Following the commercial failure of the big-budget 1973 movie musical Lost Horizon, Burt Bacharach retreated. Tension over the film had led to a split with his longtime songwriting partner Hal David, and their split had in turn led to a breakup of their “triangle marriage” with singer Dionne Warwick. Lawsuits ensued. Only one new Bacharach song emerged in 1974, Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Seconds,” co-written with playwright Neil Simon for a proposed movie version of the 1968 Bacharach/David/Simon Broadway musical Promises, Promises. A ’74 reunion session with Warwick – in which she sang another new Promises song co-written with Simon and two lyrics by Bobby Russell - was abruptly shelved despite the quality of the material. (The Warwick session finally saw release in 2013 from Real Gone Music.) So was another session, also with Russell lyrics, for Glen Campbell. The once-prolific composer was similarly quiet on the recording front in the first months of 1975, only issuing a couple of random songs from the Russell collaboration, one with Tom Jones and one with Bobby Vinton.
That all changed, however, in autumn of 1975 with the release of Stephanie Mills’ For the First Time, a Motown LP written and produced by the team of Bacharach and David. What brought the team together after two years of acrimony? How did they end up at Motown? Was Bacharach actually involved in the day-to-day recording and production of the album? Before those questions were ever answered, For the First Time disappeared without a trace. The reunion was sadly short-lived; another new Bacharach/David song wouldn’t be heard by the public until 1993. But the music stays, as always - and it speaks volumes. Big Break Records has just reissued For the First Time paired with Mills’ 1982 Love Has Lifted Me, an album of Motown outtakes. This splendid release, part of BBR's month of Motown reissues, is the first remastered edition of For the First Time since the early days of CD.
For the First Time was Stephanie Mills’ Motown debut, following the teenaged Wiz star’s LP debut on ABC Records in 1974 with Movin’ in the Right Direction. Following its disappointing sales, she didn’t record another album until 1979, when What Cha’ Gonna Do with My Lovin’ solidified her place in the pop and R&B realms. Happily, this new edition allows the song cycle – featuring ten Bacharach/David songs, eight of which were newly-written and six of which would never be recorded by any other artist, to date – to take its rightful place in the pantheon of Stephanie Mills and of its renowned writer-producers.
Though Stephanie Mills at eighteen was roughly five years younger than Dionne Warwick was when Bacharach and David helmed her 1963 debut Presenting Dionne Warwick, the team didn’t make many concessions to her youthful age in crafting a set of immaculate, adult pop-soul narratives. The first sound you hear on the LP is an atypically searing guitar introducing “I Took My Strength from You (I Had None).” This deeply soulful ballad is graced with subtle orchestration and the slightest hint of blues, and gilded with one of Bacharach’s signature instruments – the tack piano – to create a sound unlike on any other record in 1975. Mills brings a sense of control to the deliberate verses, contrasting them with sheer exultancy in the chorus. The singer’s sense of joy in discovering the source of her strength and support is palpable. (Disco star Sylvester made his own mark on the song in 1978.)
Lyricist David called on Mills’ theatrical gifts – which had been on display in Broadway musicals including Maggie Flynn, starring Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, and The Wiz – to bring to life some of his most multi-layered lyrics. “No One Remembers My Name” epitomizes the mature themes contained on the album. The singer is a success who “really made my dreams come true,” and then returns home only to sadly find that “there’s no one to tell it to” in her hometown: “The people I once knew don’t seem to live here anymore/I feel like a stranger outside the house where I was born…” It’s one of David’s many ruminations on the fleeting nature of fame (most famously, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”) and a sequel of sorts to the Bacharach/David “Send My Picture to Scranton, PA,” in which BJ Thomas’ narrator imagines writing to the people who taunted him in his youth, not to throw his fame at them but because with his success, “maybe now they’ll give kids a helping hand! That’s how it really ought to be, not like the way it was with me…” But the song is also, perhaps moreover, a universal reflection on the theme that you can’t go home again. Mills acquits herself beautifully as a precocious singer with a wisdom and interpretive skill beyond her young years. Much of her style on this song recalls the vocal influence of Diana Ross; now just imagine how heartbreaking it would have been to hear Miss Ross admit, “The past is just a memory/I belong where people smile back at me/They know me and show me they care/That’s why I’m so happy there/They all remember my name…” The singer of the song is most comfortable living in the past, despite the supposed trappings of fame and fortune. It was heady stuff for a pop song sung by an eighteen year-old in 1975.
“There goes the greyhound/I guess I missed the bus again,” sighs Mills in another excitingly complex tune, “Living on Plastic.” The singer explains her philosophy - “living on plastic: living now, and paying later!” David’s lyric is sufficiently empathetic to her situation, but the dramatically twisting-and-turning, thumping melody gives the lie to her sunny outlook as it contrasts pensive verses to a desperate, driving chorus. Despite her repeatedly-stated faith that she’ll “get by,” we’re not so sure. Bacharach adroitly incorporates a dash of funk into his arrangement, sung deliciously by Mills.
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Bacharach farmed out four of the charts on For the First Time, including “If You Can Learn How to Cry.” Bill Eaton arranged the track in a manner befitting the composer’s quintessentially winding melody that would challenge a lesser singer, and Mills sounds as if she’s connected to David’s more typically upbeat, inspirational words: “Everyone who has loved and lost can try again/Don't think your life is through, because it's just beginning/You have to lose sometimes to taste the joy of winning…” They’re wise words, indeed, from the man who wrote “What the World Needs Now is Love.” Kenny Ascher, a talented composer in his own right, penned the arrangement to the unabashedly romantic ode “I See You for the First Time.” The brash horns and insistent piano of the orchestration blend well with rhythmic percussion. The song seems a bit too mature for a teenager (“Every time we touch/It still excites me just as much…”), but Mills’ sweetness adds vulnerability. A languid clarinet opens Bacharach’s own arrangement of “The Way I Feel About You,” another poetic, gentle and sensual message to a lover: “With one touch of your hand, you give me wings to fly,” Mills tenderly and girlishly coos.
Kenny Ascher also arranged the bombastic disco makeover of Dionne Warwick’s 1963 hit “This Empty Place” which was selected as the A-side of the album’s only single. The album’s other cover is “Loneliness Remembers (What Happiness Forgets),” another song owned by Warwick. Arranger Dave Matthews hews much closer to Bacharach’s original chart from 1970 on this faithful remake. Warwick’s ghost hovers elsewhere, too, as it’s impossible to not to imagine how many of these songs would have sounded sung by Dionne, had Bacharach and David continued writing for her.
For the First Time concludes with a one-two punch thanks to “All the Way to Paradise” and “Please Let Go.” The former is slow-burning, reflective and rueful as it builds to a stunningly dramatic crescendo in bold, lush orchestral style. The latter, a thunderous plea to a recalcitrant loved one, allows for another urgent moment as Mills stresses the importance of not letting the past get in the way of the present; this theme ties it into “Living on Plastic,” “No One Remembers My Name” and “If You Can Learn How to Cry.” Stabs of organ and Mills’ voice recede into the distance as this compelling, unusual album concludes.
The sparkling new remaster by Kevin Reeves brings out the numerous orchestral colors of For the First Time, which was beautifully recorded in 1975 by the late, great Phil Ramone. (The original back cover indicates “Produced by Hal David and Burt Bacharach” – a reversal of the front-jacket credits – and “directed by Phil Ramone.”) Steven E. Flemming, Jr. supplies a new essay that places the album in context in Mills’ career and also offers commentary on each of its tracks. Many mysteries surrounding For the First Time still endure, on which only Mills and Bacharach could today shed light. For his part, the album didn’t even warrant a mention in Bacharach’s 2013 autobiography Anyone Who Had a Heart.
This rare gem has been joined on one CD, housed in a Super Jewel Box, by Love Has Lifted Me, a collection of vault material released by Motown in 1982 to capitalize on Mills’ stardom. No outtakes apparently survived from For the First Time, though Love reprised “This Empty Place.” (It hasn’t been included a second time on this reissue!) It’s an enjoyable, mixed bag of songs from various producers including Michael Sutton and Harold Johnson, Don Daniels, Michael L. Smith and Philip Bailey including the genially bouncy “Love is Everywhere,” the funky “Love Has Lifted Me,” the disco-flavored “I Don’t Want to Be Reminded” and “I Hope We Don’t Run Out of Music,” and ballads like “You Are the Melody of My Life.”
For the First Time captures a unique moment in the careers of its principals. Mills was recording in the wake of a big Broadway success and on the cusp of pop stardom. Bacharach and David had already changed the face of popular music with their brand of sophisticated soul, and both were adapting to a rapidly-shifting R&B landscape of the 1970s by subtly transforming their own art and style. One could say the same about the Motown label itself. Those who don’t already know this beguiling lost treasure should seek it out now; those who do should have ample reason to upgrade those old CDs. You might just hear it as if For the First Time.
Stephanie Mills, For the First Time: Expanded Edition (Big Break Records CDBBRX0301, 2014) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)
- I Took My Strength from You
- Living on Plastic
- No One Remembers My Name
- If You Can Learn How to Cry
- Loneliness Remembers (What Happiness Forgets)
- This Empty Place
- The Way I Feel About You
- I See You for the First Time
- All the Way to Paradise
- Please Let Go
- Love Has Lifted Me
- Love is Everywhere
- I Don’t Want to Be Reminded
- You Are the Melody of My Life
- I Hope We Don’t Run Out of Music
- The Kingdom Within Everyone
- Simple Masterpiece
Tracks 1-10 from For the First Time, Motown MS227V1, 1975
Tracks 11-17 from Love Has Lifted Me, Motown 6033ML, 1982
Very impressive and considered review for an unsung jewel of an album. Stephanie's best all-round effort and a Burt & Hal triumph. Thanks BBR.
Joe Marchese says
Thank you for your kind words!
Rob Maurer says
Never even knew this album existed...but will seek it out now! Thanks!
"No One Remembers My Name" from this album has some echoes in the 1998 Bacharach / Costello song "In the Darkest Place." particularly the drum beat and tempo, and the way the some of the chord harmonies remain unresolved and create a sense of unease in the listener. I wonder if either Bacharach or Costello had the song in mind, or if Costello was even familiar with it at that point.
What a great review. I've had the LP for many years and it's one of my favourite albums. In Sharon Davis' 'Motown: The History' there's a short interview with Stephanie Mills where I believe she says she didn't much like the album and thought it was a mistake. I can understand why she thought that, but it's probably the best thing she did. And it's apt you mention Diana Ross, given that Mills' Motown contract was rumoured to have been a way to keep her quiet after she got passed over for the role of Dorothy in the screen version of the Wiz. I wrote a little about the album on my semi-dormant music blog a few years ago.