After her amazing vocal performances on Broadway in “The Wiz”, Stephanie Mills recorded an album of new Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs for Motown in 1975. Though her Motown debut was completely written and produced by this formidable team, the album still struggled to find an audience. It was one of her few attempts at recording a soul/pop album, which is something a lot of performers born from the Broadway stage have classically struggled with through the years. (She had recorded one very obscure album, MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION, that is even more difficult to find than her Motown debut.)
She returned a few years later during the disco era, more mature and ready to launch a more radio- friendly solo career. Thanks to another songwriting and production team, James Mtume and Reggie Lucas, she found success via the clubs in the summer of ’79. Mtume and Lucas were one of the premiere production teams at that time. Songs like the pensive, intoxicating “What ‘Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’’’, “Put Your Body In It” and “You Can Get Over” were spun with the burgeoning “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson. (As a side note, she reportedly dated Michael around this time, before a brief marriage to Shalamar’s Jeffrey Daniels). This helped to make the summer of ’79, one of the best for dance music, and also one of dance music’s final summers, but that’s for another analysis all together.
Stephanie had long proven that she would be no generic, faceless disco diva. Along with the club hits, she made Peabo Bryson’s soulful, “Feel The Fire” her own. It signaled that this young lady had a lot to offer. Now included on one CD, thanks to the vision of SoulMusic.com’s own David Nathan, are songs from her first three albums released on Russ Regan’s 20th Century Records. That would be WHAT ‘CHA GONNA DO WITH MY LOVIN’, the Grammy-winning SWEET SENSATION and her final release for the label, her self-titled STEPHANIE.
All three albums were certified Gold by the RIAA with two of them reaching #3 on the R&B album chart. (She would also chart at least one single from each album on the Billboard R&B Singles chart.) SWEET SENSATION would prove to be her biggest pop crossover success. With the best performing single “Never Knew Love Like This Before” earning her a Grammy, it hit #6 on the pop singles chart and #12 on the R&B singles chart. The title track and a duet, “Two Hearts” with the beloved, belated Teddy Pendergrass, both reached #3 on the R&B singles chart). The stats are reported here simply to demonstrate the diversity Stephanie already achieved in her still very young career. She earned a Gold, Grammy-winning Broadway cast album with “The Wiz”, Top 5 R&B singles and a Gold, Pop Grammy single).
Songs like “You Can Get Over” recall the Euro-pop feel similar to Giorgio Moroder’s classic dance recordings with Donna Summer. Along with “Put Your Body In It”, Stephanie enjoyed Top 10 club hits. Though the clubs drove sales of her 20th Century debut, in contrast, she received significant R&B airplay with “Feel The Fire”. It was never released as a single, though it remains one of the most requested songs in her repertoire. In the days when vinyl albums still ruled the roost, the label wisely resisted the urge to create a dance A-side vs. a R&B/pop B-side, a move artists like Donna Summer experienced with a degree of commercial success. The album smartly captured her pop/soul side underscored by sweet, melodic candidates like “Deeper Inside Your Love” along with her blistering soul performance of the aforementioned Peabo Bryson cover. Once again, thanks to the vision of the album’s compilation co-producer David Nathan, all of the tracks from that debut are represented on this release. That alone gives fans more than would have been expected. Mr. Nathan’s contribution doesn’t end there. He is also responsible for writing the engaging liner notes, an extra incentive to purchase the physical CD for its booklet.
SWEET SENSATION would be the follow-up, giving her a pop/soul breakthrough of sorts. Driven by the title track as the first release, the album ultimately found its core audience in the Grammy-winning, “Never Knew Love Like This Before”. Crafted once again by Mtume/Lucas, the listener is immediately engaged by the sweet chimes at the opening of the track. It possesses a memorable hook that was as welcoming as the first day of spring. “Still Mine”, though not as soulful as “Feel The Fire”, is another soulful ballad entry on that album. There are moments in the arrangement that reminds one of a classic. “I Just Wanna Say”, another Mtume/Lucas composition, complements the pop leanings of “Sweet Sensation”, the album’s biggest breakthrough hit. Once again, a healthy chunk of the songs from that album is available on this compilation.
STEPHANIE would be her final album for the label. Led by her duet “Two Hearts” with Teddy Pendergrass, that single would give her another Top 3 R&B hit. (Stephanie and Teddy toured together around the time of this release. They were both beloved by their urban audiences. Times were quite different then; on the strength of one Top 3 R&B single alone - that never crossed to the pop charts - the album, STEPHANIE went Gold. A year after experiencing this successful single, Teddy would be involved in a debilitating, tragic auto accident).
Her gift as a promising songwriter could be found in “Magic”, co-written with her husband at the time, Jeffrey Daniels. It is one of those romantic ballads that could naturally flow from the pen of young lovers. Those two are probably the best of what that album has to offer. Perhaps it is why, though the album hit the pop Top 30 and went Gold, it only produced one hit single.
As an added bonus, thanks once again to the vision of the compilation’s co-producer, included are the 12- inch versions of some of her biggest club hits “What ‘Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’”, “You Can Get Over”, “Put Your Body In It”, “Sweet Sensation” and “Two Hearts”. In a great sequencing move, those mixes are grouped together at the end of this cool compilation.
Stephanie would go on to experience a great deal more success as an R&B diva on MCA Records. However, this collection of some of her earlier recordings, demonstrates some of the promise yet to come.
About the Writer
K. Bonin has worked in the music industry for the last three decades. He describes himself as "a child of Motown and the classic rock era." Having spent the balance of his career at Arista Records, his experience and passion gives him a unique perspective on music and the music industry.