Some musical voices are distinctively recognizable. Their voices majestically pull you into a timeless trance that melodically leaves your soul captivated and emotionally hypnotized. Good music will put a tingle in your spine; great music will cause a euphonious eruption of emotions and feelings, that on the first lyrical note, has you hooked and wanting more.
Stephanie Mills is a musical ambassador that carries the torch of melodious musical legacy. She is a legend in her own right. Her petite frame releases a boisterous sound that is undeniable and unforgettable. She rose to stardom as Dorothy in the Broadway musical The Wiz. Stephanie Mills’ success continued as “Home”, “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love “, “I Feel Good All Over”, “You Putting A Rush On Me”, and “Something in the Way You Make Me Feel” earned her five Number 1 R&B hits. Her song “Never Knew Love Like This Before” won her a Grammy Award for Best R&B vocal performance. Her albums have reached gold and platinum status for her iconic career in R&B, pop and gospel.
Recently, the singer spoke with Southern Laced about her tour with El DeBarge and Stokley, turning 60, her lasting career and how the industry has transitioned.
Q: You had an opportunity to win amateur night for six consecutive years as a young girl. Today, we have shows like The Voice and American Idol. A lot of young kids are literally becoming stars overnight. What do you remember about the times when you were on that stage six weeks at a time? What did that really do for your voice especially for your performance?
SM: I was a young girl. But, yes, I won six weeks in a row at the Apollo Theatre when I was like 10 or 9. Then, I got a professional booking deal with The Isley Brothers.
I remember in the six weeks, I got a chance to watch Roberta Flack, Steve Curtis, and James Brown. Can you imagine me being a young girl and meeting someone like James Brown and Roberta and The Isley Brothers? It was an experience that I’ll never forget. And the really wonderful thing about it is that later on in my career, I went there and sold out seven nights out in a row. So, it really brings it back around. Recently, I heard Bruno Mars did a show there and I just think that’s great because Apollo has so much history and it’s just like the crown jewel of Harlem.
Q: In the early days of your career, tell us about how black media, in turns of radio and publications, interacted with you?
SM: Back in the day, you know Right On Magazine, Cynthia Horner, and Jet Magazine were a big part of R&B and Pop music. And back in the day, we went to the radio station and we met with the Program Directors and the general managers and they played our songs while we there. You know, the PD’s (Program Directors) really had the power to play the record and put them on.
Nowadays, the Program Directors don’t really have the power to do that. It’s the general managers who own the station. It’s just so different. One, with social media and everything… We didn’t have that. But back in the day were more Mom and Pop stores that sold our records and were more hands-on with the artist.
Q: Going back to when you went into the studio and put your very first project together… Tell us about the first time you heard yourself on the radio. Take us into your reaction.
SM: When Mtume and Lucas (James Mtume and Reggie Lucas) did my first album with RCA (meaning RCA Records), I heard “What Cha’ Gonna Do with My Lovin‘” on the radio in Los Angeles while my sister and I were driving. We just screamed and stopped. It was amazing! But even today, I still get butterflies and such a joy when I hear myself on the radio. It’s like hearing it for the first time.
Q: Now, you’ve visited Atlanta. Currently, you’re getting ready to come back again with Stockley and El DeBarge. Let’s talk about your first time coming to the city and sentiments you get every time you come to Atlanta?
SM: I love Atlanta. I’ve been coming to Atlanta since I was a young girl. There used to be a hotel called the Fairmont Hotel and I would come and sing in the lounge and perform. That was when Mallard was your Mayor. That’s how long… That’s how way back that goes.
I’m excited about coming to Atlanta because Atlanta has always been good to me. We’ve done plays there, The Wiz. I’ve done other shows that come through that town and perform. The people always come out and show me so much love.
I happen to be coming out there with El DeBarge. I love El DeBarge and Stokley. Stokley and I just did a show together recently. So I’m happy about that.
Q: Take us back to when you were performing on Broadway in The Wiz musical, what was it like being on Broadway versus performing your own music?
SM: You know I like them both. They are totally two different things. Performing on Broadway with 33 other cast members, you have to be very exact, very prompt and say your lines. That’s discipline. That’s where I learned my discipline.
For my first Broadway show, I was nine years old. So I come from theatre. But doing my own show, I can change up my songs anytime I get ready. So I can switch the whole order around. It’s a difference, but I enjoy them both. I really do enjoy them.
Q: So this is also a milestone year for you. You turned 60 this year.
SM: I turned 60 this year. YAY! Yes, and I’m loving my sixties. My birthday is actually on March the 22nd, but I’m celebrating my sixtieth birthday all year. I’m having a great time.
Q: Because you are so beautiful and having a stellar career at the age of 60, we see so many different artists trying to break or trying to get the type of longevity that you have achieved in your career. What is your secret to having that long-lasting career, the beautiful songs, the hit records, and just to maintain that love for your audience and your fans who have followed you over the years?
SM: It’s not easy and I don’t have a secret. I think I just stay…. The most important thing I did was I just stayed true to who I was. I didn’t try to follow any trends that came along; that came and went. I just stayed true to who I was and did what I liked to do and what felt real and good to me.
Q: In the past, we’ve seen Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis help Janet and bring her best sound forward. We’ve also witnessed a lot of producers and artist synergy of the years. Let’s talk about your synergy with Mtume and Lucas.
SM: They were definitely my producers. I think they brought the best out of me. I would love for Mtume and Lucas to get together. Let’s do an album today! I would love that. In fact, I talked with them about it.
They were definitely my Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Absolutely. Positively. When I moved on and worked with Angela Winbush, I felt like she captured another essence of me. Angel and I are really, really good friends.
Q: Give us an overview of the music industry; the seventies, the disco era, and the rap era when people were creating beats.
SM: I think everything that is old is new and everything new is old. I think you know they’ve created a lot of beats. They have also used a lot of beats. “Putting a Rush on Me“… They have used one of my songs in their songs.
I enjoy some of the music, but I don’t believe they are making music that will last the test of time like Steve Wonder’s music… Aretha, Patti LaBelle, Chaka, and Dione. I think some music you are not going to remember, but that’s how we living now. That’s what the 20th century is. So I enjoy it for what it is.
I enjoy rap music. I think Common and people like him will make the music we will listen to. I definitely feel like we will listen to “Glory“ in years to come and the message that some of our rappers are saying.
Q: What is your definition of Grown Folks Music?
SM: Oh my God. My definition of Grown Folks Music is Johnny Taylor, Sam Cook, Aretha Franklin, myself of course. Dione and Gladys and Teddy Pendergrass… Just good ole R&B music. Good ole soul music. I really don’t like the categories that they put music in because I feel like they categorize to keep us separate in a way. But music is music.
I think good ole R&B music is Grown Folks music. Live bands. Everything live.
Q: We were talking about the timeless music and you have so many years of recording. Could you explain the transition of the recording process from analog to digital, as well as, live stage versus the instrument?
SM: Back in the day, it was analog and now it’s digital. It doesn’t really affect me when I go in the studio because I’m going to perform my songs like I did anyway. I love going in the studio, but I don’t like to spend a lot of time in the studio. That’s why I do my homework and I learn my songs so I can maybe spend an hour or two doing the song. You get the essence of the song in the first one or two takes of a song. After that, I think you just beating a dead horse.
And then live… I love performing live. I really don’t like to do tracks. You know, sometimes I’ll do a track if it’s like for a charity event or something like that. But for the most part, I only perform with my band. I think it’s organic and you can’t sing the song the same. I never sing the song the same way.
Q: What is your favorite song to perform?
SM: Oh my goodness. That’s hard. My favorite song to perform, right now, is probably “Power of Love”.
Q: Your music has recently found new light again. You were on a song with Fat Joe and Remy Ma. Talk a little about that collaboration.
SM: Oh my goodness. Fat Joe’s wife and I have the same hairdresser. So, she came to do my hair and she said Fat Joe really loves you. He really, really loves you and he has a song he wants you to do. So I was like, “Oh okay.” I called him up and we talked about it. Then, I just went into the studio and did the hookup. And that’s how that came about.
I love Fat Joe and I love Remy Ma.
Q: What new artist would we be surprised to know that you admire?
SM: I like Big Sean. Of course, I love Jay-Z. I love Kendrick Lamar. I love Ledisi… Lalah Hathaway. I love Jazmine Sullivan. I listen to a lot of different types of music, but I like the rap too. I love 2-Pac. I think they would be surprised about 2-Pac. I always said I could have been 2-Pac’s girlfriend back in the day.
Q: You recently shared with your fans that you were in the studio working with the producer Darryl Simmons. Tell us about “Thinking Out Loud” Unplugged.
SM: You know, “Thinking Out Loud” I like. I enjoyed the song and I wanted to do it within myself. Then, Darryl heard it and he asked, “Why don’t we record it and do it like an unplugged?” We were in the studio and we were actually recording another song. Before I left, he was like, “Let’s put this down.” That’s how that happened. That’s how that went about.
Q: Because of social media and the internet, exposure and everything that you are doing now is at the stroke of a finger. We were talking earlier about Jet Magazine and how they were very supportive. How well has your response been?
I really don’t like social media for personal things, but I love it for pictures and showing things that you’re doing. You just go with the times. I enjoy it.
I’ve been a very private person. So sometimes I find it a little invasive, but for the most part, I enjoy it. I enjoy watching other people put their stuff on Instagram. I’ll read it, you know.
Q: You’ve won Grammys, you’ve been on Broadway, and you’ve gone gold and platinum several times. You’ve performed with some of musical icons throughout the course of your career. What accomplishments are you most proud of and why?
SM: I’m most proud of still being here standing and being able to do what I do and still enjoy it. I’m proud… You know accolades and all of that come and go, but to still have a career… This is the only thing that I have ever done and I’m still able to do it.
People, like yourself, want to talk to me and find me interesting. I’m proud of that. I’m proud I’ve been able to stand and keep standing because a lot of my friends I’ve come through with are not here. So it makes me really sad, but I feel like I’m standing for them.
Q: You know I have to ask about the tribute of you and Michael Jackson, in which you shared on social media. It was very touching. How serious was your relationship?
SM: Laughs. I guess it was a relationship. Yes, we loved each other. We had a lot of respect for each other.
Q: I love it!
Q: You have really been a big part of our lives. From clean up music to the bar-be-ques and the house parties… So this is definitely gratifying to interview someone who has made our lives beautiful over the years. Thank you.
SW: Oh, thank you. That’s just a nice way to put it. No one has ever said it like that. Thank you so much. And I do appreciate my fans. I do appreciate being able to come to Atlanta and perform and have people like El DeBarge and Stokley be on the show with me. I don’t take any of those things for granted. I never have.