Few albums have a stamped legacy in my memory as strongly as Stephanie Mills’ Sweet Sensation. I was about 14 when I first heard this heard this positively jubilant album. Mills was not much older when she made it.
Stephanie Mills was one of those very young artists who’s record company could not figure out how to best use her very mature voice. Like Aretha Franklin or Dionne Warrick, the young Mills was blessed with great vocal ability, but would need the guidance of the right producer to reach her full potential.
After a few unsuccessful albums on Motown in the mid ’70s she got the role of Dorthy in the Broadway stage production of The Wiz. Her performance, especially on the song ‘Home’ made her a teenage star where she attracted the attention of Micheal Jackson. They became friends (some say romantically so), but it was clear that MJ no doubt was an influence on her.
For Mills, the planets had aligned as she struck gold with the disco friendly What Cha’ Gonna Do with My Lovin’ in 1979. Mills was a star, but with a limited dance and R&B audience. It would be her fourth album produced by Mtume and Reggie Lucas that would make her a pop star.
I always associate Sweet Sensation with the Christmas holiday season, although it came out in the spring of 1980. The joyful, infectious pop was uplifting in much the same way that Micheal Jackson’s Off the Wall or the music of Ashford and Simpson.
That joyful vibe came from the hit singles ‘Never Knew Love Like This Before’ and the title track, which had moved from the R&B charts to the mainstream top ten. The album, mostly a mix of mid tempo and ballads did have a concession to Mills’ disco roots with ‘D-A-N-C-I-N’.
When the album was not catering to disco, the results were timeless songs that showcased Stephanie’s distinctive voice. The production made up mostly of traditional instruments with the occasional synthesizer was typical of the warm sound of most R&B music before 1982, a time when musicians were replaced by electronics in bulk.
‘Still Mine’, perhaps the albums best ballad wraps lush orchestrated around beautifully harmonizing backing vocals with just a touch of gospel. Songs like ‘Still Mine’ were much of the reason Mills would continue to strike gold throughout the ’80s and for much of the ’90s.
While her hits would continue, it was the two Grammy award-winning album Sweet Sensation that would score the biggest impact on the mainstream pop charts. During the title track’s climb to the charts, Mills was featured as a musical guest on the popular Sa Na Nah variety show. Other than the world seeing how short Mills was for the first time, it got to hear the strangest rendition of ‘Sweet Sensation‘. The backing chorus from the show’s cast sounded as if it could have come from a Parlament record. After that she would remain a R&B icon in the minds of most Americans.