Stephanie Mills performing live at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza
Photo Credit: Joy Childs for Sentinel
To hear her sing at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza’s outdoor promenade last week, one might have asked: Am I really at an outdoor R&B concert? Or at an outdoor church service?
And the answer would have been: Yes and yes. Because that’s what broadly defines Stephanie Mills’ style: a big, booming funkily soulful voice with a healthy infusion of her Brooklyn church roots. That these sounds come out of a shorter-than-5-foot entertainer—who still sounds as good on each and every song of her 80 minute set as she did on her post-Wiz recordings of the late ’70s and disco ’80s days—is remarkable—but not surprising.
Anyone who’s followed her career, even from a distance, has no doubt she’s the consummate performer. And they know on this date, she may have sounded even better than back in the day—what with a number of profound life’s experiences under her belt to add power, depth and grit to her God-given vocal gifts.
The big picture: First, there were her record-breaking six wins at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night. Then, there was her meteoric rise to the top of Broadway in the 1970s when she played Dorothy in The Wiz, in which was born her signature song “Home”—followed by what many felt was her being swindled out of that role in the movie adaptation of the Broadway musical to Diana Ross.
Then, there were the traumas and dramas that come with record label changes. And the marriages that ended in divorce. But along the way there was also the gift of a son— with Down’s syndrome, of whom she is fiercely protective.
All know she’s a survivor, as she seemed anxious to prove this night. Dressed in shimmering royal blue attire and matching shoes, Mills strutted from one side of the stage to the other, occasionally touching on her love experiences, unafraid to show the audience her vulnerability in love.
With her trio of all-dressed-in-white backup singing males and the rest of her band, she blazed hard through her biggest disco hits “Put Your Body In It” (and many in the audience did!) and “What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin,’ ” the latter Mills’ first gold record—never forgetting to throw kisses to the fans who stood the whole concert in the mall parking lot above the stage.
Fans always find it a cool thing when an artist’s own music inspires her to dance her ass off, as Mills did on “Never Knew Love Like This Before” before toning it down—just a bit— on a serious love ballad on “I Feel Good All Over.”
What was left for the finale was, of course, “Home,” which Mills belted out as if she were on a Broadway stage singing it before a packed Broadway audience. And just as if she were on Broadway, Mills’ multitude of fans roared their approval.