Reviewed on this page:
For The First Time - Whatcha Gonna Do...With My Lovin'? - Sweet
Sensation - Stephanie - Tantalizingly Hot - Merciless - I've Got The Cure - Stephanie Mills - If I Were Your Woman - Home -
Something Real - Personal Inspirations - Born For This!
Stephanie Mills first reached the limelight playing Dorothy in the
Broadway show The Wiz in 1972 at the ripe old age of 15, and
that's probably still what she's best known for. She had her biggest
chart success during the last days of disco, under the stewardship of
James Mtume and Reggie Lucas, and since then has recorded with a large
number of producers in a variety of styles, with varying success. She
doesn't have the most distinctive or dramatic voice, and almost never
writes her own material, but she has a lot of stylistic range and sounds
comfortable in any setting.
There may be some holes in the discography, since I haven't had
much success tracking down information on Mills. I did find out about a nice fan site. (DBW)
Moving In The Right Direction (1974)
For The First Time (1975)
Produced and written by Burt Bacharach
and Hal David - I believe this was their last album-length
collaboration to date. Overall it sounds very much like their 60s work
with Dionne Warwick - a remake of of "Loneliness Remembers (What
Happiness Forgets)" duplicates the original almost exactly - which is
probably a good thing. When they try to bring things up to date, the
results are an embarrassing disco version of "This Empty Place" (the
only other remake on the album), and a curious pop/blues blend, "I Took
My Strength From You." The compositions are mostly adventurous and
imaginative: Bacharach's delicate melody is a perfect match for David's
meditation on modern life "Living On Plastic"; "No One Remembers My
Name" and "The Way I Feel About You" have the "effortless classic"
quality that's paradigmatic Bacharach; the fade of "Please Let Go" is
absolutely breathtaking. The nature of the material makes comparisons to
Warwick unavoidable, and the truth is that Mills didn't (at this point
in her career) have the sophistication to match her lovely voice.
Because of that, and because the sound is so different from anything
Mills did later on, this album is mostly of interest to Bacharach/David
fans. The same year, Mills appeared on the soundtrack to The Wiz. (DBW)
Whatcha Gonna Do...With My Lovin'? (1979)
Around this time Mills started working with producers James
Mtume and Reggie Lucas, who also wrote the songs and anchored the band. Though they venture into disco ("Don't Stop Dancin'") and slow love songs, the backbone of the record is lush, symphonic R&B a la Ashford & Simpson ("You Can Get Over"), Rufus (title track, verrry close to "Stop On By") or even Aretha Franklin's more meditative moods ("You And I"). So it's not the kind of record that grabs you at first listen, but the more you listen to tracks like "Deeper Inside Your Love," the better they sound.
Players include Basil Fearrington (bass), Howard King (drums), Hubert Eaves (keyboards) and Ed Moore (guitar).
Sweet Sensation (1980)
Mtume and Lucas retreated to a more standard disco or ballad dichotomy. They did come up with her biggest solo hit, though: "Never Knew Love Like This Before," a
bouncy disco number with the bell-like keyboards that Madonna would soon turn into a trademark.
Unfortunately, most of the rest of the disc is turned over to
unremarkable ballads ("Still Mine," "Wish You Were Mine," etc.), and the
other dance track ("D-a-n-c-i-n'") is entirely unoriginal. Mtume and
Lucas wrote five of the eight tracks, with the same band plus Gwen Guthrie on backing vocals. Aside from
the hit, there's nothing really worth seeking out here. (DBW)
Produced and mostly written by Mtume and Lucas, and it's in the same
mode but a bit more tuneful: the ballads in particular are much
improved ("Night Games," with a lovely, uplifting vocal, Mills's own
"Magic"). The uptempo numbers are rather obvious ("Winner") but
enjoyable post-disco pop recalling Patrice
Rushen's playfulness ("Top Of My List").
The midtempo duet with Teddy Pendergrass, "Two Hearts," was a hit, with
a solid melody and an interesting orchestral arrangement. So, the disc
is unoriginal ("I Believe In Love Songs" is uncomfortably close to
"Never Knew Love") and a bit dated, but good fun for fans of the period.
The same basic band as the previous release, though David Spinozza
guests on acoustic guitar and backing vocals come from Tawatha, Brenda
White, Ullanda McCullough and
Luther Vandross. (DBW)
Tantalizingly Hot (1982)
Nothing here was a huge hit, but it's more entertaining than her two
previous records. Mtume and Lucas produced most of the
record, but only wrote two tracks, the killer pop/funk number "Last
Night" and the enjoyable if derivative "You Can't Run From
My Love." Mills produced "Ole Love," and two songs were written and
produced by Ashford and Simpson:
the tuneful, cozy groove "Keep Away Girls," and "I Can't Give Back The
Love I Feel For You," which is the duo's take on disco with a slow
opening. A bigger cast of musicians than usual, with both Mtume/Lucas
and Ashford & Simpson's usual crews, plus guest appearances by such
notables as Al McKay and Bernie Worrell. (DBW)
A new production team, Gary Klein and David Wolfert, and they cover several bases: old-school R&B (a very respectable cover of Prince's "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore"); upbeat electronic dance music ("My Body," by Vandross; the single "Pilot Error"), and ballads ("Do You Love Him?"). The vocals are strong (aside from the corny duet with Peggy Blue, "His Name Is Michael") but the compositions are anything but... The big exception is the dramatic ballad "Eternal Love."
The players are even more heavy-duty than usual: Nathan East, Greg Phillinganes, Buzzy Feiten, Victor Feldman, Ian Underwood, etc.
Love Has Lifted Me (1983)
A Motown compilation including 1975's "This Empty Place" - I suspect but can't confirm this consists of mid-70s tracks from before Mills's rise to fame. (DBW)
I've Got The Cure (1984)
A very conventional, mediocre 80s pop record. Half the record was produced by George Duke, and the other half by Hawk Wolinski, and
each one picks a then-hot style and sticks with it. Wolinski's five tracks are hi-NRG synth-based dance, largely written
and performed by Pat Leonard, and aside from the single "The Medicine Song"
they're not particularly catchy ("Undercover"), and the lyrics are pretty silly (the simple message of "Rough Trade"
repeated endlessly). The good news is Mills really belts them out: "In My Life" features one of her strongest vocals.
Meanwhile, Duke uses a gentler pop/R&B sound that's almost identical to Patrice Rushen's
concurrent Now, with chorused rhythm guitar licks, occasional horns, synth washes and acoustic piano - since many
of the same musicians were used (Paul Jackson Jr, Freddie Washington,
Paulinho Da Costa), you'd almost think they were cut at the same sessions. Duke's four
tracks produce one unqualified success, the lovely ballad "Give It Half A Chance" (by Kenny
Loggins, of all people), and three listenable but forgettable tunes ("Everlasting Love," which wastes the vocal
talents of the Weather Girls). (DBW)
Stephanie Mills (1985)
More or less the same synth-dance/ballad approach as the previous record: generally listenable ("Automatic Passion") but
spectacularly unoriginal and unenlightening. The big exception is the gorgeous, testifying "I've Learned To Respect The
Power Of Love" (by Àngela Winbush, produced by Ron "Have Mercy" Kersey); the frantic
"Stand Back" (produced by Nick Martinelli) was also a single. George Duke produced four songs including Diane
Warren's "Just You," and two ("Time Of Your Life" and "Hold On To Midnight") were produced by Richard Rudolph and arranged by Rod Temperton. Again, the
cast of prominent studio musicians includes Jackson, Williams, Washington and Da Costa.
If I Were Your Woman (1987)
A thoroughly enjoyable collection of hi-tech R&B, put together
by a pack of producers: Kersey (the title track, previously a hit for
Gladys Knight and the Pips); Paul Lawrence
(the single "(You're Puttin') A Rush On Me"), Wayne Braithwaite, La La,
Robert Brookins, Nick Martelli, Davy-D, even Russell Simmons. It all works because of the
solid tunes (the opener "I Feel Good All Over" is the kind of
transcendent glow-producer usually saved for the finale, "Secret Lady"),
and the "less is more" production: electronic drums are front and center
but are used to carry the rhythm, not as a gimmick - which many old time
R&B acts never figured out - and keyboards aren't layered on in
distracting layers, leaving plenty of room for Mills' engaging vocals.
Every track works - even the simplistic "Can't Change My Ways" has
effective hooks. Musicians include "Ready" Freddie
Washington, Yogi Horton, George Duke, and most of the producers.
Apparently an effort to tie together different eras of Mills's career;
too many producers make this rather incoherent, but there's still a lot
of enjoyable music here. The title track is a rerecording of a song
from The Wiz - the modern production (by Nick Martinelli)
and backing vocals by Take 6 don't
interfere with the sentiment, but doesn't add anything either. Àngela Winbush wrote, arranged
and produced two tracks, the lush midtempo groove "Something In The
Way (You Make Me Feel)" - easily the record's best song - and the
routine ballad "So Good, So Right," (not the Brenda Russell tune). The emphasis
throughout is mostly on high-tech dance music with good hooks,
including Gerald Levert's "Good Girl Gone Bad," and Timmy Gatling's
"Ain't No Cookin'." Future star producer Terry Riley pays some dues,
playing "all instruments" (i.e. keyboards and drum programming) for
producer Gene Griffin on "Real Love" and "Fast Talk." Two songs Mills
wrote with Donald Lawrence ("Love Hasn't Been Easy" and "I'm More Than A
Woman") are bonus tracks - both are reasonable though unsurprising
Not the usual toss-off Christmas record: producers include Narada Michael Walden, Steve Barri & Tony Peloso, and BeBe
Something Real (1992)
Even more producers than Home, including David "Jam" Hall, Barri & Peloso,
Mills herself, and many more. This time, though, she succeeds in
creating a consistent mood, and the electronics never run
the show. Mostly midtempo Quiet Storm R&B, not quite dance
music or ballads, and what makes it work is attention to detail: the
melodies are catchy ("Stone Cold Woman"), the instrumentation changes
from track to track (acoustic guitar on the gentle "I Found A New
Love," Gerald Albright blowing sax on "All Day, All Night"). As always,
Mills sounds at home though she doesn't sing anything that knocks you
off your chair. The singles were "All Day, All Night" and "Never Do You
Wrong" (with a brief quote from "Never Knew Love"), but several other
tracks are just as enjoyable: "24-Hour Woman," "I Just Want Love."
The lyrics aren't much, but the tunes are substantial: the kind of
record you like more the more you listen to it. (DBW)
Personal Inspirations (1994)
A gospel album recorded with a traditional, almost live feel, and choral backing from the Tri-City Singers Company. Selections come from big names like James Cleveland, Marvin Winans, and so on...
about as secular as it gets is the version of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," and a remake of her earlier "Power of Love" retitled "Power Of God."
I've confessed elsewhere that gospel music doesn't move me that much, but I find this less engaging than most: Mills doesn't have the huge voice or dramatic presentation that gospel leaves so much room for, so when she pushes too hard she sounds shrill ("I Had A Talk With God") and when she reaches for more subtle interpretation it just sounds passive ("I'm Gonna Make You Proud"). And the occasionally repetitive, obvious arrangements don't help (the endless coda of "Everybody Ought To Know"). The best track is the mellowest: the smoothly propulsive "In The Morning Time."
Produced by Donald Lawrence, with either Kevin Bond, Stanley Brown, or Mills.
Born For This! (2004)
Mills was more involved behind the scenes this time, co-writing four songs ("Baby Love") and exec producing (with Ed Woods). There's also a remake of "Something In The Way (You Make Me Feel)," and the title track is by BeBe Winans.
Everything benefits from a light touch in the arrangments: it's contemporary R&B with programmed drums, synth and rhythm guitar, but it never sounds overbearing or generic, instead creating an enveloping, insular mood that complements Mills' vocal sophistication. The opening "Can't Let Him Go" sets the tone: a gentle tempo and soothing keyboard line, anchoring a vocal performance that soars without histrionics. The melodies too are pleasantly subdued ("Never Knew Love"), but unfailingly solid (the righteous breakup tune "Free" with subtle ostinato strings and a great guitar hook). The only problem is, some songs push the aesthetic so far they're barely there at all ("For U").