every creed, every race," James told the Website. "I want everybody to enjoy my [stuff]."

Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. praised James on Friday as a "pioneer who took Motown in a whole new direction." Singer Smokey Robinson called James the "original R&B rock star."

In June, James was presented with ASCAP's Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award, credited by the organization for being the father of "punk-funk" with hits such as "Mary Jane," "Give It to Me Baby," and his signature groove, "Super Freak."

In addition to being a best-selling song for James, "Super Freak"'s bass line helped make a Grammy-winning hit out of "U Can't Touch This," and a chart-topping rapper out of former batboy and future Surreal Life star M.C. Hammer.

Though old-school James loathed sampling ("People want to see a live group, nobody want to see somebody up there working a turntable and sampling," he told BET.com), sampling loved him.

Other artists to have borrowed riffs from James include Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu and Will Smith.

James also spread his influence as a producer, most famously with actor Eddie Murphy, from whom he coaxed the 1985 hit, "Party All the Time." James also worked with Motown legends Robinson Smokey Robinson and the Temptations, the Mary Jane Girls (his brainchild), and R&B singer Teena Marie, with whom he recently toured.

While in recent years it was the work that kept James in the spotlight, in the 1990s, it was the arrests and the drugs.

In 1991, he was arrested for singeing a woman with a hot crack pipe. In 1992, while out on bail, he was arrested for beating up another woman at a West Hollywood hotel.

In 1993, he was convicted of assault in the two arrests, but cleared of a torture charge in the crack-pipe incident that could have put him behind bars for the rest of his life. He served two years in prison.

Following his release in 1996, James battled health problems--a stroke and hip replacement in 1998--and settled into the role as the beloved elder statesman of funk.

"I'm too old to do crazy things anymore," a 50-year-old James said, per RickJames.com. "Before, I'd just smoke dope and have sex. I never knew if it was day or night. Now I go to bed at 11 and get up at 7. I don't have aluminum foil on my windows anymore."

In 1997, he released a comeback album, Urban Rapsody, which featured him mixing it up with the likes of Snoop Dogg.

James steered clear of the wrong kind of headlines until 2002 when a woman claimed he sexually assaulted her at his home. James proclaimed his innocence and said his accuser was trying to get money out of him. No charges were ever filed.

Born James A. Johnson Jr., on Feb. 1, 1948, in Buffalo, New York, James married twice and, in the 1980s, dated Exorcist star Linda Blair.

His second wife, Tanya Hijazi, was with him the night of the 1992 assault, and was arrested for shoplifting in 1996 just as James was being sprung from prison, delaying their planned wedding. The couple, who had one child, a son, split around 2002.

All told, James is survived by three children and two grandchildren.

In 2002, James was asked by Rolling Stone how he'd like to be remembered.

"As someone who beat the odds, and as a musician who gave up the truth," James said, adding emphatically--and colorfully: "My music ain't no contrived [B-S]. It ain't no sci-fi [crap]. It's the real [you-know-what] deal."

(Originally published at 12:35 p.m. PT.)

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