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Born on March 22, 1957 in Brooklyn, New York, Mills honed her rich vocals singing gospel music at Brooklyn's Cornerstone Baptist Church as a small child. At age nine, she appeared in the Broadway play Maggie Flynn. She was presented with first prize after winning "The Amateur Hour" talent contest six weeks in a row at New York's famed Apollo Theater when she was nine. That success led to her being chosen as the opening act for the Isley Brothers, and she eventually becoming good friends with lead singer Ronald Isley. Many years later, Isley would manage and marry singer/songwriter Angela Winbush, who co-wrote one of Mills' number one R&B hits. Mills' debut album, Movin' in the Right Direction was recorded for ABC Records in 1974. A year later, she won the role of Dorothy in The Wiz. Her rendition of the beautiful ballad "Home" was a showstopper, mesmerizing audiences nightly for a number of years. The original cast recording of The Wiz was produced by Jerry Wexler and issued by Atlantic Records in spring 1975. Curiously, when The Wiz was made into a full-length feature film by Motown Records' film division and Universal Pictures, Diana Ross played the role of Dorothy instead of Mills. The film ended up being a major flop.
Singer Jermaine Jackson referred Mills to Motown head Berry Gordy, who signed her to the label. Her Motown debut was For the First Time, written and produced by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, issued in October 1976. For the First Time is a sweet affair with Mills convincingly covering Bacharach/David standards, most of which were originally recorded by Dionne Warwick. In 1978, she signed to 20th Century Records and was teamed with the hit production duo of James Mtume -- later leader of Mtume, who had a gold single with "Juicy Fruit" -- and Reggie Lucas. Her first LP for the label, Whatcha Gonna Do with My Lovin', went gold, going to number 12 R&B and number 22 pop on Billboard's charts in summer 1979 and spawned the singles "Whatcha Gonna Do with My Lovin'" and "You Can Get Over." Her next LP, Sweet Sensation (number three R&B, number 16 Pop, spring 1980) yielded "Sweet Sensation," "Never Knew Love Like This Before," and the radio-aired LP track, "Try My Love." Around this time, she briefly married former Soul Train dancer Jeffrey Daniel of the group Shalamar. Next came the LP titled Stephanie in spring 1981, which was also was a huge hit, peaking at number three R&B and number 30 Pop. The album included notable songs such as "Two Hearts" -- a midtempo duet with Teddy Pendergrass -- "Night Games," and the radio-aired LP cut, "Don't Stop Doin' What Cha Do."
In 1981, Mills switched to Neil Bogart's Casablanca Records. Her LPs for the label included Tantalizingly Hot, Merciless, and I've Got the Cure. In 1983, she had her own NBC-TV daytime talk show, and reprised her role in a Broadway revival of The Wiz. She also signed with MCA Records, where she released her Stephanie Mills album.
The first single from that album was "Stand Back" in late 1985, which also included the passionate ballad "I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love," a song initially written by Rene Moore and Angela Winbush -- best known as the hit singing duo Rene & Angela -- as a gospel song, and was originally recorded by Alton McClain and Destiny on their self-titled 1978 Polydor LP. The original version is available on Polygram's Power of Love: Best of Soul Essentials Ballads. Because of its massive radio play as an album track, Mills' version of "I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love" -- produced by Philly soul keyboardist Ron Kersey -- was reissued as an A-side holding the number one R&B spot for two weeks in spring 1986. Its follow-up, "Rising Desire," reached number 11 R&B in summer 1986.
Her next LP's title cut was the Clay McMurray/Gloria Jones/Pam Sawyer song "If I Were Your Woman," originally a 1971 number one R&B, number nine Pop smash for Gladys Knight & the Pips. Philly-based producer Nick Martinelli gave Mills her second number one R&B hit with "I Feel Good All Over," written by husband-and-wife songwriting duo Gabriel and Annette Hardeman. The song held the number one R&B spot for three weeks in spring 1987. Originally submitted to Mills' fellow MCA labelmate Patti Labelle by the Hardemans, the track was included on Mills' LP If I Were Your Woman issued in June 1987, which peaked at number 30 Pop in the summer of the same year. Paul Laurence and Timmy Allen produced and co-wrote the chugging "(You're Putting) a Rush on Me" giving the singer her third number one R&B hit in fall 1987. The single made it to number 85 Pop and was followed by "Secret Lady," which landed at number seven R&B in late 1987. Her covers of "If I Were Your Woman" and "Where Is the Love" followed. All were included on her If I Were Your Woman album, which peaked at number one R&B, number 30 Pop in summer 1987. Following these hits, Mills contacted Ronald Isley about working with singer/songwriter/producer Angela Winbush, who'd had hits as half of Rene & Angela and was forging a hit-filled career as a recording artist and producer for the group Body among others. The collaboration between Mills and Winbush resulted in another number one R&B single, "Something in the Way You Make Me Feel," in summer 1989.
Having starred for five years in the smash Broadway show The Wiz and recorded the song "Home for the play's 1975 original cast soundtrack album, she wanted to record the song again as a posthumous tribute to the play's producer, Ken Harper, and the song's composer, Charlie Smalls. On her new version of "Home," Take 6 sung the background vocals. The song went to number one R&B in late 1989 and was followed by "Comfort of a Man" and "Real Love." The Home LP ended up peaking at number five R&B, number 82 Pop in the summer of 1989. She then recorded a charting single with J.T. Taylor titled "Heart to Heart" in late 1991. Her final MCA album, Something Real, included the hit "All Day All Night" and "Never Do Wrong." Following this album, she recorded a gospel album, Personal Inspirations, for Interscope Records and in the late '90s, recorded several tracks at Philadelphia International Records with Bunny Sigler, among others. ~ Ed Hogan