*To witness an individual or group of people in the verge of greatness is something that is a truly a gift to an entertainment writer. We get to say “I was there from the beginning.” We get to tell the tale to our friends and relatives about how we saw the potential for their favorite artists before anyone else. It’s just one of those perks those in this game get to enjoy.
Recently our Lee Bailey had a chance to sit down with JoJo McDuffie, front woman for girl group the Mary Jane Girls. Many in our readership recall the group being on the verge of making it truly big. Just when we were waiting on that dramatic explosion the group puttered into what seemed like obscurity. But, while they were away from the limelight, the Rick James-fueled drama continued well into the new millennium. Jo-Jo McDuffie Funderburg breaks it all down for us.
“That was the first thing I did background on, ‘Standing On The Top’ with the Temptations,” she told EURweb.com. She was discovered by James while working retail in Buffalo, New York. “What he did offer at the time, he said ‘Look, I want you to do some background singing for me but, eventually, I’d like to put together a female group.’ We went out on his tour and he gave me a tape and he said ‘Listen, this is some of the music I want my female group to perform’ and, in between touring, we did do some of the music that was on that tape. Me, Cathy Johnson, Lisa Soma. We did some music. There were other background singers. Candy, Cheri all of them, they came later. We were gonna be called the Mary Jane Band. We got into the studio, did a few songs and the other two girls quit. So he said ‘Scratch that, we’re gonna do a solo project.”
Okay, a solo project is what many musicians truly aspire to anyway. Just when JoJo was ready to wrap her mind around that idea, things changed yet again.
“We did (some songs called) ‘Musical Love’ and ‘Candyland’ and he let the record company hear them,” said JoJo. “He had also been telling them that he was going to have a female group. They thought it was the female group. I did the leads on the four songs, the backgrounds were done by the Water sisters.
“He wanted a million dollars at the time. So, Motown gave him the money and asked for pictures of the rest of the girls. There were no girls. It was just me. So, he went and found Candy and Maxie at a strip club, from what I found out later on. I didn’t know this then. Within the last ten years I found that out.”
For the sake of business we often times have to make strange partnerships. Mrs. Funderburg tells our Lee Bailey this was one of those times as that she had nothing in common with her band mates.
“He just threw us in a room and said ‘Y’all get along’ and I’m completely the opposite of the other women. We had completely nothing in common. I had a family I was trying to take care of and, we were all around the same age, but they didn’t have any children to take care of. I did. We were recording from 82 to 86. Two albums, actually three. There’s one in the can.”
It seemed like the Mary Jane Girls rolled through out the 80s, but in reality the band was only together for 3 or 4 years. Sure didn’t seem that way though.
“We broke up after 3 years,” she explained. “In 1987 Motown got sold to MCA.”
Time passed and JoJo McDuffie became JoJo McDuffie Funderburg after marrying Rick James’ manager and friend Robert Funderburg. She lived a normal life and raised her children, until one day….
“I ran into (the girls) in 1994,” said JoJo. “I was working for a real estate developer down by the Marina, and there was a guy who used to do security for us who was the touring manager for Jade and he said there was an old school show promoter that was interested. So, we got back together as MJG. It was only supposed to be one show. When people found out we were working it kind of snowballed. There was a compilation that came out around that time. At this point Rick was incarcerated. What I needed was to get the music so we could work because Motown wouldn’t release the tracks to me. So I contacted his attorneys and what have you and they released them. He was released from jail in 1996 and, all of a sudden, Candy and Maxie just quit. I didn’t know what was going on. There was always some kind of drama,” she continued. “Maxie was pregnant and one point, she did the tour until she was 8 months. She kept going back and forth so I had to keep finding someone to replace her. I found out that they weren’t supposed to be doing this anyway. They were released from their contract in 1987 … I think Rick may have threatened them with that. A couple months later I hear that he needs somebody to come in and do backgrounds on “Urban Rhapsody” which I did. All the time calls were coming in for work for the Mary Jane Girls. I turned it down. I turned it down for 2 years. I was working on his album and I also went out on tour with him.”
But the drama doesn’t stop there. She went on to tell us that she was the only true vocalist in the group. “How could this be?,” we thought. How could one person get away with performing most of vocals for almost every song on three albums?
“He would use them in the studio, but I would have to come back and re-record their parts. I don’t know if they knew that or not. The Water sisters did the background on both albums, I did the background with them. I would sing everything on top so when you hear it all you pretty much all you hear is me.”
So, “In My House” was all Jo-Jo? “All Night Long” was all JoJo? Perhaps we should go give those a listen one more time. Just thinking of those hit songs makes us remember just how popular the group was. Skyrocket status seemed to be a sure thing. But drama raised its ugly head yet again.
“We were extremely popular. We were on the verge of a Destiny’s Child type thing,” said McDuffie. “We were at that precipice ready to go over. I started asking for my money at that point. He (Rick James) suspended me for asking for what I am supposed to have. Unfortunately, because I didn’t get high and go for the okie doke, he thought I was uncontrollable. I didn’t sit up and get high and sleep with him, so he had no dirt on me. It just started to fall apart from there because, not only was I unhappy, everybody was out of control. It was a time in the 80s when everybody was snorting cocaine.”
Despite all of the things that people close to Rick James had to deal with, no one can fault his musical talents. He was a genius to put it quite plainly.
“He was ahead of his time on the music part. He was cutting edge. There was always something different. That was the fun side of things,” JoJo tells Lee Bailey. “He was complicated and when you’re a creative person that just makes things a little different anyhow. He was nice when I met him, but he was successful. You know how young men are when they’re successful. That whole swagger thing.”
We know all the dirt on Rick, and the rest of the Mary Jane Girls, but JoJo says there’s no dirt on her because she didn’t participate in the popular happenings of the day. She says this may have been another reason he would butt heads with her.
“I don’t hang out and I don’t party or any of that stuff. I am not fun, in that way. As a business man I just really didn’t care for him. We got along well until he was high. I could tell when he was high. It was just a whole personality change. I just preferred not to be around him when he’s like that. When we broke up in 86, I didn’t start speaking to him again until 1996 when his musical director invited me to do his backgrounds.”
After all of the mess the Mary Jane Girls had gone through JoJo put herself back in the line of fire. Was she a glutton for punishment or did she simply have a forgiving heart? Maybe it was a little of both. There certainly is a lot more to the story.
Tune in next time when we continue the conversation with Rick James’ sometime vocalist, sometime enemy JoJo McDuffie. The saga continues as she talks about how the drama keeps on going, even after Rick’s death.
McDuffie will also talk about her new jazz album as well.
Check out classic Mary Jane Girls tunes: