Consider a list of singers and entertainers that have embodied a wealth of accomplishments for half of a century that are still producing timeless works and garnering achievements, and you will have an exclusive group of individuals that have made indelible marks throughout their career. Ms. Stephanie Mills is on that list. From her start at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre at the age of 9, opening for acts including, The Isley Brothers and James Brown, through her 1975 debut as Dorothy in the Broadway musical hit, “The Wiz”, to her 1980 Grammy-winning R&B smash, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” and her recent unplugged recording of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” she has definitely proven that her talent has legs. Ms. Mills has been a consummate performer her entire career. We caught up with the living legend while she was preparing for a concert in Atlanta, GA and she spoke with us about her life, her incredible musical journey, turning 60 years old, and her secret to success. Follow, as we asked her the questions many of her fans wanted to know.
SR: We are honored to have you take the time to speak to us as a living legend and give us the opportunity to revisit your career and get us ready for your visit here in Atlanta this weekend.
SM: Haha, yes, I’m excited! Thank you
SR: Now you’ve visited Atlanta before, and you’re preparing to come this time with El DeBarge and Stokely; talk to us about your first time coming here and what sentiments you feel every time you come to ATL?
SM: I love Atlanta, I’ve been coming to Atlanta ever since I was a young girl and through the years. There used to be a hotel called the Fairmount Hotel, and I would come and sing in the lounges and perform, and that was when Maynard Jackson was the mayor… that’s how long ago that was.
SR: This is also a milestone year for you as well… you turned 60 this year, right?
SM: I TURNED 60 THIS YEAR!!!!! YAY!!! (laughs with joy and excitement) Yes and I’m loving my 60’s… I’m having a great time, and I’m excited about coming to Atlanta because Atlanta has always been good to me. We’ve done plays there, The Wiz, and shows; people always come out and show me so much love, so I’m happy to be coming there with El because I love El DeBarge and I love Stokely. Stokely and I just did a show together recently, so I’m happy about that.
SR: You look amazing, and your career continues to strive at the age of 60. We see so many artists trying to get the longevity you’ve achieved in your career; What is your secret to having that long lasting career of beautiful songs, hit records and maintaining that love from your audience who have followed you over the years?
SM: It’s not easy, and I don’t have a secret… The most important thing I did was stay true to who I was, you know, I didn’t try to follow any trends that came along. I just stayed true to who I was and did what I like to do and what felt real and felt good to me.
SR: What is your favorite song to perform?
SM: Oh my goodness… that’s hard!!!! Probably my favorite song to perform right now is “Power of Love.”
SR: Talk about how black media, in terms of radio and publications, have aided your career and how you interacted with them.
SM: Back in the day.. you know… Right On magazine and Jet magazine was a big part of R&B and Pop music. Also, we went to the radio stations and met with the program directors and general managers, and they would play our songs while we were there and the program directors had the power to play the records and put them on. Now, the program director doesn’t really have the power to do that; it’s the general managers and the owner of the station. It’s different with social media and all of that now.. see we didn’t have that. Back in the day, it was more mom and pop that sold our records and more hands-on with artists.
SR: When you went to the studio for the first time and recorded that demo.. talk about the first time you heard your song played on air and your reaction.
SM: When Mtume and Lucas did my first album, I heard “What you gonna do” on the radio in Los Angeles and my sister and I were driving. We just screamed and stopped, and it was amazing, but even today, I still get butterflies and such a joy when I hear my songs being played on the radio; it’s like hearing it for the first time.
SR: You recently shared with your fans that you were in the studio working with producer Daryl Simmons. Tell us about recording Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” unplugged.
SM: You know, “Thinking Out Loud” was a song I loved… I enjoyed that song. I just love that song, and I wanted to do it in my show. Daryl heard it, and he asked why don’t we record it and do it like an unplugged and that’ how that came about. We were just in the studio, and I actually had recorded another song, and before I left, he said why don’t we put this down, and that’s how it happened.
SR: Talk to us about the differences between performing on Broadway with “The Wiz” and other musicals versus performing your own music/your own show and do you have a preference?
SM: You know, I like them both; they’re totally two different things. When performing on Broadway with thirty-three other cast members, you have to be very exact, very prompt and say your lines and that’s discipline. That’s where I learned my discipline because my first Broadway show, I was 9-years-old, so I come from theatre, but doing your own show, I can change up anytime. I can switch the whole formula around. But I enjoy both.
SR: Let’s talk about your relationship with Mtume and Lucas. We’ve seen how Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis helped Janet Jackson bring her sound forward and over the years the synergy between other iconic producers and artists. What was your synergy with those brothers like?
SM: They were definitely my producers; I think they brought the best out of me. I would love for Mtume and Lucas to get together and let’s do an album today. They were definitely my Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis absolutely and positively. When I moved on with Angela Winbush, I felt like she captured another essence with me. Angela and I are really good friends.
SR: You were recently on a record with Fat Joe and Remy Ma… Talk about that experience.
SM: Oh my goodness, yes. Fat Joe’s wife and I have the same hairdresser, so she came to do my hair and said ‘Fat Joe loves you, and he has this song he wants you to do,’ and I was like, ‘Ok.’ I called him up and went to the studio and did the hook for it and that’s how that came about. I love Fat Joe, and I love Remy Ma.
SR: The tribute you shared on social media for Michael Jackson was very touching and moving. How serious was that relationship?
SM: Haha (laughs emphatically), I guess it was as serious as it could be at 19. We were young, and I was still in “The Wiz,” and Michael was very young, but it was as serious as we were at that time. We really loved each other and had a lot of respect for each other.
SR: Your music is considered to be Grown Folks Music. What is your definition of that?
SM: My definition is Johnny Taylor (laughs), Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, myself, of course, Gladys Knight, Teddy Pendergrass, just good ole R&B music, good ole soul music. I don’t like the category they put music in because I feel like music is music and they categorize it to keep us separate in a way.
SR: What artists of today do you think we would be surprised to hear that you admire?
SM: Uhmm… Big Sean, I love Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Ledisi, Lalah Hathaway, I love Jazmine Sullivan. I listen to a lot of music today. Oh, and I love Tupac. I think they would be surprised to know that I love Tupac. I always say that I could’ve been Tupac’s girlfriend back in the day.
SR: Can you describe the transition of your long-running career as a recording artist — from early years with analog through today where everything now is digital and the differences you experienced in studio and performing.
SM: It doesn’t affect me when I go in the studio because I’m going to perform my songs like I always have anyway. I love going in the studio. I don’t like to spend a lot of time in the studio so that’s why I do my homework and I learn my songs so that I can maybe spend an hour or two doing the song. You get the essence of the song in the first one or two takes of the song, after that, I think it’s like beating a dead horse. I love performing live; I don’t like to perform with backing tracks, I’ll do a track if it’s like for a charity event or something like that, but for the most part, I only perform with my band. I think it’s organic and I never sing the song the same way every time.
SR: We have talent shows now like “The Voice” and “American Idol” where singers are almost becoming stars overnight. What do you remember when you were on that stage at the Apollo, six weeks at a time, and what did that do for your voice and performance?
SM: Oh my goodness! I was a young girl, and yes, I won six weeks in a row at the Apollo Theatre. When I was like 9 or 10, then I got a professional booking there with The Isley Brothers, and I remember in the six weeks, I got a chance to watch Roberta Flack, James Brown; I mean can you imagine me being a young girl and meeting someone like that. It was an experience that I will never forget, and the wonderful thing about it was that later on in my career I performed there and sold out seven days in a row. Just recently, I think I heard that Bruno Mars did a show there and it’s so wonderful because The Apollo has so much history and it is the crowned jewel of Harlem.
SR: You’ve won Grammys, you’ve been on Broadway, you’ve gone gold and platinum several times, you’ve performed along with some iconic talent throughout your career. What are you most proud of?
SM: I’m most proud of still being here standing and being able to do what I do and still enjoy it. Accolades and all of that come and go but to still have a career, [because] this is the only thing that I’ve ever done, to still be able to do it, and people and outlets like yourself want to talk to me and find me interesting, I’m proud of that. I’m proud that I’ve been able to stand and keep standing because a lot of my friends that I’ve come through with are not here, so it makes me sad, but I feel like I’m here standing for them.
SR: Ms. Mills, you have been a part of our lives from cleanup music to BBQ’s to house parties you name it, and it is gratifying to speak with someone who has made our lives beautiful over the years. Thank you
SM: Oh, thank you; that was such a nice way to put it. No one’s ever said it like that… Thank you so much; I appreciate my fans and being able to come to Atlanta and perform with El DeBarge and Stokely on the stage with me. I don’t take any of those things for granted, I never have. Thank you.