Stephanie Mills’ very first LP was titled Movin’ in the Right Direction. And although the 1975 LP on the ABC-Paramount label didn’t launch her career as a recording artist with a bang, its title was certainly apt. A few years later, the label would be 20th Century Fox instead of Paramount, and Mills would skyrocket to superstardom in the disco era. Her hitmaking records for 20th Century Fox Records are being compiled by Hip-o Select for the August 23 release of Feel the Fire: The 20th Century Collection. This 2-CD anthology brings together Mills’ three albums for the label recorded between 1979 and 1981, and adds a brace of singles and 12-inch mixes for a definitive overview of her time there.
Mills was only 18 in 1975, but her showbiz career had begun many years earlier. At the age of 11, she won Amateur Night at New York’s Apollo Theatre a record six times, and shortly thereafter she was cast as one of the children in the 1968 Broadway musical Maggie Flynn starring Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones. (The delightful RCA Victor cast album of Maggie Flynn has just been reissued by our good friends at Sony’s Masterworks Broadway.) Mills recorded her first single for ABC in 1973, and her persistence finally paid off with her breakthrough performance as Dorothy when William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls’ The Wiz opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre on January 5, 1975.
Mills was one major reason for the show’s phenomenal success when it finally arrived in New York after a tumultous tryout at Baltimore’s Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in late 1974. (You can read just one amusing account here!)
She earned two signature songs from Charlie Smalls’ score, as expertly orchestrated by Harold Wheeler (today the conductor of television’s Dancing with the Stars!), when she introduced “Home” and “Ease On Down the Road.” Following The Wiz, she focused on her recording career. Despite the lack of success of Movin’ in the Right Direction, Motown signed her. The storied label paired Mills with Burt Bacharach and Hal David for that team’s final co-production, recorded during a brief reconciliation during their period of estrangement. It was their only work for Berry Gordy’s empire, though the Motown stable of artists frequently raided their songbook. The long out-of-print For the First Time introduced many Bacharach and David originals along with a couple of remakes of songs associated with Dionne Warwick, “This Empty Place” (also popular with many Merseybeat artists) and “Loneliness Remembers (What Happiness Forgets).” Despite the strength of such songs as “No One Remembers My Name,” “I Took My Strength From You” and “Living on Plastic,” as well as Bacharach’s contemporary arrangements that showed his musical evolution from his sixties heyday, the album didn’t go anywhere. Typical for Motown, Mills continued to record, but her remaining tracks didn’t see release until 1982. By that time, she could bask in the glow of the recording success that had previously eluded her, thanks to the success of a string of albums on the 20th Century Fox label.
Hit the jump for a trip through Stephanie’s 20th Century years plus a full track listing and pre-order link for the new set!
The production team of James Mtume and Reggie Lucas were responsible for producing and writing the bulk of Mills’ 20th Century material. The Philadelphia-born Mtume brought his varied experience to the table, which included playing percussion for Miles Davis and fronting his own R&B group, Mtume. Lucas, too, came from the jazz world, having played guitar with Davis as well as with Norman Connors. The combined Mtume-Lucas team would enrich the albums of a great number of soul divas, including Mills, Jennifer Holliday and Phyllis Hyman. On his own, Lucas wrote “Borderline” and produced Madonna’s 1983 debut album. For Mills, Mtume and Lucas wrapped her emotive vocals in rich disco arrangements. The title song of 1979’s What Cha Gonna Do with My Lovin’ was a Top Ten R&B hit and the album itself peaked at No. 22 pop and No. 12 R&B. Peabo Bryson’s “Feel the Fire,” which gives this compilation its title, came from this album as well. That same year, 20th Century enlisted Mills to record a single of “Better Than Ever,” from James L. Brooks and Alan J. Pakula’s film Starting Over. The song was written by the white-hot team of Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, and sung onscreen by Candice Bergen. The actress earned an Academy Award nomination for her role as a songwriter. “Better Than Ever” has been included on Feel the Fire. (Its B-side was “You Can Get Over” from What Cha…)
Mills’ second 20th Century effort, 1980’s Sweet Sensation, yielded her most enduring pop hit, the effervescent “Never Knew Love Like This Before.” The song won Mtume and Lucas a Grammy Award, and peaked at No. 6 on the pop singles chart while also meeting success on R&B and Adult Contemporary. The following year, the Mills/Mtume/Lucas triumverate reunited for Stephanie, which spawned another hit single (No. 40 pop), “Two Hearts.” She was joined by the velvet-voiced Philadelphia soul legend Teddy Pendergrass for this track. With disco largely having passed, “Two Hearts” joined the album’s other tracks in the slow-burning quiet storm vein. Luther Vandross contributed backing vocals, and David Spinozza brought his customary deft musicianship on guitar. Stephanie was Mills’ final album for 20th Century; she departed for Casablanca, a label with strong roots in disco and also reinventing itself by 1982. She continued her hit streak there with Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore?” and dancefloor hit “Pilot Error.” The Casablanca association lasted through three albums, before Mills went to MCA, where she remained for a long tenure.
Stephanie Mills has maintained a busy schedule, diversifying into the gospel realm and even returning to the musical stage for the 1997 Paper Mill Playhouse production of Stephen (Wicked, Godspell) Schwartz’s musical Children of Eden. Universal (owner of Hip-o Select) now controls virtually all of Mills’ catalogue, not only the 20th Century Fox years but also her work at ABC-Paramount, Motown, Casablanca and MCA. Future anthologies of Mills’ work for those labels would be welcome, but Hip-o is certainly starting with the most familiar, essential hits with Feel the Fire. You won’t want to miss this one, and it’s in stores on August 23.
Stephanie Mills, Feel the Fire: The 20th Century Collection (Hip-o Select B0015795-02, 2011)
- What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’
- You Can Get Over
- Deeper Inside Your Love
- Feel The Fire
- Put Your Body In It
- You And I
- Don’t Stop Dancin’
- Sweet Sensation
- Try My Love
- I Just Wanna Say
- Wish That You Were Mine
- Still Mine
- Never Knew Love Like This Before
- Mixture Of Love
- Better Than Ever
- Two Hearts
- Don’t Stop Doin’ What ‘Cha Do
- Top Of My List
- I Believe In Love Songs
- Night Games
- My Love’s Been Good To You
- What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’ (12″ Version)
- Put Your Body In It (12″ Version)
- You Can Get Over (12″ Version)
- Sweet Sensation (12″ Version)
- Two Hearts (12″ Remix)
Disc 1, Tracks 1-8 from What Cha Gonna Do with My Lovin’ (20th Century T-583, 1979)
Disc 1, Tracks 9-16 from Sweet Sensation (20th Century T-603, 1980)
Disc 1, Track 17 from 20th Century single TC-2427, 1979
Disc 2, Tracks 1-8 from Stephanie (20th Century T-700, 1981)
Disc 2, Tracks 9-10 from 20th Century 12-inch single TCD-86, 1979
Disc 2, Track 11 from 20th Century 12-inch single TCD-99. 1979
Disc 2, Track 12 from 20th Century 12-inch single TCD-1076, 1980
Disc 2, Track 13 likely from 20th Century 12-inch single TCD-2492, 1981