Stephanie Mills has been many things over the course of nearly forty years in the music business. She started out as a child prodigy, starring as Dorothy in the Broadway production of “The Wiz” (the show that was later turned into a cult classic film, starring 34-year old Diana Ross as Dorothy.) Barely in her teens when she landed the role, the New York native parlayed her Broadway success into a contract with Motown Records. However, it took several years and a change of labels before she finally found notoriety as a recording artist. Stephanie’s initial run of hits included late-Seventies/early-Eighties disco classics “Put Your Body In it” and “Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin?”, the pop smash “Never Knew Love Like This Before” (which won her a Grammy) and a series of smoldering duets with Teddy Pendergrass.
By the middle of the Eighties, she’d undergone a phenomenal series of label changes, going from Motown to 20th Century/Fox to Casablanca to Mercury before landing on MCA in 1985. This particular change turned out to be the right one. Stephanie landed her first #1 R&B hit in pretty short order with the gospel-tinged ballad “I Have Learned To Respect The Power of Love”. Her second album, 1987’s If I Were Your Woman (yes, the title track was a cover of the Gladys Knight standard), became the most successful album of her career, selling over a million copies and spinning off a pair of R&B chart-toppers, the Quiet Storm ballad “I Feel Good All Over” and the peppy dance jam “(You’re Puttin’) A Rush On Me”.
By this time in the decade, things like date rape and AIDS necessitated fairly frank discussions about sex, and lots of women realized that putting out on the first date could lead to more dire consequences than pregnancy, even as women came into their own as sexual beings. Stephanie’s pleas for her man to chill out were absolutely timely. You could almost consider Mills’ danceable plea to take things slow sort of a sister song to Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait Awhile”. For “Rush”’s video clip, it could certainly be argued that Mills took a page out of the Jackson playbook, at least choreography-wise.
Although Stephanie was a champion singer and attractive to boot (she may have been my first crush), she never obtained a consistent level of crossover success. After one more smash album (1989’s Home), she never scored another Top 10 hit on the R&B charts. She went into semi-retirement at the end of the Nineties to switch over to Mommy mode, but she’s resurfaced in fits and starts since. She’s performed in several traveling gospel shows, recorded with rappers like DMX, scored a dance hit with “Latin Lover”, and released a version of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” as a tribute to her friend (and alleged former boyfriend) Michael Jackson last year. With a new album called Breathless scheduled for release later this year, we may very well find Miss Mills back on track towards major success.