Black Music Month Interview Series: UB Speaks to The Legendary Stephanie Mills
Grammy award winning Stephanie Mills, is “the little girl with the big voice” who wowed Broadway audiences in “The Wiz” and in the ‘80s scored a string of R&B hits and joined the short list of R&B divas.
Ms. Mills began her career singing in church but she was soon singing R&B on other stages–winning the legendary talent show at the Apollo Theater six weeks in a row at age 11. She then toured with the Isley Brothers and debuted on her own album in 1973. She became nationally-known, however, when she won the role of Dorothy in the stage production of “The Wiz” in 1975. A highlight of each performance was her moving rendition of the beautiful ballad “Home,” which quickly became her signature song.
In 1980 her Sweet Sensation album yielded the Top 10 R&B single “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” which also became her biggest pop hit, peaking at #6. But in 1983 her scintillating performances in a revival of “The Wiz” led to her greatest recording triumphs as she then was wooed to MCA Records.
The first single from 1985’s Stephanie Mills was “Stand Back,” the second was the passionate ballad “(I Have Learned To Respect) The Power Of Love,” which hit #1 R&B. Its follow-up, the George Duke-produced “Rising Desire,” reached #11 R&B the next summer. Her next album’s title cut was “If I Were Your Woman” and the album peaked at #1 in 1987 boosted by her second #1 R&B hit, “I Feel Good All Over,” and third, “(You’re Puttin’) A Rush On Me.” The subsequent single, “Secret Lady,” landed at #7 R&B. In summer 1989, she again topped the R&B chart, this time with “Something In The Way (You Make Me Feel)” from the Top 5 Home album, which also included “Comfort Of A Man.”
Mills had indeed come home. She had earlier dropped “Home” from her concerts in an attempt to establish a more mature image. But following the deaths of Ken Harper and Charlie Smalls, the producer and the composer-lyricist of “The Wiz,” she reconsidered. As a tribute, she recorded a heartfelt new rendition with background vocals by the group Take 6. “Home” became yet another R&B #1, her last such single to date.
After leaving MCA in the ‘90s, Mills has continued to record and perform, including returning to her roots of her spectacular success with a gospel album release in 1995.
This musical theatre icon, and Grammy Award winning song stylist, took a bow to embrace motherhood and found a way to reconnect back to again share her incredible vocal talent. With full artistic control, and not having to concern herself with keeping up with trends, currently recording her new album Breathless on her own record label, CJ Entertainment. Currently finishing the album up for a late 2012 release between taking care of her 11-year-old son, Farad.
Recently Ms. Stephanie Mills took time out to speak to Aries from UrbanBridgez.com in support of our Black Music Month Interview Series. Stephanie speaks about her incredible musical legacy, finishing up her new album “Breathless,” being able to maintain in a forever changing industry, why she doesn’t like TV One‘s “Unsung,” her biggest obstacles she’s faced and more including what fans can expect at this years Essence Music Festival next month, who she wants to record an album with, her feelings on loosing Michael Jackson & Whitney Houston and so much more!
UrbanBridgez.com: You’re currently working on a brand new album entitled Breathless, tell us what we can expect?
Stephanie Mills: Yeah, I’m working on a new album right now. We’ve been working on it for a very long time and I’m still writing for it. It is going to be called Breathless but it’s not finished yet. I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised, but it’s going to be my signature sound. Just an updated version of it, I don’t like to put labels on music like R&B or pop. So I just think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised and very happy with what I’m doing, because I’m not steering away from what they’re use to hearing me sound like.
UrbanBridgez.com: Do you have any projected date the first single will be out?
Stephanie Mills: I don’t want to say, then people will start pressuring me. You said it would be out in such and such, so I’m not gonna say (laughs). I don’t know so I can’t say yet.
UrbanBridgez.com: How does Stephanie Mills prepare when she gets ready to start a new project?
Stephanie Mills: I start thinking about things in my life, my friends lives, my girlfriends and guy friends. I listen to their stories and just really things I want to write about that’s inside of me. With this album I really wrote alot of things from inside of me that I just really wanted to get out. I think it’s very therapeutic to write. I’ve gown in my confidence in my writing. I wrote about alot of different relationships, my mom and dad and family things, just everyday things. You can be in the mall and hear someone say something and it will come with like the title, you’ll hear a great title and then just start to think about that and live that kind of title. That’s how I start.
UrbanBridgez.com: One thing about your albums is they’re always very few guest appearances, has that been on purpose or do you just record & whatever happens, happens?
Stephanie Mills: I just record and whatever happens, happens. The thing about guest appearances is sometimes it’s hard to get people that you may want to get. Sometimes I don’t even think about having a guest, I get in such a zone of what I want to talk about and for the album to be me. But I would like to do an album with like Chaka (Khan), Anita (Baker) and Patti (LaBelle). I would love for all four of us to do an album together.
UrbanBridgez.com: That would be incredible!
Stephanie Mills: Oh yes, that’s why it’s a dream of mine. I would like to tour with those ladies as well, I think we would have so much fun.
UrbanBridgez.com: Alot of people don’t realize you’re a Brooklyn girl!
Stephanie Mills: Yes! Born and raised in Brooklyn, absolutely!
UrbanBridgez.com: How do you think growing up in Brooklyn helped prepare you for a career in entertainment?
Stephanie Mills: You know what, growing up in Brooklyn wasn’t tough like I assume it is now. With people fighting with guns and everything. Just being a Brooklyn girl and having all of my sisters and brothers, it taught me to be strong and secure in my thinking and what I wanted to do. I think being in the business young taught me that too because I’ve been in the business since I was 9 years old. So I think me doing that and going away from the business and then coming back, not staying in it consistently. I would go away and then come back, I think that was healthy for me.
UrbanBridgez.com: You’ve had such an amazing career, how have you managed to maintain your desire to continue on in a forever changing industry?
Stephanie Mills: Oh yeah, it hasn’t always been easy. There were times that I didn’t want to be in the industry because it’s so tough, it’s brutal! I really see how people fall prey to drugs and things like that. I was never into drinking or hanging out, but I do understand how some of our artists can fall prey to that. I think my strong family foundation, I have a really strong family support. That has kept me going and on a good path and to not totally loose my mind in this business. Because you know you can (laughs). It’s so crazy in this business but my family support and belief and with them it’s not about the industry it’s about me being healthy and doing what I love to do. That’s what it’s always been about.
UrbanBridgez.com: Your catalog of music is just simply amazing, I’ve always wanted to know what are some of your most memorable songs and favs that you’ve recorded?
Stephanie Mills: Oh my god, I would have to say Starlight is one of my favorites. The other day I was just listening to Lost in The Night Games and I was like wow that is really a good song (laughs). You know when you listen to it now, it’s like wow that was really some good music. I absolutely love Give It Half A Chance and I put that in the show and I also put Starlight in it and Power of Love. There’s alot of songs, because Angela (Winbush) and I are such great friends, there are alot of songs that when I listen to now; because when I’m getting ready to tour I go back and listen to my songs and sing them. So that I am close to the way people have heard them on record. Those songs are the ones that I really love!
UrbanBridgez.com: Home will always be your song, like the one people instantly think of Stephanie Mills no matter who’s singing it. With so many of your industry friends who have passed in recent years and months, do you dedicate it to them when you perform it live now?
Stephanie Mills: I absolutely do! Matter of fact the last ending of the song has changed and it’s a devotion to them. Michael’s (Jackson) death was really hard for me and Whitney’s (Houston) was extremely hard. I still can’t believe that they’re gone and they were just so young. I mean 48 and just 50, but that’s what this industry can do to you if you allow it. I’m just thankful that I’ve been strong enough to withstand all of it. Some people are not as strong, but I’m happy that I was but it hasn’t always been easy.
UrbanBridgez.com: You recently made headlines by stating that you will never do TV One’s Unsung…
Stephanie Mills: Oh never..never…never, I don’t like it. I don’t feel like I’m Unsung, I don’t like the title and I’ve watched it. I’m such a private person, I’m 55 years old. I don’t think now I would allow my life to be exposed like that. You know we’re living in a time, when I came through it was about privacy. Entertainers only talked about their music careers and all of that. You wasn’t followed around and there wasn’t all these reality shows. Now everything is just…anything goes! I just don’t like that.
UrbanBridgez.com: I love the way you explained that, because now it makes perfect sense. I mean when I was younger we had no connection to the artists, outside of putting a stamp on an envelop and sending off a fan letter.
Stephanie Mills: Yeah it was private and honestly I don’t think the audience really even wants to know all of that drama. I really think they want to know your music and think that your life is not like that. I think it’s a little too much information these days.
UrbanBridgez.com: What’s your thoughts on the current state of R&B, from radio to some of the newer artists?
Stephanie Mills: You know I think they’ve made less R&B, don’t you? Do you think they’ve made Rap music R&B?
Stephanie Mills: What true R&B artists is really out there? Really, I mean there are very few like Ledisi…
UrbanBridgez.com: Leela James, SWV….
Stephanie Mills: Yeah and who else? Because like Mary J. Blige is mainstream, Beyonce’ is mainstream, Rihanna is mainstream. Chris Brown is and all the other black artists who are really, really at superstar status are mainstream artists. So for R&B I really don’t know, I think that Rap is R&B today. If that makes any sense and I love Lil Wayne, I love Jay-Z, I love listening to them. I love some of the rap, I can’t listen to it all day, but I love listening to some of them. I think that’s the new R&B. I mean you have Keyshia Cole and Monica and Brandy. I’m very happy they came back out and they’re doing R&B. But Brandy is kind of mainstream also, but I like their new song. I don’t know, there really isn’t any R&B to really speak of. You know with Gerald LeVert gone, there is no one really holding up that male R&B like Teddy (Pendergrass) did, you know what I mean? Even though Teddy was mainstream too but he was such a strong R&B male. Gerald was doing that and he’s gone, so there isn’t anybody really doing that now.
UrbanBridgez.com: You stated in a recent interview you thought you was going to be the Mrs. Jackson…
Stephanie Mills: Oh yes, you couldn’t of told me I wasn’t going to be married to Michael Jackson (laughs)! I was so in love with him at the time and that was early on. We were babies, he was 18-19, 20-21 at the most. We dated for awhile and that was at the beginning of his career. Of course girls are more mature than boys so it was like yeah I’m going to be Mrs. Michael Jackson. But it didn’t happen, but I still loved him towards the end. We didn’t have much contact in the end and when he became huge, we didn’t. I still loved him, I just think that he was very misunderstood and I think the pain of what he went though as far as all of the accusations that were on him just broke his heart. I really do believe that.
UrbanBridgez.com: Yeah, it’s such a sad story. What’s been one of your biggest obstacles you’ve had to face in this industry that has helped shaped you into the artist you are now today?
Stephanie Mills: I’ve always been one of those types of artists that didn’t want to follow the pack. I was not one where they could easily say Stephanie do this or do that. I’ve always kind of danced to my own tone. I actually asked to get out of the business. I was being managed by Left Bank Management at the time in the early 90′s and I was tired. I’d had a record contract my entire life and I just wanted to do some normal things. I just wanted to live a normal life and I got out of my contract with MCA. Now I have my own company but I haven’t been with a record company since then. My obstacles have always been that I didn’t want to follow and do what everybody else was doing. I just wanted to do my own thing, just sing and do my shows and do it when I wanted to do it. In the business what happens to artists is you’re only looked at as a product! Sometimes that’s too painful to bare for alot of artists. I think for Whitney is was too painful for her to bare she was really a product and for Michael. That’s something that you really, really have to adjust to and kind of get it under your skin. You do realize it when you’re at that level. When I was at that level when Never Knew Love was winning the Grammys and stuff, you’re really a product and it’s too much to bare!
UrbanBridgez.com: Crazy Industry!
Stephanie Mills: Yes it is, but I love it, I love it! I love it because I’m doing it sort of on my own terms and move it like I want to move it. I’m able to be a mom and be at home and have quiet time. Then I’m able to come out and sing and enjoy myself. I truly love singing and entertaining! But I don’t like the grind of the entertainment business. I don’t like the games of the industry and the business…I don’t like the business of the business in the entertainment industry. The singing and the fans is absolutely wonderful!
UrbanBridgez.com: What’s the best part about being a mom?
Stephanie Mills: Oh my god! The best part is that you’re nurturing this little person and the person is like a canvas, my son is like a canvas. When he came into this world, it was just blank. Now to put my love and my knowledge and my protection and everything that I know on him and let him learn on his own. My son is an A student and he plays the piano and to see him develop into his own person at 11 years old is just magnificent to watch. It’s just incredible, I’m sure your mother would tell you that there is no love greater than the love of a mother or father. My mother use to tell me that and I never understood it and until you become a father you won’t truly understand it. I really didn’t understand it until I became a mother. The love is just…I would let a train hit me for my son. There are just things a mother would do that no one else would do for a child.
UrbanBridgez.com: You’re performing at the Essence Music Festival next month, give the fans a little tease on what we’re going to see once you hit the stage?
Stephanie Mills: Yeah, I’m excited! I’m going to sing all of my hits, I’m going to look cute and sing all of my hits (laughs)! I’m doing two nights, last year I did two shows in one night. I can’t do no two shows in one night this year and the reason why I can’t is because I like to give my all. If I’m doing two shows in one night, I have to monitor myself and not give my all. This time I told them, I would come back, but I need to do two nights. So I can give my audience everything in one night and the next night do the same.
UrbanBridgez.com: Do you have any desire or plans to do anymore Broadway?
Stephanie Mills: I would love to! I would love to do a show that I wrote. I’ve been directing some plays recently and I would love to do a show that I wrote and direct it. I absolutely love theater. It’s taught me every good thing that I know about the stage I learned from doing theater.
UrbanBridgez.com: Is There anything else you would like to leave with your fans?
Stephanie Mills: I love them! Please let them know how much I appreciate and love them. I see all of the tweets on Twitter and Facebook messages, I see them all! I want them to know that I so appreciate it!