Hardly a week or so goes by that we don’t get an e-mail from someone on the mailing list asking about Stephanie Mills! The questions range from, ‘Does she have a new record coming out?’ to ‘When will her old albums be reissued?’ Well, fortunately, we can now provide an affirmative answer to that first one! The fate of that question currently rests with UMG and since we have had some conversations about the possibility of those wonderful 20th Century and Casablanca albums coming out as two-on-one CDs in the UK, you never know…
Thanks to our good friend and super writer/producer Gordon Chambers, we were able to catch up with the delightful Ms. Mills, currently in New Jersey working on a brand new album. Stephanie and I have been doing interviews since the 1976 release of her Bacharach-David album for Motown Records. That was, of course, after I had been totally blown away by seeing her play Dorothy in “The Wiz” earlier that year when I was living in New York.
I was fortunate to have befriended producer/songwriters James Mtume and Reggie Lucas in the late ‘70s so I was on hand while the pair crafted some amazing tracks for Stephanie’s 20th Century Records debut, “Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin’?” and I still the palpable excitement in the air when we were sitting at Sigma Sound Studios on Broadway in New York listening to Stephanie’s lead vocals on the title track. We just knew it was a hit record and as it turned out, it was the first of many the powerhouse vocalist would do with the team.
During those non-stop hit years from 1979 to 1981, Stephanie and I would run into each other and do interviews for “Blues & Soul” and we continued those conversations through her almost-seven year stint with MCA Records. I’ve been fortunate to have written liner notes for a few of MCA’s compilations of her work and even updated her bio for her 1995 Gospo-Centric release, “Personal Inspirations.” I saw her performing with Teddy Pendergrass in the gospel musical “Your Arms Too Short To Box With God” in 1996 but since then, our paths hadn’t crossed again until now and it’s like picking up where we left off!
Of course, much has happened since the last ‘official’ interview we did in ’95: Stephanie’s been married and divorced, she’s moved from Los Angeles to Detroit to Charlotte, North Carolina (which she still calls home) and she’s given birth to her first child. While she’s been busy doing a number of gospel-flavored plays, she hasn’t done much in the way of recording…until now! But let her tell you more about that: “I haven’t done anything in the R&B vein for a while,” she says during a phone interview. “I did a duet with BeBe Winans on his Motown album, “Love And Freedom” (in 2000) and I sang on the DMX track “When I’m Nothing” (from his 2001 set “The Great Depression”) since that included parts from “Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin’” but that was about it…”
There was one other non-gospel recording, a strong dance cut entitled “Latin Lover” which Stephanie did for hot New York dance music and remix producers Masters At Work in 1999: “I did that with Louie Vega and I helped write the song after I heard the track. It came out as a 12” single and it did fairly well,” she recalls. As it turns out, the track is now available as part of a great new Masters At Work CD, “Our Time Is Coming” issued by Tommy Boy just a few months ago. Being candid (as she always has when we’ve spoken in the past), Stephanie says that she hasn’t made a new secular album since 1992’ “Something Real” in part “because I wanted to take a long break and also because it was tough dealing with the industry. Once I did decide I wanted to make a new record, we would have these meetings and wait and wait! That’s why my manager Dion Emory and I felt it was time to just get on and make a record and put it out on my own label…”
The decision to go ahead and make a new album was also prompted by constant questions from those who would see Stephanie in one of the plays she’s done in the past few years whichave included “Black Nativity,” “Children of Eden,” “Ragtime” and “His Woman, His Wife.” She says, “So many people would ask me when I would have a new record out and I would just say ‘soon.’ I was surprised because, so many times, people forget about you if you don’t have a new release! But then after the birth of my son Farad last year, I felt revitalized. I felt like singing and performing again…”
While Stephanie won’t comment on the identity of Farad’s father other than to say that she is not married and that her ex-husband is not Farad’s dad, she does say that giving birth “was the best thing I’ve ever done. It was amazingly wonderful and I wish I had started earlier. I might have had two or three before but I had some problems before in being able to have children. But things work out when they’re supposed to…now I’m a single working parent and loving it!” Stephanie adds that Farad “only plays my CDs! He knows it’s me singing because he always heard me when I was pregnant because I worked up until six months before he was born. I guess it’s no surprise that he loves music!” One noticeable by-product of motherhood has been a change in Stephanie’s already-amazing vocal range and stamina. I knew that to be so when one of my best D.C. buddies, Johnny Butler called me after seeing Stephanie perform a few months ago on a show with Ashford & Simpson. While I can’t repeat exactly what he said verbatim (!), Johnny – who’s been studying at Howard University and is no slouch in regard the technical aspects of singing – says he had never heard anyone sing like Stephanie did that night. After appropriately editing his effusive comments but giving Stephanie the basic gist of what he said, she is naturally flattered and explains, “One of the results of having my child has been that it’s definitely made my voice stronger. I can sing higher and hold notes longer…”
The power and energy that have always been trademarks of past performances seem to be even more present in the shows Stephanie has been doing in the past year or so with artists like The O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, The Isley Brothers and at festivals that have included Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Babyface and Smokey Robinson. Stephanie has also appeared at comedian
Sinbad’s now-annual Soul Festival, held in the Caribbean and she says her love of singing “and being onstage” has been truly restored since Farad’s birth. “It’s been wonderful being back onstage and singing songs from all parts of my career. I think I’m more excited now because I don’t take my career so seriously. I’m much more relaxed. I don’t fault things that have or have not happened with my career and I’m having more fun with the music now. I think I’m more creative musically and when I do a lot of the material now, I can relate to it more than ever. The experiences in life make you sing differently…” Mandatory items in her stage show include “Home” (originally from “The Wiz”) and the Angela Winbush-penned opus, “I Have Learned To Respect The Power Of Love,” Stephanie’s 1986 No. 1 R&B smash: “That has truly become the song that I love the most and it gets such an ovation,” she states.
Busy in the studio with Gordon Chambers, BeBe Winans and a New York-based production unit, The Dream Team, Stephanie is excited about her upcoming project: “It’s going to be an updated version of what I do but it’s not going to be hip-hop at all. I’m writing some songs myself, collaborating with the producers and being in control creatively is kinda scary…but real nice! Everything is coming together - we’ll be selling the CD on the Internet and in stores – and we want to have the album finished in time for a release next February….”
Like the thousands and thousands of longtime Stephanie Mills fans, I can’t wait for that new CD. Hearing her 1989 revival of the song “Home” (the title track from one of her gold MCA albums) recently at a break during an L.A. film festival, I’m not ashamed to admit that I found myself moved almost to tears by the sheer emotion in Stephanie’s always-soulful delivery. I’ve been missing that kind of unbridled intensity over the past few years so the news that the ever-talented Ms. Mills is back in stride again is more than welcome. Amen!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.