Sometimes, when an artist enjoys commercial success and critical acclaim early in their career, they spend the rest of their career trying to match this success. In the case of Stephanie Mills, this was the case. Her third album Whatcha Gonna Do With My Loving, this proved to be the most successful album of her career. It reached number twenty-two in the US Billboard 200 and number twelve in the US R&B Charts. After that, try as she could, Stephanie never replicated that success. Neither 1980s Sweet Sensation, nor 1981s Stephanie matched the commercial success of Whatcha Gonna Do With My Loving. While Stephanie consistently released hit singles, album success eluded her. So, in 1982, Stephanie change labels, signing to Casablanca Records. Tantalisingly Hot, Stephanie’s 1982 debut for Casablanca got her career back on track, reaching number forty-eight in the US Billboard 200 and number ten in the US R&B Charts. Stephanie’s career, it seemed, was back on track. So in 1983, when Stephanie Mills released Merciless, which will be rereleased on 18th March 2013, by Soul Music Records, it seemed her career was about to enjoy commercial success and critical acclaim again. Would that be the case with Merciless?
For Stephanie Mills’ seventh album Merciless, she’d join up with the production team of Phil Ramone and Charles Koppleman, who’d established an enviable reputation within the music industry. Joining Phil and Charles for the recording of Merciless, were David Wolfert and Gary Klein, who’d take charge of arranging. They were also talented songwriters, who’d written The Four Tops’ When She Was My Girl. For Merciless, David Wolfert cowrote Never Get Enough of You and Here I Am with Henry Gaffney. Stephanie cowrote His Name Is Michael with Cassandra Mills and Michael Sembello. Jay Asher and Paul Jabara penned Eternal Love, Peter Kingsbury wrote Pilot Error and Kleinberg and Schukket cowrote Since We’ve Been Together. Barbara Morr and Betsy Mathes cowrote Do You Love Him, while Stephanie covered Prince’s How Come U Don’t Call Any More. The other track was My Body, which written for Stephanie by Luther Vandross. These nine tracks became Merciless.
Recording of Merciless took place at four studios in New York and Los Angeles. In New York, recording took place at The Hit Factory and Automated Sound Studios. Over in Los Angeles, Cherokee Recording Studios and the Record Plant were used. The band that accompanied Stephanie included some top session musicians. This included a rhythm section that variously included drummers Ed Greene, Carlos Vega and John Robinson, bassists Nathan East and Neil Stubenhaus and guitarists Michael Sombello, David Wolfert, Thomas Rotella and Carlos Rios. With this being the age of the synth, Ed Walsh, Johnny Mandel and Ian Underwood were drafted in. Greg Phillingaines played piano and keyboards, while percussion came courtesy of Lenny Castro and Victor Feldman. Backing vocalists included Peggie Blu and Yvonne Lewis. David Wolfert and Gary Klein arranged several tracks, while f Phil Ramone and Charles Koppleman produced Merciless. Once Merciless was completed, it was due for release in 1983. Would Merciless see Stephanie Mills’ career revival continue.
On the release of Merciless in 1983, it reached just number 104 in the US Billboard 200 and number twelve in the US R&B Charts. After the success of Tantalizingly Hot this was disappointing. Pilot Error was released as the lead single from Merciless. It reached number twelve in the US R&B Charts and number three in the US Dance Music/Club Play Charts. How Come U Don’t Call Any More then reached number twelve in the US R&B Charts. A small crumb of comfort for Stephanie was that, at least the singles released from Merciless fared better than those released from Tantalizingly Hot. However, why didn’t Merciless match the success of Tantalizingly Hot? That’s what I’ll now tell you.
Opening Merciless, is How Come U Don’t Call Any More, written by Prince. Rather than reinvent the song, Stephanie and her producers don’t try to reinvent the song. Instead, against a mid-tempo, moody piano-lead arrangement Stephanie delivers a vocal that’s filled with hurt and heartbreak. Gospel tinged harmonies and growling horns join the piano in playing crucial roles in the song’s success. Indeed, so good is this emotive, powerful, cover version, that I prefer it to the original.
Never Get Enough of You sees the tempo rise, and the quality continue. This is a much more dance-floor friendly track. With banks of synths joining a funky rhythm section and percussion, Stephanie’s sassy vocal ensures the song swings. Soaring equally sassy, soaring harmonies and bursts of pounding drums add to the drama. Chiming guitars add to the arrangement’s funkiness, while the synths provide the backdrop for Stephanie’s strutting diva-esque vocal.
The tempo drops way down, as understated keyboards open Eternal Love. Straight away, there’s a melancholy sound to the arrangement. Then when Stephanie’s vocal enters, it’s filled with sadness and longing. Keyboards, a prowling bass and swathes of strings join cascading harmonies as Stephanie’s vocal grows in power and passion. Backing vocalists and lush string join Stephanie, as she demonstrates her ability to breath life meaning and emotion into this beautiful ballad. Not only that, but it demonstrates her versatility as a vocal.
His Name Is Michael is a track Stephanie cowrote. This allows Stephanie to showcase her talents as a songwriter. She’s joined by Peggy Blu, who Stephanie picked to sing this duet. Just slow, spacious drums, guitars and bass combine, before Stephanie’s half-spoken vocal enters. Soon, her vocal grows in power and joy, becoming ethereal. Peggy’s vocal is deeper and matches Stephanie for power. Their voices prove the perfect fit. They’re vocals are the focus of your attention, while the arrangement meanders behind them. Mostly, it’s a song filled with joy and hope, which latterly gives way to humor and frustration. It’s a track with a sting in the tale, about a two-timing guy who gets found out.
Here I Am has a vibrant, upbeat, cascading arrangement and punchy, kicking horns, that scene’s set for Stephanie’s vocal. Straight away, you realize the song is tailor made for Stephanie. She delivers a heartfelt, joyful vocal, while synths, blazing horns and the rhythm section provide a dance-floor friendly arrangement. Soon, Stephanie and her band hit a groove. They feed off each other, and drive each other to greater heights. The result is an irresistible and infectiously catchy track that should’ve been released as a single.
My Body was written for Stephanie by her longtime friend Luther Vandross. While it’s a good song, it has Luther’s trademark sound. Like many songwriters, Luther Vandross had a signature sound. This track is an example of this. However, Stephanie grabs the track and through sheer will and determination, makes it work. It has a dramatic, driving piano lead arrangement. Soaring harmonies, synths and the rhythm section enter, while Stephanie combines energy, enthusiasm and exuberance to make the song a success.
As Do You Love Him unfolds, the song and its arrangement is reminiscent of Eternal Love. Both tracks have understated arrangements and use keyboards and layers of strings. This works though, allowing you to focus on Stephanie’s impassioned, captivating vocal. Power, emotion and sincerity are combined by Stephanie, as again, she reinforces that when it comes to ballads, she was one of the best female singers of the late-seventies and eighties.
Drums pounds, joining washes of synths and percussion as the dance track Pilot Error reveals its secrets. It’s very different from previous tracks. There’s a tougher sound to the eighties arrangement, while Stephanie’s vocal has a rawer sound. The arrangement is a mass of synths, searing rocky guitars and cascading harmonies. Although made for the dance-floor, eighties electronica and rock are fused, resulting in a track that can be dated to the early eighties. However, it does allow Stephanie to show another side to her music.
Since We’ve Been Together closes Merciless. Just an uber funky bass and keyboards combine to give the arrangement an understated, but funky, upbeat sound. Then when Stephanie’s vocal enters, it’s sweet, soulful and filled with hope and happiness. This song is much more suited to her. Similarly, the arrangement compliments her vocal. It doesn’t overpower Stephanie’s vocal. Instead, it’s almost understated, playing a supporting role to Stephanie, as she closes Merciless on a soulful, dance-floor friendly high.
Of the trio of albums Stephanie Mills recorded for Casablanca Records, Merciless is without doubt, the best. Merciless marks a return to form for Stephanie Mills. During the nine tracks on Merciless, Stephanie mixes soulfulness with a dance-floor friendly sound. Opening Merciless is Stephanie’s cover of Prince’s How Come U Don’t Call Any More. It’s so good, I prefer it to the original. Then on Never Get Enough of You, Stephanie is transformed into a dance-floor diva. Eternal Love, like Do You Love Him, is a gorgeous ballad, and is one of the highlights of Merciless. His Name Is Michael which Stephanie cowrote, is one part hope, happiness and humor, while Here I Am has hit single written all over it. Why such a hook-laden track wasn’t released as a single seems a missed opportunity. Since We’ve Been Together closes Merciless on a soulful, dance-floor friendly high.
The two other tracks on Merciless are the Luther Vandross penned My Body and Pilot Error. My Body has Luther’s signature sound, and from the opening bars, it’s obvious this is a Luther Vandross song. Still, through sheer determination Stephanie makes it work. Pilot Error has a real eighties sound, and with its fusion of electronica and rocky guitars, hints at how music was heading during the eighties. From soul, dance-music, funk and rock, Merciless was a truly eclectic album from Stephanie Mills.
Overall, Merciless is the best album Stephanie Mills released for Casablanca Records. Sadly, it wasn’t her most successful album. Music fans missed what was Stephanie’s best album since her most successful album, Whatcha Gonna Do With My Loving, released in 1979. With music changing rapidly during the early eighties, artists like Stephanie Mills were no longer as popular. Merciless with its mixture of ballads and dance tracks maybe fell foul of changing musical fashions. Now thirty years after its release, Soul Music Records, will rerelease Merciless on 25th March 2013. This gives those who missed Merciless the first time round the chance to hear what they missed. What they, and newcomers to Stephanie Mills’ music will hear on Merciless, is the best album she released on Casablanca Records. Standout Tracks: How Come U Don’t Call Any More, Eternal Love, Here I Am and Do You Love Him.