20 YEARS AFTER SINGING WITH RICK JAMES, THE MARY JANE GIRLS’ JOANNE “JO JO’ McDUFFIE HEARS MUSIC ON THE RADIO. BUT ARTISTIC SATISFACTION IS ALL SHE HAS (INTERVIEW)

It should have been like a dream. In the mid-’80s, after years of struggling as a teen mom of two, working her way through school, and playing gigs all over town, East Side native Joanne “Jo Jo’ McDuffie became the lead singer of the R&B girl group the Mary Jane Girls. The act, which was the brainchild of Buffalo funk legend Rick James, scored eight hits on the R&B chart between 1983 and 1986, including the Top 10 pop smash “In My House.” But McDuffie, now Funderburg after her marriage to a Buffalo man in ’86, found that fame was bittersweet. Because of her contract with James, she receives no royalties from sales of the group’s music, including the recently released hits package, “The Millennium Collection.”

“When people see me, they wonder why I’m not trippin’,” she said by phone from her Culver City, Calif., home. “How can I trip? I’ve never had what celebrities have. I’ve never had millions of dollars. Now, I’ve made millions, but I didn’t get them.”

Funderburg’s singing career started once she dropped out of school after becoming pregnant at 15, and began gigging in clubs around town by lying about her age. But it wasn’t until much later – after getting her G.E.D., having another child, and graduating from Buffalo State College – that she came to James’ attention. One day, on the recommendation of a mutual friend, James came looking for her at the Record Theatre on Main Street where she was working as a clerk.

Soon, the woman who once felt lucky just to go to Toronto was touring around the world as one of James’ background singers. And once James’ tour was over, he asked her to be the lead vocalist in a girl group he was forming. This act would buck the formula requiring that all girl group members dress alike and instead boast a blond leather-clad punkette (Kim “Maxi” Wuletich); a classy moll (Candace “Candi” Ghant); a Valley Girl (first Cherri Wells, then Yvette “Corvette” Marine); and as Funderburg described her role, a braids-wearing, “no-nonsense street chick.”

In 1983, the group released its self-titled debut, which included the evergreen slow jam “All Night Love.” Though the seductive tune reached only No. 11 on the R&B chart, it has endured as an old school favorite of the hip-hop generation, being covered by Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu, and sampled on LL Cool J’s smash “Around the Way Girl.”

“It’s a fixture at club parties,” said Skip Dillard, program director at WBLK. “It will still pack the dance floor as much as the hottest song by Jay-Z or Missy.”

But the success of the group’s debut and its follow-up “Only For You” brought problems for Funderburg. She had to be based in Los Angeles, forcing her to leave her son and daughter with her mother in Buffalo.

“I came home one time and my daughter had breasts,” she said. “I was like, “Where did those come from?’ ”

And there were also troubles with group members, who resented her being lead vocalist. One, whom she wouldn’t name, once told her, “They come to the show to look at me.” To which Funderberg responded, “Yeah, but when they stick the needle on the record, they can’t see you.”

But by far her most long-lasting and hurtful difficulties were with mentor James. She claims he failed to give her credit for songwriting and arranging contributions, which would have allowed her to receive royalties. His publicist said James was unavailable for comment.

“They play that stuff on the radio, all day and all night,” she said. “They play it like it’s a new record. And we don’t get a dime.”

Despite quitting the group in ’86, once she became aware of the bad financial situation, she remained under contract with James until ’93, thwarting her ability to quickly forge a solo career. So, she moved back to Buffalo to work as a substitute teacher at Burgard Vocational School, where she would sometimes use Mary Jane Girls’ stories as an incentive to get students to do their work.

In 1994, Funderburg, Wuletich and Ghant reformed as a threesome, but that was short-lived because of lingering tensions between the members. Then, after a brief reconciliation with James that lasted from his imprisonment on drug-related charges to the release of his “Urban Rhapsody” comeback album, Funderburg was suddenly told that she could no longer perform using the Mary Jane Girls’ name.

This hit her especially hard, since live shows were the only way that she had been able to make money from her work.

Still, reflecting on her career, she claims that she has no animosity toward James. “I don’t have time to be mad at anybody,” she said. “I don’t want that on my spirit right now.”

And, even though she’ll likely never see a cent from its sales, she’s also still proud of the newly released compilation.

“I was a poor little black girl from the lower East Side of Buffalo,” she said. “I never ever thought that I would have a record on the radio. And now, after all of this time, people are still listening to music that I did almost 20 years ago. And for me, that’s wonderful.”

 

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