If anyone could rest of her laurels, it would be singer Stephanie Mills, who has entertained fans for years with hits such as “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” “Home” and “The Comfort of a Man,” among many others (and let’s not forget her role in the Broadway version of The Wiz). Well, she’s back with a new CD, Breathless, and will part of an Aug. 14 show at the Rosemont Theater with Jeffrey Osborne and Kenny G. The down-to-earth star called Windy City Times from North Carolina and talked about Breathless, the Apollo and same-sex parents.
WCT: (Windy City Times) I know you won Amateur Night at the Apollo. Is that place—and audience—as scary as people make them out to be?
SM: (Stephanie Mills) It can be. [Laughs] I won there six times, and then I got a professional booking there with the Isley Brothers.
This is all I’ve ever done; I’ve made my living through singing and performing.
[Regarding the Apollo], when you’re 9 or 10 years old, you really don’t have any fear. I had been singing in church so I didn’t have any fear so, really, it was just another place where I had been singing. If I had been older when I did it, I probably wouldn’t have done it because I would’ve known what rejection was at that point.
WCT: You’ve had so many hits over the years—and I know that each song is like a child. Do you have a favorite child?
SM: Oh, my goodness. I don’t have a favorite child but there are certain songs I love singing, like “Never Knew Love” and “Home.” I just put like “Starlight” and “Give It Half a Chance” back in my show. But I also enjoy singing “Power of Love” and “I Feel Good All Over”—I don’t have a favorite; they all say different things and they all make me feel different.
WCT: I was listening to “Home” yesterday, and I felt all of these emotions. It’s one of those songs that hits you.
SM: Yes. I re-recorded it, and it was really emotional for me because people in the show [The Wiz] had passed away, like producer Ken Harper and Charlie Smalls, who had written all of the beautiful songs in the show. I wanted people to never forget that song and realize how special it is.
WCT: Let’s talk about this new CD, Breathless.
SM: Yes! In fact, I am in Charlotte—my home—and we’ve been mixing all week so the CD should be ready by September. “Breathless” is a song about a man who took my breath away. I’ve written nine of the 10 songs on the CD.
WCT: And the one you did not write was the classic song “Yesterday.”
SM: Correct. I did that as a tribute to Michael Jackson, but now I have [the Jackson 5 song] “I’ll Be There” in the show so I’m going to put that on the album. But I just do the verses that I like.
WCT: You mentioned Michael so I have to ask: Where were you when you heard about him passing away?
SM: Oh, my God. I was home in my kitchen. The news came on and I heard, “Michael Jackson has suffered cardiac arrest.” I was like, “Oh, this is another publicity stunt. It’s genius.” Then when I realized what actually happened, I could not believe it. Still—to this day—I don’t think it’s really hit me that he’s gone. I mean, I’ve lost Teddy Pendergrass, Gerald Levert. I’ve lost so many people I had been working with.
WCT: And there’s Luther Vandross. I read that your version of “Yesterday” is a tribute to him.
SM: “Yesterday” is a tribute to Michael, Luther, Gerald, Teddy and many people I’ve loved. We’ve lost so many talents and no one can fill that void. No one can walk in their shoes.
WCT: Walk in those shoes? People can’t even shine those shoes.
SM: [Laughs] No, they cannot. Back in the day, Teddy, Gerald, Luther and others—we come from a place where we honed our craft. The younger generation doesn’t seem as dedicated. It’s like with the basketball players: Magic, Michael Jordan and all of them were really dedicated to the game, whereas the new ballers seem to be about bling and who has the biggest house.
WCT: I agree. Even going back to [basketball superstar] Dr. J, it was about being devoted to the game.
SM: Yes! It wasn’t about the salary, endorsements or anything like that; it was about the love of the game. Now, if a player hurts a finger, he can’t play. Michael Jordan played even if he had the flu—and that’s how I was taught. Even if you were sick, you still did the Broadway show.
WCT: How much fun was The Wiz? I want to know what that show was like.
SM: The Wiz? I was 16 years old and I did not want to audition for it; I had gone out for so many things and did not get them. My mother made me go to this audition—and that experience ended up changing my life. To be with [director] Geoffrey Holder, Charlie Smalls, Andre DeShields [who played The Wizard], Ted Ross [the Lion], Mabel King [Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West] and Hinton Battle [the Scarecrow]—all those wonderful people.
WCT: If you could change one thing about the music business, what would it be?
SM: I wish people were not so greedy. I wish the business was more for the artist and not for the record company, managers and press people. I think it should go back to being more about the artist, and that the artist should not get ripped off. Sometimes, the artists get ripped off by people they trust.
WCT: And it seems like a lot of artists are not given a chance. If you don’t sell a certain number of copies ... that’s it.
SM: Yes—you’re just thrown away. That’s why I’m doing my album on an independent label. Who can tell you if it’s going to be a hit? No one has a crystal ball. You have to put it out there and let the public choose.
I didn’t go along with the program—and then I decided I didn’t want a record deal any longer. I did my own thing, touring and singing, because I love the [art]. I didn’t want the industry to tear me down; that’s why I moved to Charlotte.
People thought it was a death wish, but I took my chances. I didn’t want to be one of those artists who winds up losing their minds. The industry can suck the life out of many artists—and they can’t get back to the love of singing.
WCT: You’ve covered quite a few songs in your career. If there happened to be a Stephanie Mills tribute album, who would you want covering your songs?
SM: Oh, my God! I would want Deborah Cox, Aretha, Natalie [Cole], Whitney, India.Arie, Gladys [Knight], Mary J. Blige. I would like to see how they would sing my songs.
WCT: I know that Whitney has sung “Home,” and I would love to hear Gladys’ interpretation of one of your songs, like “I Feel Good All Over.”
SM: Oh, that would be awesome. That’s the ultimate compliment. What Gladys or even Chaka would do would be her own.
WCT: What do you think of reality shows such as American Idol? Are you a fan of any of those shows?
SM: I used to watch American Idol, but I got burned out after the first couple of seasons. I don’t particularly like reality shows—and I really don’t like the ones that degrade women, where all of these women are clamoring over one guy. I don’t like that.
WCT: It seems like any person who goes on a reality show becomes a celebrity.
SM: Yes! They haven’t earned it. That’s my thing: They become instant stars. Jon & Kate: Plus 8—who cares? [Interview laughs.] C’mon. Everyone kisses and tells.
WCT: You’re coming here Aug. 14. Could you talk about the show?
SM: The Shriners are celebrating their 88th anniversary, and they have 22 hospitals nationwide. And what I love is even my son—I have a child with Down’s syndrome—can get access to the best spinal-cord doctors in the country. I’ve gone through all the channels and I discovered that everyone is treated in a special way. The Shriners hospitals are the best, with state-of-the-art equipment—and more than 1 million children have received care, with no cost to them. A lot of people don’t realize that.
And I’m excited to be on the stage with Kenny G. It’s my first time working with him, and it should be an awesome experience.
WCT: Windy City Times is a paper for the gay community, and I’m sure you know you have a...
SM: Huge following—yes I do, and I’m so thankful for that.
What I want to say is that I really do admire the gay community for many things—but especially for adopting children. They really do take care of their children. I haven’t heard of anything [untoward] happening.
Stephanie Mills will perform at “Caring for Kids” with Kenny G and Jeffrey Osborne Saturday, Aug. 14, at 7 p.m. at the Rosemont Theatre. All proceeds will benefit Shriners Hospitals for Children®. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased by visiting