On the current album "If I Were Your Woman," Stephanie Mills returns to the type of music she performs best: unfiltered R&B. And it's paid off. The album has gone gold, and it's spawned two Top 10 black hits: the gospel-edged "I Feel Good All Over" and the funky, dance-oriented "Puttin' a Rush on Me."
In the past, Mills has attempted to do the kind of pop-laced material that Whitney Houston and Diana Ross do--but Mills met with a less than chart-busting response from her core audience of black fans.
"I realize that R&B is what I do best, and I'm comfortable with that," says the 28-year-old vocalist. "I don't know how to cross over, and that's OK because I'm satisfied with my audience. I'd like to have mass appeal, but not at the expense of what I am and what I do best."
Mills can't figure why pop radio has been resistant to the material from her album. "If they can play (L. L. Cool J's) 'I'm Bad,' they can play 'Puttin' a Rush on Me,' " she noted during a recent interview.
Mills' manager (and sister-in-law) Cassandra Mills is often credited with persuading the singer to abandon that pop direction and return to what Mills referred to as the basics. "She's tried to surround me with producers and composers who will let me collaborate and contribute my own ideas," Mills said.
The singer also thinks that many of the career gains she's made recently are due to Cassandra's managerial savvy. "I've had a lot of highs and lows in my career. But Cassandra has a great rapport going with my record company (MCA Records) and together we've made incredible strides. The fact that she's family just means there's added commitment."
The fact that so few black performers employ black management is one issue raised by civil rights groups in recent criticism of the music business.
Mills' view: "I'd like to see more of us utilize black representation. I'm not saying hire black people because they're black. But there are qualified black managers, promoters and publicists out there, so why not pool our talents?"
Mills believes that the reason her current album is a hit is because "it captured the personal side of me. I'm not just singing words. I've really lived the songs on that album."
The sense that Mills was projecting her personal conviction into "I Feel Good All Over" is largely what gave that first single from the album its slow-building fervor and impact. Written by Gabriel and Annette Hardman, the song has the same type of soul-based conviction heard on her past R&B ballad hits "Feel the Fire" (a torrid 1981 duet with Teddy Pendergrass) and last year's "I've Learned to Respect the Power of Love."
Said Mills, "Those are the type of ballads that I can really sink my teeth into. My audience goes crazy over songs like that, so I let them dictate the kind of music I record." She added that re-teaming with Pendergrass on another blockbuster ballad is also worth considering. "He's my ultimate duet partner. I'd love the opportunity to work with him again."
Mills, who recently headlined the Universal Amphitheatre, credits her Broadway background for giving her the confidence she projects on stage. The native New Yorker appeared in the 1968 Broadway musical production "Maggie Flynn." Seven years later she was playing Dorothy in the Tony-award winning "The Wiz."
"Even though I'm a woman now, people still think of me as Dorothy," observed Mills, who's planning to appear in a Broadway musical version of "To Sir With Love" once she's completed her current concert tour. Being on stage is one aspect of the entertainment business that she enjoys the most: "Onstage, you can be anything you want to be. In concert, I might project a different side of myself, but I wouldn't do anything I'd be embarrassed of."