Generally, I leave the reissue-oriented stuff to my brother Mike Duquette and his site The Second Disc, but occasionally, there is a compilation or reissue that catches my eye enough to want to write something about it.
I’ve got to say, Hip-O Select has been killing it with the reissues of late. Pulling from the archives of Universal Music, the company that distributes (or has distributed) MCA, Geffen, Def Jam, A&M and Motown (among other influential labels), they certainly have plenty of source material to choose from when choosing their reissue projects.
One of their latest projects is Feel The Fire, a 2-disc set that rounds up the first three albums recorded by singer/actress Stephanie Mills for the 20th Century-Fox label. Starting out as Dorothy in the Broadway show “The Wiz” as a teenager, the diminutive singer went on to become a constant presence on the R&B chart from 1979 until the early Nineties. Her first couple of albums, on Paramount Records and Motown Records, didn’t generate much heat, but when she moved to the 20th Century/Fox label and hooked up with the production team of James Mtume and Reggie Lucas, she came into her own as a star on wax in addition to the stage.
This is the first time any of these three albums-1979’s Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin?, 1980’s Sweet Sensation and 1981’s Stephanie-have been available on CD, somewhat strangely. All three albums were Gold sellers. You’d think a reissue campaign would have been mounted at some point before. Nevertheless, having the albums available on CD (and digitally) is welcome no matter the timeliness.
Mills, barely out of her teens, turned out to be a great fit with Lucas and Mtume (two veterans of Miles Davis’s band who’d recently achieved success with Roberta Flack), and the result was some of the best pop/soul/dance music of the late Seventies and early Eighties. Pop fans will, of course, remember the Top 10 hit “Never Knew Love Like This Before” (a song that won Stephanie a Grammy), while R&B fans will remember tracks like the bouncy “Sweet Sensation”, the shimmering disco track “You Can Get Over”, and the sultry remake of Peabo Bryson’s “Feel The Fire”. Almost immediately, Stephanie proved adept at uptempo tracks and ballads. She (and the producers) took every opportunity to showcase her pipes (and when you listen to her singing-consider the fact that she was barely out of her teens when these songs were recorded) on smooth tracks like “Starlight”, the show-stopping ballad “Still Mine”, and the tender “I Just Want To Say”. There are a lot of treasures to be found here beyond the singles.
Mills’ success helped pave the way for Lucas and Mtume to become one of the most highly sought-after production teams of the early Eighties, working with artists as diverse as Phyllis Hyman and Madonna. Still, there’s the sense that maybe their partnership ended when it should’ve. Despite the smoldering Teddy Pendergrass duet “Two Hearts” (a top 40 pop hit), the Stephanie album shows some signs of wear and tear, especially on “I Believe in Love Songs”, essentially a note-for-note rewrite of “Never Knew Love Like This Before”.
This two-disc set contains a series of extended dance mixes at the end, most of which have been issued previously on other Mills compilations, but are certainly necessary for any fan of the disco and post-disco dance eras. David Nathan’s essay and the carefully notated album notes (including recreations of the front and back covers of each of the three albums) also make this CD package worthwhile (as opposed to going digital.)
While the paths of Mills and Mtume/Lucas would cross again occasionally over the ensuing decade, Mills went on to rack up hits with a variety of other collaborators ranging from Euro-disco maven Harold Faltermeyer to quiet-storm diva Angela Winbush. Her greatest commercial success didn’t even come until 1987, when her If I Were Your Woman album sold a million copies and peeled off two #1 R&B singles. That said, her best work still remains the three 20th Century Fox albums, and Feel The Fire allows for that music-some of the best of it’s time- to finally be heard by a new generation.