May 1976, In person interview conducted by David Nathan backstage at The Majestic Theatre on Broadway in New York City
Stephanie Mills had been giving SRO performances in her role as ‘Dorothy’ in ‘The Wiz’ on Broadway. After one album with ABC, she had signed with Motown and was ready to make her entrance as a hitmaker… This young lady has gusto, tenderness, sweetness, and Soul, all the qualities to make her more that just another singer – a star! David Nathan goes talent spotting . . .
Continually amazing her audiences nightly is a young lady who has all the earmarks of a superstar. Sure, you’ve heard it all before only this time, our prediction is based on solid foundations. And everyone who catches the soulful Ms. Stephanie Mills in action in the Broadway production, “The Wiz” will testify that the lady’s talent is going to make her one of the top black performers of the future.
Certainly the single most endearing aspect of Stephanie’s abilities is the power, range and depth of her remarkable voice. This petite young lady sings: with gusto, tenderness, sweetness and soul. In other works, all the qualities that makes a singer more than just a singer a star.
“This is my second Broadway show – my third show in all,” Stephanie explains just a couple of hours before assuming the role of Dorothy in front of a packed house on Broadway’s Majestic Theatre.
“When I was nine, I played in ‘Maggie Flynn’ – that was in 1968. I’ll never forget, that was one time I actually fell asleep onstage! We had a jail scene where we were supposed to pretend to be asleep and with going to school, rehearsing and actually working on stage, I guess I just got very tired and fell out!” the lady relates with a smile.
“But I really enjoy what I do, so I never really get nervous. Maybe the first night we did the ‘Wiz’ on Broadway, I was . . . but after the first song, it was all fine”. Stephanie has, in fact, been with the show for two years now “and I’ve missed about eight or nine shows in all. Naturally, I was more than glad when I got the part and it’s been more than good for me. But I guess now I’m beginning to get a little tried. After all, you eventually run out of things to find in the songs you sing every night and it can become exhausting. So I imagine I’ll continue to be with ‘The Wiz’ for some six months or so and then, depending on circumstances, start into doing some other things”.
New York born, Stephanie has been singing since the very tender age of three. “I guess I was singing before I was talking! I used to listen to the radio and went to church with my brothers and sisters and I guess my family just considered it to be cute until I got a little older and they realized that I really was into it”. In fact, at the age of nine, Stephanie was singing in talent shows in New York and landed her first part in ‘Maggie Flynn’. All the time, we may add, she attended school and in fact, she still does!
“I go to a private school in Brooklyn, but the kids treat me regularly. Yes, it is tough having to study all day and then come here and work every night. But I’m graduating within the next few weeks – although that won’t mean I stop studying. I’m very much into reading – I think it’s important to know what’s going on around me”.
Last year, Stephanie signed with Motown Records and recorded her first album for the company – which was in fact her second album to date. “I recorded one album when I was with Paramount – that was when I was around fourteen. But I was only with the company for some five or six months. The company was bought up by A.B.C. and they issued the album - it was called “Movin’ In the Right Direction”. But at the time, they were too busy working on other acts like Chaka Khan and Rufus – so my album just got lost. In fact, the company didn’t even know I was supposed to be with them until I joined ‘The ‘Wiz’ because they took us to court as I had to do the soundtrack for the show. They lost – because they’d done nothing whatsoever with me or the album”.
Stephanie explains that her signing with Motown came about through Hazel Gordy, Berry’s daughter and the wife of Jermaine Jackson. “Hazel and Jermaine had come to see the show and wanted Suzanne de Passe from Motown to meet me. We all met up at a party for the Jackson Five here in New York and it’s always been one of my dreams to be with Motown – Diana Ross in truly my idol! At around about the same time, Burt Bacharach had seen the show and expressed an interest in working with me, so when I went out to Los Angeles to meet with Berry Gordy, and he asked who I’d like as producers. I went for Bacharach and Hal David”.
The album was recorded at New York’s A&R Studios in the middle of last year and entitled “For The First Time”. Stephanie has mixed feelings about it. “I really enjoyed working with them, and I was naturally very excited with it at the time. But I realize now that it was too sophisticated as a debut, even down to the album sleeve. Yes, it was definitely into the Dionne Warwick/Bacharach sound and although I learnt a great deal from doing it, it may have been a mistake as a first effort. It’s the kind of album that people will hopefully go back to.”
Already, there are plans for Stephanie’s next album, “we should be working on it around June and Norman Harris may be doing some of it with me – it hasn’t been set yet. But one thing’s for sure: it’s gonna be more full of life – a lot younger and bouncier because that’s what I’m all about.” Stephanie smiles at comparisons with Aretha Franklin – both singers being direct products of the church – and is naturally flattered by it but says that Diana Ross remains her greatest inspiration. “Diana just has so much class – she’s all round entertainers and that’s what I want to be. The next thing I’d like in my career is a television show – a variety show which would allow me to have all my friends on it”.
Her friends are numerous – and Stephanie has an autograph collection to support that. She is, in fact, an avid collector and whenever anyone comes by to see her in action, she makes sure she gets their moniker before they leave. “They’re usually surprised that I want it after they’ve just finished seeing me perform! But I cherish my book, it’s one of the things that sometimes make me wonder if it’s all real – all the beautiful things that are happening for me now. It’s almost like living your own dream – it’s a really strange sensation”.
With the prospect of some concerts ahead, a new album and several television appearances it would seem that Stephanie Mills has many more dreams to come true.
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.