“Candy Man”: Motown’s Mary Jane Girls were protégées of the late punk funk idol Rick James

By on March 30, 2017

In Night Flight’s 25-minute Video Gallery: Sex collection — it originally aired on March 22, 1983, but you can now find it streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — Pat Prescott told audiences watching at home they were going to be exposed to “sex” in music videos, including “its use of blatant images, and sexual symbols.”

Featured among the occasionally NSFW videos was the relatively tame “Candy Man,” by Motown’s Mary Jane Girls, protégées of the late punk funk idol Rick James.

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As Ms. Prescott warned viewers at home back in the day, “Due to the nature of this particular segment, parental discretion is advised,” which means some of these sexy vids are still not NSFW, capiche?

In the early ’80s, the integrated, multi-racial foursome proved to be a fairly short-lived but relatively successful girl group, originally assembled as part of a ruse by their protégé and mentor Rick James.

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They were mostly known for their titillating lyrics, their steamy videos and sexy on-stage attire, with each of them having an additional look that expressed a personality that Rick James had also chosen for them. They were, in essence, a projection of James’ fantasies.

Unfortunately, perhaps, as a writer for the L.A. Times noted in an interview with Joanne “JoJo” McDuffie in 1985, “they were always sex objects first and singers second.”

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Many have noted that James and his bandmates referred to the foursome as the “Mary Jane Band,” with “mary jane” actually coming from the ’70s-era slang for marijuana, which he’d helped popularize by singing about his affinity for weed in one of his most memorable songs (“I’m in love with Mary Jane, she’s my main thing / She makes me feel alright, she makes my heart sing”).

However, not too many biographers have noted that the idea for the name actually came from James’ mother.

James — who had a hugely successful career at Motown Records and had already brought the label his first protégé, Teena Marie, who proved to be a huge success as well — had begun working on developing another solo artist, singer Joanne “JoJo” McDuffie, who was one of his backing singers when he performed live.

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She had been singing lead vocals on her own, with backing vocals from Maxine and Julia Waters, professionally known as the Waters Sisters. She’s met Rick James after graduating from State University College in Buffalo, New York, when she was working in a record store. He needed a background vocalist for his Street Songs tour.

James was focused on getting McDuffie her own record deal with Motown, writing most of her songs, acting as her producer and mentor, recording the backing tracks with his Stone City Band.

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At the time, for his own live performances, beginning in 1979, along with JoJo, James had three other backing singers — Cheryl Ann “Cheri” Bailey, Kimberly “Maxi” Wuletich and Candice “Candi” Ghant — who were mostly onstage because they looked, and not for their own particular vocal abilities.

They wore lace and corsets long before Prince got the idea to have his female trio — who hit the charts with their #1 hit single “Nasty Girl” — do the same thing.

When James finally pitched his side project to Motown, however, his label expressed some disappointment that they’d misunderstood what he was bringing to the label: they thought they were getting their own version of Vanity 6, not a solo artist backed by three singers.

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According to a passage in Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James, written with the help of music scribe David Ritz, James originally had the idea to form a girl group, prior to Prince’s own protégées, Vanity 6 (led by the late Denise Matthews, aka Vanity) but, at first, he wanted to call his group the Colored Girls:

“It wasn’t enough for me to outsell my idols, like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson. Wasn’t enough to produce and bring the Tempts back to the top of the charts. I needed to outdo Berry Gordy. Berry had the Supremes — well, I’d have the Colored Girls, named after that line in Lou Reed’s great ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’

In forming the Colored Girls, I wanted to reinvent the image of a girl group. I wanted four chicks — a Valley girl, a classy vamp, a leather queen, and a Rick James bitch.

But then I made a foolish mistake: I talked about my concept with Prince’s manager, and the next thing I knew Vanity 6 was out there parading around in their lingerie.

That motivated me even more. I saw it as another chance to outdo Prince.”

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Interviewed by the L.A. Times in ’85, James would add: “JoJo (McDuffie) is the powerful woman image. She wears braids, like me. Candi is the sophisticated vamp; she wants Rolls-Royces and diamond rings. Corvette [who would replace Cheri Wells] is young and wild — likes to boogie and go to new-wave clubs. Maxi is the leather queen, and there’s a hardness about her personality that I find intriguing.”

The thing is: The Prince protégées weren’t especially talented, while the Mary Jane Girls were very capable singers, especially JoJo McDuffie, who told the L.A. Times that she was tired of being compared to Apollonia and Vanity’s groups.

“If you want to compare us to somebody,” she said, “compare us to some real singers, like the Pointer Sisters or the Supremes.”

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James told execs at Motown that McDuffie was actually backed by three other girls, who sang “co-lead” vocals, shifting the emphasis away from her solo career in order to encompass Motown’s wishes, a ruse which led to a recording contract for the group.

James then had to work to create a girl group out of his four girls, making sure that each girl had her own particular “look,” along with a distinct personality to match.

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In Glow, James continues:

“Even though the Colored Girls required my grooming and training, they were great to begin with. Joanne ‘JoJo’ McDuffie sang sexy lead. She was a female version of me. Kimberly ‘Maxi’ Wuletich was a white chick who played the part of a dominatrix. Candice ‘Candi’ Ghant was the classy vamp and Cheri Wells the Valley Girl.

I personally picked out their costumes, gave them their moves, and sent them to famous vocal coach Seth Riggs, who helped build their chops. Mom didn’t like the name Colored Girls. She said to call them the Mary Jane Girls instead, a label that went well with my image. I agreed, and soon four new stars were born.”

Rick James’ mom also helped James put the finishing touches on their costumes, but he would also, in 1985, tell the L.A. Times that the name Mary Jane Girls had nothing to do with marijuana.

“There’s a candy called Mary Janes,” he said. “I named the group after the candy, because the girls are as sweet as candy.”

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While JoJo — in her beaded braids and huge shoulder-padded outfits — was still the group’s main focus, it was soon apparent to James that the other three had such limited vocal talent that JoJo still ended up doing the lead vocals on most of their songs, with Cheri and Candi singing the lead vocals on “Jealousy,” and “You Are My Heaven,” respectively.

That’s JoJo’s voice you hear mostly on their first single, “Candy Man,” which arrived in March 1983, about a month prior to the release of their self-titled debut album.

As you can see from their video for the song, the Mary Jane Girls’ rainbow-colored “Candy Man” is kind of a hymn to oral sex, with its extreme close-ups of luscious lips and agile tongues licking and sucking on sweets of one type or another, including rock candy.

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JoJo McDuffie told the L.A. Times in 1985 that she thought Rick James was sexy, it was part of his persona, and she had realized that it was their job to be his ” female counterparts.”

“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… 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.”

The “Candy man” video was shot in Buffalo, New York, James’ hometown (and JoJo McDuffie’s hometown too).

Mary Jane Girls performing “Candy Man” on “American Bandstand” (airdate: September 1, 1983)

Even though it was a “hit,” “Candy Man” didn’t perform as well as everyone expected, peaking at #101 on Billboard‘s Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles chart, although it did chart at #23 on Billboard‘s Black Singles chart, sticking around for eighteen weeks. It topped out at #60 on the U.K. Singles chart.

The Mary Jane Girls album also charted much lower than expected, peaking at #56 on the Billboard 200, #6 on Billboard‘s R&B album charts, and #51 on the U.K. Albums charts.

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Rick James and the Mary Jane Girls during the 11th Annual American Music Awards at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, on January 16, 1984

A second single from the album — the mid-tempo ballad “All Night Long” — also peaked peaked at #101 on Billboard‘s Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles chart, but like its predecessor, it scored better on Billboard‘s Black Singles chart (#11), staying on the chart for eighteen weeks. It topped out at #13 on the U.K. Singles chart.

Over the years, the track proved to be a quiet storm classic, and the most-sampled piece of music ever recorded by Rick James, by artists like Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, Mary J. Blige, and Redman.

A third single, “Boys,” dropped down a notch, peaking at #102 on Billboard‘s Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles chart, and #29 on Billboard‘s Black Singles chart, staying on the chart for seventeen weeks and charting at #74 in the U.K.

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“Candy Man,” “All Night Long” and “Boys” all did their best chart showing on Billboard‘s Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart, each peaking at #8.

The album’s fourth and last single release, “Jealousy,” peaked at #106 on Billboard‘s Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles chart and #84 on Billboard‘s Black Singles chart, charting for just three weeks.

The relatively poor showing on the charts seemed to signify that the Mary Jane Girls weren’t likely to break into the Top Forty any time soon, and soon there were internal problems with the group, some of whom weren’t too happy with the way they were kept under Rick James’ thumb.

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In 1984, Cheri Wells, in particularly reportedly felt limited by James’ control, and quit the group.

She was later replaced by Yvette “Corvette” Marine, the daughter of disco singer Pattie Brooks, taking over as the Valley Girl.

(Watch an interview with American Bandstand host Dick Clark, with his slender, white microphone, right here).

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In 1985, the group released their second and last album to date, Only Four You, which peaked at #18 on the Billboard 200 and #5 on Billboard‘s R&B Albums chart. Subsequent singles fared much better.

In April of 1985, “In My House” — which caused a lot of controversy due to its lyrical content about sexual promiscuity, and surprisingly ended up on the Parents Music Resource Center’s “Filthy 15″ list due to alleged sexual innuendo — charted at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100, #2 on Billboard‘s Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales chart, and #3 on Billboard‘s Hot Black Singles chart, peaking at #77 on the U.K. Singles chart.

Another single, “Wild And Crazy Love,” peaked at #42 on the Billboard Hot 100, #3 on Billboard‘s Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart, #18 on Billboard‘s Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales chart and #10 on Billboard‘s Hot Black Singles chart, staying on the chart for fourteen weeks.

The last single from the album, “Break it Up,” peaked at #33 on Billboard‘s Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart and #79 on Billboard‘s Hot Black Singles chart, staying on the chart for only two weeks.

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In 1986, the Mary Jane Girls covered Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons hit song “Walk Like a Man,” which was featured on the A Fine Mess movie soundtrack. It peaked at #41 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #91 on Billboard‘s Hot Black Singles chart, staying on the chart for eight weeks.

However, by this time, there were problems between Motown Records and Rick James, who continued to oversee the Mary Jane Girls until his personal drug problems and the issues he had with the label Gordy/Motown, caused him to lose interest in the group.

The Mary Jane Girls were preparing to record their third album, Sweet Conversations, but it was never released — tracks were finally made available for listening on music streaming websites such as YouTube and Spotify in late 2016 — when James walked away from the group, leading to their breakup in 1987.

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In Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James, Rick James claimed that Motown had been trying to “steal” the girls away from him:

“Some of the girls had gone behind my back and told all kinds of untrue stories on me. The press depicted me as some kind of Svengali. Meanwhile, I was the cat who put the group together, gave them their sound, and turned them into stars. Now Motown was looking to snatch them away from my production camp.”

JoJo McDuffie, meanwhile, left to finally pursue her solo singing career.

Night Flight’s Video Gallery: Sex collection also features censored and uncensored videos from Duran Duran (“Girls on Film“), David Bowie (“China Girl”), Miquel Brown (“So Many Men, So Little Time”), Rod Stewart, Vanity 6 (“Drive Me Wild”), Randy Newman, ZZ Top, INXS and Berlin. You can watch it all in the late night privacy of your own boudoir by turning on at Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Tony Best

    Great article. I’m a huge fan of Rick James/Prince protegees and Night Flight.