(This interview was originally published August 3, 2012 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)
When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.
This time that awesomeness is JoJo McDuffie. If you don’t recognize that name right away, you should remember her as the lead singer of the Mary Jane Girls. The all-girl group was a project by Rick James who wrote and produced the music. McDuffie was originally a Rick James protégé and sang background vocals for him on several albums and tours. Then she became the vocal talent behind the Mary Jane Girls and had the 1985 crossover hit “In My House”. Find out a little more about the group, their hit single, Rick James and more as we get on to some selections from my interview with JoJo McDuffie…
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a professional singer? When and how did you get your own start in the music industry? Please tell us a little about what you did prior to the Mary Jane Girls.
JoJo: I became a professional singer not by choice, but out of necessity. I was a very young single parent, and I lied about my age at first to sing in the nightclub circuit in Buffalo, New York. I sang with a local Top 40 band and a jazz band for eight years before the Rick James and Mary Jane Girls experience.
Q: How did you meet Rick James and begin working with him? What can you tell us about Rick James as a musician and as a person? And your experiences working with him over the years?
JoJo: I met Rick James just after I graduated from State University College at Buffalo while at my job in a record store. He was looking for a background vocalist for his Street Songs tour. I knew his bass guitarist, whom I had worked with on many jazz jam sessions in the clubs previously. The whole entourage came into the store and Oscar, the bass guitarist (who had gone on to work with him at the time), introduced me to him. As a musician he was good. Much better as a songwriter. As a person, he was a good friend and mentor in the beginning. He was an innovator, someone who wasn’t afraid to take risks with the creation of music and I followed his lead on this because I liked the new and the different approach he had in creating songs. I loved that he didn’t always do what was “expected”.
Q: At what point did you begin working with James? Did you sing on background on the recording of his 1981 hit “Superfreak”?
JoJo: No, I was not on “Superfreak”. I was on “Standing on the Top” featuring The Temptations and pretty much all else after. I was also background vocalist for most of the tours and videos after “Superfreak”.
Q: Please tell us a little about how and why Mary Jane Girls came to be. Were you really the only girl in the group who could sing having had to sing both lead and background vocals?
JoJo: The Mary Jane Girls were originally called the “Mary Jane Band”, which was the name given to Rick’s background vocalists. At the time, all the artists had names for their background groups like Hot Buttered Soul (Isaac Hayes), Love Unlimited (Barry White), etc. I originally worked with two other vocalists, Lisa Sarna & Taborah Johnson back then. There was material done and pictures taken for this group, but it did not come to fruition. Lisa and Tabby left and Rick wrote new material, which he told me was for a solo project for me. The songs were “Musical Love”, “Prove It”, “Boys” and “Candy Man”, which he pitched as a group (unbeknown to me) to Motown and a few other record company execs. Motown of course ended up with the winning bid and he immediately had to produce multiple girls. For the demo, I had done the lead vocals with session vocalists on backgrounds. Enter Cheri [Wells] first, Candi [Ghant] and Maxi [Wuletich] to follow. Unfortunately, Rick did not choose people who had the vocal expertise to sustain recording or live performance duties, aside from myself.
Q: Who picked the group’s name and was it really inspired by marijuana?
JoJo: Rick chose the group name, “Mary Jane” himself, inspired by his love for marijuana, LOL. We could not say that then. We had to say “it was for the shoes (mary janes) and the candy because we’re sweet”.
Q: Each girl in the group took on a different look and persona. Your persona has been described as almost a female version of Rick James himself. You even wore the braids and beads hairstyle. Who decided what each girl’s character would be? Were you on board with this strategy?
JoJo: The decision for a “persona” or “character” for each girl was all Rick’s idea. One would wear braids & leather and would be “streetwise”, one would be glamorous, one would be a biker chick and one would be a L.A. “valley girl”. I was okay with the idea because it set us apart from previous female groups. Our music was different, we would be different.
Q: Jumping right to your biggest hit “In My House” in 1985, Rick James is credited with writing and producing the song. Please take us back to when “In My House” was written and recorded. What can you tell us about back story about how that particular song was conceived? Were you involved at all in helping to create that song other than obviously singing it?
JoJo: “In My House” was originally conceived during a soundcheck on the Throwin’ Down tour. It was a groove that happened. Rick originally said it would be for himself, then for Eddie Murphy’s album (Party All the Time), then for the Mary Jane Girls finally in 1985. I created the harmony double on the hook and the “ooo ooo” parts. None of the other Mary Jane Girls are on this song. Just me on lead and background vocals with some session vocalists, as on almost all the material recorded for the Mary Jane Girls. The exception is that on the second album, Rick gave Candi, Maxi and Corvette one song. Cheri also had a song on the debut album.
The Mary Jane Girls’ 1983 self-titled debut album had several singles reach the Top 40 of the R&B charts like “All Night Long”, but none that cracked the Hot 100 of the pop charts. In 1985, “In My House” was released as the first single from their Only Four You album. This single reached #1 on the Dance chart in April and peaked at #3 on the R&B chart as well. More importantly, “In My House” crossed over to the pop charts peaking at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June and remaining in the Top 40 for 12 weeks. Here is the music video for “In My House” by the Mary Jane Girls…
Q: Did any of you have any feeling that the single was going to be something special or have the success that it did? What changed for the Mary Jane Girls and for you personally, if anything, after having this legitimate hit?
JoJo: I had no idea that “In My House” would become the mega hit that it did. Recording it, I remember only trying to do a good job with it like I did anything else I was blessed to record. The only change was in the attitudes. Egos emerged and not in a positive way. There was major success on the debut album with “All Night Long”, “Candy Man” and “Boys” in the R&B market. “In My House” crossed the group over to a worldwide audience.
Q: The song surprisingly ended up on the Parents Music Resource Center’s “Filthy 15″ list due to alleged sexual innuendo. What were you feelings regarding it being called out in that negative way? Or was it a case of the notion that there is no such thing as bad publicity? Can you share with us the intended meaning behind any of the lyrics for “In My House” and what “house” might have referred to? I assume the sexual innuendo was really intended?
JoJo: At the time, I was very disappointed in being part of that list. I did not write the lyrics, and quite frankly, it was pretty silly to me that such an issue was made about lyrics at the time. The “explicit” label applied to the album prohibited it from being considered for the Grammy, American Music, VH-1 and MTV awards that year. At the time, I could say yes there was such a thing as bad publicity. Today, that same lyrical content would go unnoticed. The lyrics to this song were written by Rick. And yes, they spoke of lovemaking which of course is not a bad thing, but because of the age range of our audience at the time, the lyrics were considered taboo not to mention controversial. And innuendo to what “house” meant… welllllll… LOL. I didn’t write it. I just sang it. That was the whole idea at the time. It went along with the persona of the group. No offense, but we were so not trying to be the Supremes or the Ronettes. The Mary Jane Girls were the trailblazers for many female groups to come, actually the template for The Spice Girls and a whole lot of others. But no one gives credit because of the controversy of the music and who wrote/produced it.
I am actually surprised this song made that list. It does refer specifically to making love, but it doesn’t seem that bad to me (especially compared to today’s standards). Some lyrics are “I’ll be your sugar in the morning and the sweet stuff you need at night” and “I’ll keep you happy and so satisfied, in my house.” Sure there is some double entendre there, but relatively harmless.
Q: What are your feelings regarding “In My House” today 27 years later? Do you still perform it now? With a big hit like that, do you or did you ever get sick of performing it?
JoJo: (sigh) 27 years later. Has it been that long? Yes, I still perform it, choreography and all, live. Never get tired of doing it!! As long as the fans still enjoy it, I’ll do it. Talk about controversy? My children and grandchildren are usually mortified, LOL.
Q: What are some of your best memories and coolest things you were able to do at the height of popularity for the Mary Jane Girls?
JoJo: I was able to make my family proud and leave a legacy to my children and grandchildren. At the height of the career, I couldn’t do much because of all the security. It’s so different today. I was pretty isolated although I have to admit some of that was self-induced. I’ve always been a notorious loner. I loved the fans; the whole meet and greet, autograph signing, sold out shows, the travel… great!
After “In My House”, the Mary Jane Girls released two more singles from what would be their final album. Those singles, especially “Wild and Crazy Love”, performed well on the R&B and Dance charts, but could not crack the Top 40 of the Hot 100. They also recorded a 1986 cover of Frank Valli & the Four Seasons’ hit “Walk Like a Man” which would be included on the soundtrack for the film A Fine Mess and peak at #41 on the Billboard Hot 100. The group’s final single, “Shadow Lover”, received little promotion or attention resulting in the Mary Jane Girls never releasing a third album and breaking up by 1987.
Q: After the success you had with “In My House”, why do you think the Mary Jane Girls were not able to have sustained success after that? Why did the group end up going its separate ways?
JoJo: Um, did I mention the ego thing? LOL, there were too many large egos, no talent and no work ethic on the part of certain group members, not to mention the drugs and Rick’s descent into drug use. Because of this and many other factors, the group dissolved in late 1986.
Q: Did you continue to work with and keep in touch with Rick James after that point? Did you remain close with him at all until his untimely passing back in 2004? What legacy do you feel he left behind?
JoJo: Rick and I lost touch with each other for ten years. In 1996, we re-connected and started working together again on his Urban Rapsody project following his incarceration. I did the promo tour for Urban Rapsody and backgrounds on another project with him, but he started with the drugs again and I left again in 1998. The last contact I had with him was in November 2003. We would always disagree, make up, back and forth. When he died, we were in disagree mode. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. In my humble opinion, his legacy was that he left some music for his fans that to his day can fill a dance floor, thought provoking lyrics on some songs, memorable, innovative, groundbreaking material. I learned a lot from him.
Q: What do you remember best about the decade of '80s music? What lasting impact do you feel music from the '80s has made?
JoJo: The '80s music was a transition from soul to disco, rap and hip hop. You name it, it was there. I recall music being very strange and wonderful and different. I remember being glad that I was a small part of its creation, wondering how long my contribution would last because it all came and went so quickly. Hence, the “one hit wonders”. Huge impact on music forever; after all, my music is still in regular rotation. And so is Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and a host of others. The '80s produced some great hybrid music with an everlasting effect.
Q: Please tell us a little about where your music career has taken you since that time. What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
JoJo: My career has had some twists and turns, as I guess most other artists have had. I’ve gone from singing background to lead and back again. I’ve been in corporate America and the music biz. I’ve been a school teacher, a receptionist and back to the music again. These days, I perform as “JoJo original lead singer of the Mary Jane Girls”. My latest project is called Slightly Dangerous (adult contemporary/jazz). I’m also currently working on “The Shameless Hussy Project” which is contemporary dance music. I’m having a blast, still creating, still singing, writing. One of my tracks from Slightly Dangerous (“You”) has been used in an episode of the television show Criminal Minds (I wrote the lyrics and melody). This was pretty great as far as accomplishment goes, but I also had the honor three years in a row (2009-2011) to go to Iraq and perform for America’s finest. That was kinda up on the top of my list, too. I don’t know if I’ve achieved my proudest yet, even though I’ve been blessed to do a lot.
Q: What else is JoJo McDuffie up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? Any remaining ambitions or regrets?
JoJo: What I’m up to nowadays is trying to improve my songwriting skills, keeping the old bod healthy, stuff like that. I have no regrets. My motto has pretty much been “consider anything… but don’t cry”. Life’s good!!
I am very happy that JoJo was able to take some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. You can find out more and keep up with JoJo at her official Facebook page. I want to take this opportunity to again thank JoJo McDuffie for her contributions to '80s pop culture with the Mary Jane Girls and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.