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Few artists can claim a career so storied as singer Stephanie Mills. Although she doesn’t claim the label, Mills is by all accounts an rhythm and blues legend. Her career has taken the Brooklyn-based artist from a role as the original Dorothy in the Broadway production of “The Wiz,” to a whopping five No. 1 R&B hits between 1986 and 1989 like “Home,” “I Feel Good All Over” and “I have Learned to Respect the Power of Love.” In addition, she’s collaborated with other music legends like Teddy Pendergrass, Diana Ross, Anita Baker and Mary J. Blige. And Detroit fans will be pleased to know she made the city her home for a period of five years. Now, both longtime and new fans can see her live in concert on Thursday, Jan. 30, at the MotorCity Casino Hotel Sound Board stage. Mills joined BTL over the phone from her North Carolina home in advance of the show to talk about her career, her time in Detroit and various new projects.
Long before Mills was gracing Broadway stages, however, she was signed with ABC Records to record her debut album “Movin’ in the Right Direction.” Although that failed to generate much buzz, for her sophomore effort, “For the First Time,” Mills signed with Motown Records. The label, now based in Los Angeles, paired her up with super songwriters and producers Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Despite these efforts, it didn’t do well commercially, but Mills said that might have been because it diverted from her preferred genre.
“It was very pop,” Mills said. “I think it was ahead of its time. There were some great songs on it though.”
And Mills still enjoyed making the album.
“I was a huge fan of The Jackson 5, and Diana Ross I love dearly. So, I was just thrilled to be on the same label as they were,” Mills said. “And to sit across from Berry Gordy in a meeting … it was really something.”
It wasn’t long after that that Mills got a big break on the Broadway stage with the lead role in “The Wiz.” She earned great reviews during the show’s run, and it was during the show that Mills and Michael Jackson, who was living in New York at the time, actually began dating.
“He was such a king, sweet soul, very gentle,” Mills said. “I never heard him say a bad word about anybody. We were really friends, which is why I feel the need to defend him if someone says something about him.”
And she’s serious about that. Just ask British crooner Sam Smith who, in 2018, said he didn’t like Michael Jackson’s music. Mills attacked.
“Don’t come for MICHAEL JACKSON when you wish you have sold as many records and you wish you were the King of Pop like he was,” Mills said in an Instagram post. “Go sit your one-hit wonder ass down.”
Speaking about the incident now, Mills does not regret her words.
“Sam Smith, for him to say, basically, that he didn’t like any of Michael’s music, including all that great Motown music, I didn’t believe that,” she said.
Longevity and Recognition
Following her string of No. 1 records, Mills married WJLB program director Michael Saunders and moved to Detroit.
“I loved living in Detroit,” she said. “I kind of took five years off from performing while I lived there and just focused on being a wife.”
And because of Mills’ significant impact on the genre, despite that break period, she found herself back on the road after she and Saunders split. To this day, she continues to light up stages across the globe. And she certainly hasn’t allowed her commercial success to distract or detach her from issues that matter. For her tour last year, Mills had her entire band dress up in black Nike warmup suits to pay homage to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his struggle with the NFL.
“I wanted to stand up for Colin, who was really taking a knee to oppose police brutality,” Mills said. “I thought what they did to him was wrong.”
Mills said that she has continued to be politically active throughout her career. Regarding the upcoming 2020 election, she said she hasn’t chosen a candidate to support yet.
“I’m not liking anybody yet, but I’m hoping somebody will appeal to me because we’ve got to get this man out of office.”
Somebody she’d gladly throw her support behind is Billy Porter, Broadway star and recent Emmy winner for his role on the FX series “Pose.”
“He was unsung, but not anymore,” Mills said. “The world knows his talent now. He is doing it his way and he is getting all the props he deserves. I love him.”
Regarding her own career being considered legendary, Mills disagrees. But unlike Porter, Mills most certainly does not consider herself unsung. So, when the producers of the TV One musical docuseries “Unsung” came calling on her door to do an episode about not being recognized for her successess, Mills flatly turned them down.
“I wasn’t interested. I don’t consider myself unsung. I’ve had a great career. I wasn’t interested in going down that road, rehashing everything,” she said.
That’s right. Can’t nobody make Ms. Mills do what she does not want to do. So what does she want to do? Make some new music to please her long-waiting fans perhaps?
“I haven’t been in the mood to create music,” she said. “But the other day something hit me, and I began to think about it. I’d like to do backing vocals on a record or sing the hook. Yeah, sing the hook. That would be great.”
Stephanie Mills will be appearing at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30, at the Sound Board at the Motorcity Casino Hotel. Tickets are $54 and $44 and can be purchased at ticketmaster.com.