Stephanie Mills - Tantalizingly Hot (reissue) (2015)

Stephanie Mills
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Stephanie Mills is an artist who could rightly wear the label of child prodigy. The native New Yorker won multiple Apollo Theater amateur night contest, and performed in the casts of two Broadway Musicals, Maggie Flynn (alongside Irene Cara), and her signature role in The Wiz, which brought her fame and an enduring part in our musical and cultural canon. Then Mills signed a record deal before graduating high school and had released three albums (and signed with two labels) – all by the time she was 18.

Stephanie Mills is an artist who could rightly wear the label of child prodigy. The native New Yorker won multiple Apollo Theater amateur night contest, and performed in the casts of two Broadway Musicals, Maggie Flynn (alongside Irene Cara), and her signature role in The Wiz, which brought her fame and an enduring part in our musical and cultural canon. Then Mills signed a record deal before graduating high school and had released three albums (and signed with two labels) – all by the time she was 18.

The rocket-like rise is often one part of a musical prodigy’s story, but many struggle and fail to achieve lasting success. That could have been Mills’ fate if impatient label executives had been unwilling to wait until she linked up with a production team who knew how to make the most out of her unique sound.  Fortunately Mills found her voice and a writing and production team that knew how to help her make the move from singing Broadway show tunes to singing pop and R&B.  That assistance came in the late 1970s and early 80s from James Mtume and Reggie Lucas. The trio released a trio of albums between 1979 and 1981 with What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’, Sweet Sensation, and Stephanie that made major impact on the Pop and R&B charts and earned Mills Grammy recognition.

Tantalizingly Hot, the fourth album and the last produced by Mtume and Lucas, managed to make an impact on the R&B and Pop Charts despite dealing with some headwinds from a business standpoint.  20th Century Fox, the record label for What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’, Sweet Sensation and Stephanie, was sold Polygram. That company released Tantalizingly Hot through its subsidiary Casablanca Records.

Additionally, musical tastes continued to evolve in 1982. Rap music was in the early stages of what would become its eventual emergence as a cultural force, while the analog sound that propelled the success of Mills during band era of 1970s soul and funk was giving way to the digital synthesized sound of the 1980s. With Tantalizingly Hot, Mills and her production team planted their feet firmly in the grittier and lush analog sound of the previous decade. Despite those factors, Tantalizingly Hot managed to reach number 10 on Billboard’s R&B chart and 48 on the top 200 album chart.

Tantalizingly Hot featured the formula that allowed Mills to achieve success with her previous three albums, and Mills’ church and theatrical training allowed her to handle pop, dance, funk and R&B/soul, as well as dance tunes, mid-tempo numbers and ballads.

Mills issues a playful warning to women thinking about competing for the affections of her man on the blues/soul number “Keep Away Girls.” If the show tune number “Home” made Mills theater star, her renditions of lush pop numbers such as “Never Had a Love Like This Before” and her cover of tunes such as “Feel The Fire” made Mills one of the top female R&B and pop singers of the 1980s. Yet, Mills was always great on dance tunes such as “Put Your Body In It,” and she cranked out a club ready cuts in “Last Night” and “You Can’t Run From My Love.” Ballads such as “Still Lovin’ You” and “’Ole Love” showed that Mills’ slow jam game remained on point, and the mid-tempo “Your Love is Always New” could be the album’s best track and a tune that holds up pretty well today.

This reissue of Tantalizingly Hot includes two bonus tracks: the 1960s Motown era styled “Wailin’” and a remix of “You Can’t Run From My Love, but I suggest that Mills fans and those who are new to her work read the Justin Kantor liner notes as they listen. Those notes include detail of Mills’ early career, as well as comments from Lucas. They also reveal that those with whom Mills’ worked continue to be major players in the music industry more than three decades after Tantalizingly Hot was released. In addition to working with Mtume and Lucas, Mills brought in Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson on “Keep Away Girls,” as well as “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel for You,” a song the couple wrote for Syreeta Wright in 1968. Arranger Leon Pendarvis worked on Saturday Night Live while Ray Chew worked as orchestra leader on Dancing With The Stars.

Stephanie Mills carved a niche in our collective consciousness and our hearts as her role as the first Dorothy in the stage version of The Wiz. And she crafted a nice post Wiz career by making music that is a part of the soul music canon of the 70s and 80s. Tunes from Tantalizingly Hot have not been a part of that canon, and this album is a necessary addition for those looking to fuller understanding of a fertile period of Mills’ distinguished career. Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 

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