Stephanie Mills still leaving fans ’Breathless’
Stephanie Mills has been wowing audiences with her distinctive, powerful singing voice for more than four decades, and it is still amazing to believe that such power comes out a diminutive frame that stands less than 5 feet tall.
It seems like yesterday that Ms. Mills presented herself to the world in the lead role of Dorothy in the all black cast of "The Wiz" on Broadway and won the hearts of many that would become longtime fans with the show-stopping "Home," which would become her signature song.
Mills is of the few Broadway stars to have parlayed her musical stage success into a successful recording career gaining R&B chart hits with songs such as "Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin’," "Never Knew Love Like This Before," "Two Hearts" (duet with Teddy Pendergrass), "I Have Learned To Respect The Power of Love," "I Feel Good All Over," and dance hits "Pilot Error," and "The Medicine Song."
But not only does Mills have a powerful singing voice, she also has some strong opinions, I discovered, about the lives of former love Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, Marriage Equality and the rights for gays. During my interview with Ms. Mills prior to her stop at San Francisco’s Yoshi’s June 14-17, I also found how much of a devoted mother she is to her only child, and how she was introduced to the AIDS disease during the run of "The Wiz."
BeBe: As I was thinking back about your career which has spanned over 40 years, it is common knowledge that you rose to major prominence as a teen with your Broadway role of Dorothy in ’The Wiz.’ Your rise to fame in your youth so quickly was uncommon was uncommon back in the day, but now everywhere you turn around there is a teen heading for stardom from their recording or movie role. Have you made any comparison to what it must be like for these kids today versus when you rose to fame?
Stephanie Mills : Well, you see I started in the business when I was like 9-years old. My first Broadway show was ’Maggie Flynn’ (a 1966 flop about Civil War draft riots in New York City). I was 9 years old. I started so young.
But now with all these reality shows, people are instant stars, which I don’t really agree with. I just don’t agree with reality stars that have actually done nothing coming into super, super-stardom when so many of us have paved the way and have worked to become recognized as entertainers. It’s really like fast-food now. Anybody can do the silliest thing, or dress the most bizarre way and become a huge, huge entertainer. It’s really different.
Back then, we were taught how to do interviews and how to come into a room, and how you should conduct yourself. Everything was respectable. Now all the morals and respect are out the window. They care about nothing!
BeBe: That is interesting about your comment about being groomed, I guess is a good word to use for your training.
Stephanie Mills: Yes, we were groomed. Think about it - myself, Ashford and Simpson, Patti LaBelle - when we performed together, we were so happy to be with each other. We were never like, ’Who is getting the most time?’ or ’Who came on first or who came on last?’ We never thought about that stuff the way people do today. We were just happy to be there and see each other, because you never see other entertainers unless you are at a function like that. We just had a good time. It is so different now.
A rough couple of years
BeBe: You know Dionne Warwick said the same thing. She had the same commentary about her performances with Patti (LaBelle) and Gladys (Knight). She said: ’We were just happy to be together. We weren’t concerned about who was doing what, or how much time. We just had a good time.’
Stephanie Mills : Or who had this or that spot. It wasn’t about that.
BeBe: Now, girl, ’Home,’ the song from ’The Wiz,’ is definitely your signature song. I mean child. Child. Child (Stephanie Mills laughs loudly). But do you at any time feel pressure to have to perform that song still today?
Stephanie Mills: Oh my God, yes! Sometimes the first time I walk out on stage they (the audience) yells out. ’Home.’ I say, if I do that the show’s over (we both laugh). But how when I sing it, I give tribute to James Brown, Teena Marie, and Luther, and Michael Jackson, so many of my friends. This has been a rough couple of years for me with people that I’ve known and done shows with, and grown up with (and their passing). Whitney’s death was very, very hard on me. I’m still struggling with why it happened. And why was it allowed to happen? I struggle with that on a daily basis. How could that have possibly happened? But it’s sad. I pay tribute to all of them at the end of ’Home.’
BeBe: and then we just lost Donna Summer.
Stephanie Mills: Yes, I know. And Don Cornelius (’Soul Train’). Back in the day I was on his show a zillion times.
BeBe: Girl, you were on ’Soul Train’ like it was your home! But you got out of the business at one point. Why?
Stephanie Mills: Yes, you see, I got out of the business before it killed me. People don’t realize that I chose to let my record contract go. I wanted to move to Charlotte (North Carolina) and just clear my head, and to do shows when I wanted to do shows. Because the pressure of being in the business will kill you if you allow it! You are looked at only as a commodity. You’re not looked at as a human being. And I think that was the problem with Michael and Whitney. For them to reach their status that they were and be so unhappy, you know something was definitely wrong. So, I look at those things. It’s a hard business to be in. but you love it, it’s in your blood. When I was listening to an interview of Donna Summer, it’s in your blood, though she walked away from it and did certain things at certain times because it becomes overwhelming.
Back to the theater
BeBe: I know Donna had a hard time embracing the whole ’Queen of Disco’ title. The public wouldn’t let that go for her.
Stephanie Mills: She did have a hard time with that. She struggled with that. But you can’t ever let it go, you know why? That would be like me saying I’m not going to sing ’Home’ and don’t ask me to sing anything from ’The Wiz,’ That was my yellow brick road! You learn to embrace it. That is what put me on the map. That’s what people love. I have to find some peace in it. But it is hard when you are trying to do something different. When you’ve done something that great, ’The Wiz,’ the ensemble piece, was such a wonderful experience for so many people, you can’t deny them that.
BeBe: And that brings up something else, because as you said you started on Broadway at 9, and went on to do ’The Wiz,’ but it took you a long time to get back to the musical stage (1997 production of Stephen Schwartz’s ’Children of Eden’).
Stephanie Mills: It did take me awhile. You see, they (record companies) had me so caught up on my records, that I totally let my theater go. And finally, I wanted to get back to it, because I love the theater. And I’ve been directing some shows, too. I love theater! Doing theater is the best ground to learn your craft, and who you are as an entertainer.
BeBe: That’s what Jennifer Holliday (Tony winner from ’Dreamgirls’) told me. She said the same thing.
Stephanie Mills: Yes. It’s the best way to learn discipline, to learn your lines. It’s like going to college. It’s like going to Princeton or Harvard. It is.
BeBe: It is so good to here you speak with commonality with so many other people that I respect, and to know that their experiences have been similar (to yours).
Stephanie Mills: Oh, yes. Jennifer and I come from the same place with the theater background. We know that that was the best thing that ever happened to us, even Melba Moore (Tony winner from ’Purlie’). Melba’s still fabulous. What I dislike about our industry is that they like to throw us away. You know she’s still fabulous. All of us are still fabulous, but when you have your acts like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, they go on forever. They constantly reinvent them with duet albums, and it’s not that easy for the black artists. Even the ones (blacks) that may have seven Grammys... that means nothing! Your gold album, your platinum album, that means nothing.
BeBe: Now, the Broadway community in the late 70s and early 80s when you were performing was hit really hard with the emergence of HIV/AIDS. I have had other discussion with Broadway stars during that time (Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph) and it was just devastating for so many people. Just one day you would look around and everyone you had done shows with were no longer there. But, you were young at that time. These other people I have spoken to were in there twenties already back then and could kind of grasp what was happening a little bit. But, how was that for you to put your hands around ’what the heck is going on?’.
Stephanie Mills: Well, you know back then, nobody really knew what it was. And it affected ’The Wiz’ tremendously. There were a lot of people that were sick. And then what tragedy affected ’The Wiz’ a lot. Such as one day one of the dancers that was in the show went home and his lover shot and killed him. Back then nobody knew what was going on. Had this happened to ’The Wiz’ today, every little thing that went on with that show would have been public.
I am so glad that this wasn’t the case because so many things, especially with AIDS and people passing away. One of my best friends passed away. But, back then, I didn’t know what it was. I just knew one day I saw somebody and the next day they weren’t there. They always said, ’well, he’s just sick.’ I never knew what was going on, and then later people would say he had ’the virus.’ But now, they know what it is. Magic Johnson is living a healthy life with it in his system, so they kind of know how to deal with it, but back then they didn’t.
The Jackson connection
BeBe: Now, I know you get asked this question all the time, and people bring up your relationship with the one and only, King of Pop, Michael Jackson. And I’m not going to spare you, honey. I’m going to let it out. So, was that really a loooove connection!?
Stephanie Mills: Yes, it was!
BeBe: Ooh, go girl!
Stephanie Mills: I thought I was going to be Mrs. Michael Jackson. I really did. I was so in love with Michael. We dated, but Michael was young then. And, he was just beginning to be "Michael Jackson," But, oh yes, we dated for a little while. Yes, we did. I really loved him. I really think Michael was so misunderstood. He was the most sensitive, most loving person. And I think throughout the years with all the child molestation (accusations), which I never believed and I’ll never believe it, and all the things he went through just broke him down to nothing.
BeBe: You know, just as you did, he started out very young in show business. He was on stage singing at 9 and 10 years old doing his thing, and people did misunderstand his love and care for children, which he had because he didn’t have a childhood.
Stephanie Mills: No he didn’t. And he knew children were pure. They didn’t want anything from him. They didn’t judge him, and that was why he liked being around them because they accepted him as just Michael. They just wanted to just play. And people misconstrued that into something ugly.
BeBe: And that (play) was something he didn’t get a chance to do while young. He didn’t get a chance to be in the playground like other kids because he was working. He was making money for the family at that time.
Stephanie Mills: Back then he loved to go to the movie theater and eat popcorn. But, he would never go in and get the Famous Amos Cookies and popcorn he loved. I was always the one to go get the cookies and popcorn. He couldn’t even do that and be comfortable. But he loved riding up and down Sunset Boulevard in his car with the top down, and when he wanted something, I was the one who jumped out to get whatever it was.
BeBe: What a life to have lived for so long because that didn’t change as he got older....
Stephanie Mills: (breaking in) it got worse!
BeBe: Now, you were with Motown, as were the Jacksons, for a short time in the early part of your career. It was a brief time!
Stephanie Mills: (laughing) It was brief! I signed with Motown because Hazel (Gordy) and I became friends. And Hazel and I are friends to this day. And she was married to Jermaine Jackson, and I just thought I was going to be right there with the Jacksons and all. I didn’t care what record I did or anything. All I knew is the Jackson 5 were on Motown and I wanted to be close to them. But, yes it was brief.
BeBe: Motown had such wonderful writers back then with Holland, Dozier and Holland, Smokey Robinson,Michael Masser, Ashford and Simpson, all of them were writing for Motown then, and it just seemed like it would have been a perfect fit for you.
Stephanie Mills: I don’t think they knew what to do with me because my voice was so mature, but I was still so young. I don’t know. I don’t think they knew what to do, but they clearly knew what to do with Michael. And at that time, Berry Gordy wasn’t in at Motown as much. He was really no longer there running it. But, I really don’t know what happened.
BeBe: But they learned from that mistake (letting you go), and let me tell you why?
Stephanie Mills : You think so?
BeBe: I do, because you know what? They brought on Stacy Lattisaw.
Stephanie Mills : Right!
BeBe: If you could compare someone with the maturity in their voice at a young age to you, I would say she was very similar. And you remember she was singing love songs at 15 and 16 years old (’Love On A Two-Way Street,’ ’Let Me Be Your Angel’), and we were buying them. They learned from that mistake by signing her in the early 80s. She is a prime example of showing how the public was ready for a youngster to sing some of the (love) songs that Motown had, and she was able to get away with it. I’m saying, girl, what you know about love on a two-way street!
Stephanie Mills: (laughing) Right!
BeBe: And they learned really quickly after letting you go and seeing a mass all of your hits, particularly through the decade of the 80s and the early 90s. If you had to pick a favorite one of your song out of the bag, which one would it be?
Stephanie Mills: Oh God! I would probably say ’Starlight,’ And one of my favorite songs to sing, it wasn’t written for me, it’s a Kenny Loggins’ song, is ’Give It Half a Chance.’
BeBe: And why would you say that is?
Stephanie Mills: I love what that song says, and I’m a huge Kenny Loggins fan. And George Duke produced that song. I think he did a magnificent job producing it. I was with him and singing that song in my car, and we were about to do an album and I was about to work with George, whom I would love to work with again, and I said, ’George, I would love to sing this song.’ And he said, ’let’s do it!’ George is a singer’s producer. And I am particular about working with somebody who can do vocal (production). Because there is a big difference in producing a hit record than producing a singer.
BeBe: And, you are right, that is what leads the music industry today is the groove and the beat. The artist is almost secondary.
Stephanie Mills: Oh, it’s all about the writers and the producers. The artist is just a means to get it out there.
On marriage equality
BeBe: And that’s really, really sad because I miss those days of seeing and hearing artist who could "s-i-n-g" a song! I remember speaking with CeCe Peniston and her comment about hearing Whitney on record and then going to see her live and she sounded exactly the same on stage if not better. We miss that. That’s why concerts are not like they were back in the day. Back in the 70s and 80s, we would go out and by the best outfit for the concert because we knew the show was going to be hot. We knew the performers were going to be hot. But these days they can barely sell a concert ticket. They can’t do the big arenas anymore.
Stephanie Mills: You know I think it is because back in the day we gave our heart and soul. Everything was live. Everybody had a live band. Now everything is so digital, and a lot of things are taped. I don’t like seeing an artist doing a show to track.
BeBe: Now getting on to something a little different, I think during your adult life, it would be fair to say that you have been unlucky in love with three divorces under your belt. With that, do you see marriage in your future or do you think you’ve been there, done that and you are over it? And what are your thoughts on the institution of marriage, and going further, your thoughts on the marriage equality debate?
Stephanie Mills: I think everybody, whether they’re blue, black, gay, straight, whatever and they are a decent human being and paying their taxes, they deserve the rights that everyone else is getting. I always tell my friends when I hear them talk about children shouldn’t live in a home with gay parents that you never hear about those children being molested. You never hear of those kids being burned and brutally attacked. You never hear about that, so, who are we to judge anybody? I never judge anybody. I think love is love. Who you chose to love is your business. What you do in the privacy of your home is your business. If you’re living in a home whether it be a man and man, a man and a woman, or another woman and a woman, you deserve the same rights. I voted for it (marriage equality) here in Charlotte, but it’s the Queen City so you know where that went. Marriage for me, I love loving but I have not been successful at it. And, I think it is because of me not trusting. I don’t trust the love from the man. I don’t really believe he loves me just for me. And, that’s my problem.
I think in my mind I’m always thinking why is he here, what does he really want? And, I always destroy them (the relationship). I’m the kind that will destroy a relationship before I think it’s going to be destroyed because they are going to leave.
Bobby and Whitney
BeBe: Well, you have put some time into analyzing and thinking about this. (both roar with laughter)
Stephanie Mills: I’m very clear. Well, I’ll say this, and people may not like when I say this, but, when I saw that interview that Whitney did on Oprah when she talked about Bobby (Brown), I didn’t like it. Because I felt like she threw Bobby under the bus. He wasn’t there to defend himself. And, I don’t believe that Bobby made Whitney do anything she didn’t want to do.
BeBe: And, many people agree with you. Many have said that Whitney was strong willed, and she did not do anything that she didn’t want to do.
Stephanie Mills: Right, and she was doing drugs before Bobby. Bobby drank, you know. But, she introduced him to the drugs. And I believe to this day that if she were still with Bobby, whom I know she loved dearly, she would still be alive. That’s what I believe! I just don’t believe in throwing people under the bus. I take full responsibility for whatever I do in a relationship, but I don’t think it was anybody’s business what happened between the two (Whitney and Bobby). I don’t think she should have told some of things she told, but that’s me. And then I watched an interview with him, and he said nothing but kind things about her.
BeBe: Now, I know you have a family where your child has some special needs with Down Syndrome. Do you spend time with any organizations advocating for the care for people with Down Syndrome, or finding an end to the disease?
Stephanie Mills: When I was three months pregnant I was told that my son was going to have Down Syndrome. I was high risk since I had him when I was 45 years old. They (specialists) asked me if I wanted to abort, and I said no! I don’t care if my son has one eye, he’s mine and I’m going to have him. And they told me all the things that could possibly be wrong with my son. But, my son is so beautiful and he functions at a very high level. Plus, I mainstream him. He goes to a regular school. He’s an "A" honor student. He plays the piano. I go to school with him every day. I go there to make sure he is getting his work. Since he’s been in the 4th grade, I’m a 4th-grader, too. And he’s wonderful. I did not give into the ’he’s not gonna be able to do this... he’s not gonna be able to do that.’ I hit the ground running when my baby was born. I don’t allow people to treat him differently. I want him to do what he can do, so, I push him to be the best that he can be. I haven’t attached myself to any sort of Down Syndrome organization, not because I didn’t want to, but because I was so busy raising him. I felt that he could be an example as to how to raise a Down Syndrome child by mainstreaming him.
BeBe: With all of that, and the time that raising your son as a single parent, you still find time to perform and tour. That takes a lot of strength, honey!
Stephanie Mills: (humbly) Oh, thank you.
BeBe: No, really. I think sometimes the public forgets that people who have reached and live an acclaimed life, that’s what I’ll call it, because we put you where you are or in the situation you have in your life because we put you on that pedestal. You didn’t necessarily ask to be there. And in that, we forget that you are normal just like we are and have the same things to deal with that we do, yet, I think it takes more strength because you are in the public eye. You have to make your living in the public and guard your family from the harshness the sometimes comes from that publicity. How do you do all that?
Stephanie Mills: I don’t know, I just pray! I had a strong mother who always told me that I was always stronger than I think I am. I think over the years with me hit so hard with Teddy Pendergrass’ and Gerald Levert’s (two R&B singers that Mills recorded duets with) death, I’ve dealt. And my son’s Dad is not in his life at all, so I am doing it all on my own. But I wanted him (son)! And the most important thing for me was that my child knew was that he was loved and that he was wanted. So I’ve focused on keeping everything in our lives positive, and making it right for us, and, still being able to sing. I take him on the road with me. He’ll be with me in San Francisco. Sometimes he comes up on stage and plays guitar on ’I Never Knew Love Like This Before.’
BeBe: Speaking of San Francisco, you have an upcoming tour stop in San Francisco at Yoshi’s beginning June 14 through the 17th. And you have an upcoming album coming up called ’Breathless’?
Stephanie Mills: I am still working on an album coming up, and it will be titled ’Breathless,’ yes.
BeBe: Where did you come up with the title of the collection?
Stephanie Mills: It is the name of a song on the album about a man that I saw who took my breath away.
BeBe: And, you wrote this song?
Stephanie Mills: Yes.
BeBe: Well, you are touring a little bit this summer with a stop here in San Francisco, so tell me a little bit of what your show will entail. What can the audiences expect from your live shows this summer?
Stephanie Mills: I think they will be pleasantly surprised because I’m going to sing a lot of my songs. A lot of songs I’ve put back in my show. I do a medley of songs. It’s going to be very upbeat -- just flat-bare-foot singing! No special effects, just me and my band and my singers rockin’! We are going to have a good time.
Stephanie Mills will command the stage for a limited engagement at San Francisco’s Yoshi’s, June 14-17. For more info on this tour stop, www.yoshis.com.
Her 2012 Summer tour continues with the following stops and dates: New York, NY - BB King Blues Club & Grill, June 23, 2012; New Orleans, LA - Essence Music Festival, July 6 & 7, 2012.
Follow Ms. Mills tour dates at at her website.