Stephanie Mills is an artist who I knew primarily through consistent name dropping-all before delving deeper into her music in the last couple of years through used vinyl. This Brooklyn native began her career as a Broadway stage actress at the age of nine in Maggie Flynn. As an actress her most famous role of course was as Dorothy in the stage production of The Wiz. While her rangy,gospel soul belt of a voice she seemed to be natural for recording. Yet her early to mid 70’s album releases were not very successful for her. This all began to change during the disco era.
After 1979’s “What ‘Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin”,Mills (one of a small minority of black American recording artists with black management,incidentally) began a winning streak that kept her consistently on the R&B charts and on DJ’s turntables on the dance floor at the exact moment disco transitioned into the boogie sound. One such album from this period was the 1983 release of Merciless. Recorded at the height of the boogie/electro funk era,she began the album with a version of Prince’s B-side ballad “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore”. But one if its more defining grooves was the song “Pilot Error”.
A heavy drum and conga based percussion rhythm starts out the song unaccompanied. Then an synth riser that sounds simulating an airplane engine opens into the refrain of the song. This is that rhythm playing along with a snaky synth bass-with a popping rhythm guitar playing the accents. Another synthesizer plays some slightly jazzy harmony chords. On the choruses,the vocal aspect of the melody goes into a harder gospel vibe (complete with backup harmonies) and the percussion going up a bit higher in the mix again. The lead synth takes a solo on the bridge before the chorus fades out the song.
“Pilot Error” is one of the most masterful productions I’ve heard from 1983. It has elements of boogie’s use of synthesizer’s as orchestral elements for sure. But it also has that sense of arrangement and live percussion that defined the 70’s funk era. The Smokey Robinson like lyrical metaphors (which extend so well into its accompanying music video) also dovetail (pun intended) into the airplane like synthesizer effects. In terms of its arrangement and instrumental choices,this song is a strong candidate for the Top 10 grooves from the boogie/post disco funk era.