The Mary Jane Girls, backup singers for R&B/funk star Rick James, have a raunchy reputation. Some cattily call them the singing sexpots, or James' girl toys.
Joanne (JoJo) McDuffie, Candice (Candy) Ghant, Kim (Maxi) Wuletich and Yvette (Corvette) Marine are the opening act for James' tawdry R&B revues and sing backup vocals during his performances. But not too many people ever took them seriously. They were always sex objects first and singers second.
Even a 1983 best-selling debut album didn't make much difference even though the Motown LP went gold (500,000 copies sold) and featured "All Night Long," a smoldering jazz/funk piece that was one of that year's best singles. The album sold quietly and the single was largely overlooked.
But the Mary Jane Girls have finally begun to pick up some attention and respect thanks to "In My House," a buoyant disco single from the group's second album, "Only Four You." The single is in the national Top 10 and has helped this album go gold faster than the first.
"There are still people who need to be convinced that we're the real thing," said McDuffie, the senior group member. "We've been in the background, singing and looking sexy, but we can really sing. We always could. But if you're too sexy, people tend to overlook everything else."
The Mary Jane Girls are often lumped in with Vanity 6 and Appolonia 6, the attractive female singing groups organized by James' rival Prince. But there's a difference: The Prince proteges aren't especially talented, while the Mary Jane Girls are very capable singers.
Being lumped with Vanity/Appolonia rankled McDuffie, demure and affable until then. Teeming with indignation, she said, "I have nothing against them, but let me say this: We were first in everything. I wore lace and corsets on a Rick James tour long before there was anybody named Vanity doing the same thing--I'm sure that's where they got the idea. There was no rhyme or reason behind those groups, no talent, nobody really singing. It was Rick's idea first, and the idea leaked out.
"I'm tired of being compared to Appolonia and Vanity's groups. If you want to compare us to somebody, compare us to some real singers, like the Pointer Sisters or the Supremes."
Another reason the Mary Jane Girls are sometimes downgraded is they are pictured as simply James' musical pawns. He not only choses the members, but produces, composes and arranges the albums.
"He's in creative control, but he's flexible," McDuffie insisted. "He's not a dictator; he treats us fairly. I don't know anything about writing and producing, but Rick does--he's very knowledgeable in those areas. I like the fact that somebody who knows what they're doing is in control."
Every Mary Jane Girl didn't apparently feel that way, however. Cheri Wells, who reportedly felt limited by James' control, quit after the first album and was replaced by Yvette Marine.
McDuffie refuses to believe that the group sexy's image--an integral part of the Mary Jane Girls--could be a handicap; that without it the group probably would have been taken seriously long ago.
"Rick is sexy," she explained. "That's part of his persona. We're his female counterparts, so that's part of our persona too. It's our job to be sexy. I'm a sexual being, there's this strong sexual thing in me. I just exaggerate it for the stage."
However, McDuffie insisted the Mary Jane Girls don't overdo the sexiness: "We're suggestive, not blatant. It's OK for a woman to be sexy and sensuous--being blatantly nasty is another thing. We don't do that."
Considering that she was raised in a religious family in Buffalo, N.Y., it's surprising that McDuffie makes her living as a sexy singer. "I used to go to church all the time," she recalled. "I wore long skirts and jackets buttoned up to my neck. I was quiet and introverted, but I was rebellious too. I didn't agree with everything I was taught, and I changed some of my ideas. But don't get me wrong. I'm not loose and wild, but I'm not a prude either."
McDuffie was a struggling singer when she got a job as backup vocalist for James, whom she met through a mutual friend. Her singing career was an alternative to teaching social studies in high school. "Can you see me in front of a classroom full of high school kids?" she asked, laughing.
The Mary Jane Girls are part of Rick James' varied stable of artists, including Process and the Doo-Rags, a new male doo-wop vocal group with a debut album on Columbia.
"I express myself through these groups," James said in a separate interview. "They're very important to me."
When he formed the Mary Jane Girls about five years ago, they served a distinct and vital purpose for him.