By Dave Wilkins, mucisionguide.com
Stephanie Mills’ future on stage was perhaps foretold when, at age nine, she won the highly charged Amateur Hour competition at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater for six consecutive weeks. Soon afterward, her career quickly progressed, assisted by her talent, hard work, and tenaciousness. She auditioned three times to win the small part of Pansie in the Broadway musical Maggie Flynn, in which she performed alongside Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy. When Maggie Flynn closed after three months, Mills moved on to the off-Broadway Negro Ensemble Company Workshop. She also performed with the Isley Brothers and the Spinners and recorded her debut album, Movin’ in the Right Direction, while still a teen-ager.
Mills’ breakthrough came in 1974, however, when her stunning, gospel-tinged mezzo-soprano landed her the lead role of Dorothy in The Wiz, the all-black stage version of L. Frank Baum’s classic tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The show was a blockbuster, running from 1974 to 1979, and showcasing Mills in such venues as Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, and Madison Square Garden. As a result, the tiny four-foot, nine-inch singer with the remarkably powerful voice was catapulted to fame. Mills appeared regularly on TV talk and variety shows, released a series of popular R&B albums, won gold records, and was awarded a Tony and a Grammy. Despite all her success at such an early age, Mills would face many professional and personal disappointments.
As the youngest girl in the Mills’ household, Stephanie was pampered and doted on by her older siblings. She was drawn to music from a very early age and often entertained her family by singing along with tunes on the radio and performing in school functions. But it was perhaps her membership in the choir at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Brooklyn that allowed her to hone her skills as a gospel singer. The tiny child’s big voice was so impressive, in fact, that her brothers and sisters regularly escorted her to talent shows around Brooklyn. Mills’ early influences included Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon and Dolly Parton.
In 1974 Mills captured the attention of Ken Harper, who asked her to audition for The Wiz, a black musical he was preparing for Broadway. Mills won the lead role, and spent the next five years as Dorothy. The show’s infectious anthem, “Ease on Down the Road,” became Mills’ trademark. “I had seen the Wizard of Oz movie, starring Judy Garland, on television when I was a kid and I had always enjoyed the fantasy,” Mills told The Chicago Tribune in 1983. “What I had to do was to make Dorothy my role by bringing all of my emotions to the part and thinking about how a little black girl would react to finding herself in Kansas and meeting a scarecrow and a witch and all those other weird people.”
Riding the success of The Wiz, Mills became a household name–but it was not enough to land the role of Dorothy in the film version of the musical. That went to her childhood inspiration, Diana Ross. Another professional disappointment involved Mills’ short tenure as a recording artist for Motown Records. While she was still touring in The Wiz, Jermaine Jackson of the Jackson Five urged Motown executive Berry Gordy to offer her a record contract. Mills recorded a single album for Motown, 1976’s For the First Time, which was written and produced by the renowned team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The album, however, had poor sales, and Motown dropped Mills.
After leaving The Wiz, Mills became an opening act for artists such as Teddy Pendergrass, the Commodores and the O’Jays. Before long, she was headlining–and wowing the crowds and critics alike. After her release from Motown, Mills signed with 20th Century Records, which released her next three albums and spawned a series of radio- ready R&B hits. The album What Cha Gonna Do with My Lovin’ reached No. 8 on the R&B charts in 1979. Mills’ follow-up album, Sweet Sensation, featured the million-selling, Top 10 pop hit “Never Knew Love Like This Before” and reached No. 3 on the R&B chart. In 1981 Mills released the last of her albums for 20th Century Records, the self-titled Stephanie, and hit the charts again with “Two Hearts,” a duet with Teddy Pendergrass. Her mainstream popularity resulted in the 1980 Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal and the 1981 American Music Award for Best Female R&B Vocal.
While the young show biz veteran was enjoying fame on stage and on the radio, however, the first of her three marriages, to Jeffrey Daniels of Shalamar, was crumbling. The pair married in 1980 and divorced after a short, unhappy union. Following the three successful albums on the 20th Century label, Mills signed with Casablanca Records–and her popularity waned. Her four subsequent albums, released between 1982 and 1985, generated only one Top 10 R&B single, “The Medicine Song.” The songstress landed a daytime television show on NBC in 1983, although it was short-lived. Mills then returned to her original success, the role of Dorothy, in a revival of The Wiz in 1984.
In 1986 and 1987, Mills returned to the top of the R&B charts three times with the singles “I Have Learned to Respect the Power Of Love,” “I Feel Good All Over,” and “(You’re Puttin’) A Rush on Me.” Despite this comeback, Mills was experiencing personal hardship. A second marriage ended in divorce and unscrupulous handlers had stolen millions from her, according to Ebony magazine. “My life has gone through a lot of changes, some good, some bad,” the singer told Ebony in 1992. “I learned something from all the experiences that has made me the person I am today. I’ve undergone a spiritual renewal from 1990 to 1992. It has been very educational to me in learning myself, through my music and therapy. I’m really getting to know what Stephanie wants to do. Before, I was just a puppet entertainer. There were things done for me and around me. Now I control everything, and that’s a good feeling.”
In 1992 Mills’ album Something Real generated the Top 20 R&B single “All Day, All Night,” and she married Michael Saunders, a radio programmer from Charlotte, North Carolina. “She has grown and matured,” Sandra Davis wrote in Notable Black American Women, “into a graceful, humble, and tenacious African American role model.”