While she never attained the crossover notoriety her immense talent deserved, over the 10 year period 1979-1989 Stephanie Mills quietly assembled an impressive collection of performances for multiple record labels and established herself as one of the most successful Soul vocalists of that period.
A prodigy, Mills was performing small roles on Broadway even as a child, but received her big break (and made the most of it) in 1975 when, at age 18, she landed the role of Dorothy in the Broadway Soul musical The Wiz. Her small frame belied the huge, powerful voice she carried, and she owned the role for several years (though was unfortunately overlooked in casting for the ill-fated movie version, which was instead given to a much older Diana Ross).
She began her recording career in the mid-70s on ABC Records with an album of Broadway covers, and was then signed by Motown and teamed with legendary pop writers Burt Bacharach and Hal David for a couple albums that attempted to position Mills as a young Dionne Warwick. Her signing by 20th Century Fox in 1978 began the uptick in her popular appeal, as she paired with hot writers/producers Mtume and Lucas for Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin?, a solid album of dance oriented numbers that blended fairly sophisticated arrangements with her lovely, strong voice and scored big on the Soul, Dance and Pop charts. She followed the next year with Sweet Sensation and what would become her signature song, the infectious "Never Knew Love Like This Before." She continued her success in 1980 with a self-titled album that included a great duet with Teddy Pendergrass, "Two Hearts."
In 1983, Stephanie moved to Casablanca Records, where she recorded three albums with various producers and scored moderate hits with the dance-oriented "Pilot Error" and "The Medicine Song," but appeared to be an artist caught between the end of the disco era and the emergence of the burgeoning Urban Adult Contemporary genre. She firmly moved into the latter camp with her signing by MCA in 1985, and she released her career best material over the next half decade, working with talented producers Angela Winbush and Ron Kersey. Her recordings of "I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love," "I Feel Good All Over" and a new version of her classic recording "Home" gave her three number ones and firmly established her as one of the most expressive and talented vocalists of the era.
The 1990s saw Mills releasing a number of disparate albums, including a dance-oriented disc, a Christmas disc and her first Gospel recording, but none of them fared as well as her earlier work. She stopped recording in 1994 for a full decade before self-releasing the critically acclaimed Born for This in 2004. She then took another half decade off before beginning work on her second independent album, Breathless, the release of which has been delayed several times.
By Chris Rizik
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