Throughout his career, Sony Music executive and star maker Tommy Mottola has worked with Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Destiny’s Child, Celine Dion, Lauryn Hill, Mariah Carey, and countless others. Over the years has fought with these megastars, broken bread with them, toasted them, roasted them ... and even married one of them.
In Hitmaker: The Man and His Music, written with Cal Fussman and released Wednesday, Mottola chronicles his rise to becoming the music industry’s most successful and influential executive, telling tales out of school along the way about catching his big break with Hall and Oates, falling out with Jackson, and his headline-grabbing, infamous romance with an undiscovered starlet by the name of Mariah Carey. Read on for the most revealing bits from the memoir.
1. It was love at first sight with Mariah Carey.
Mottola was at a party in 1988—and still married to his first wife—when he was handed a demo tape by singer Brenda K. Starr. “What is it?” he asked. Starr motioned across the room. “I found myself staring into brown eyes that were staring back at me in a way that demanded attention,” Mottola writes. “That’s my friend,” Starr said. “Her name is Mariah.” He listened to the demo in the car on his way home from the party. “An unbelievable energy was running through me, screaming, Turn the car around! That may be the best voice you’ve heard in your entire life!”
It was soon after, with just three words, that Mottola realized he was in love. He popped in at a recording session, and Carey looked at him and said, “You look great!” Mottola writes that, at that moment, “everything went into slow motion.” He was 40; she wasn’t yet 20. “I thought: Life is short. Fuck it. This is what I feel. This is what I’m going to do,” Mottola writes. “I went off with Mariah without thinking about the possible consequences and repercussions, or the effect that both might have on my children.”
2. He knew his marriage to Mariah was a bad idea.
“It was absolutely wrong and inappropriate for me to become involved with Mariah,” he writes. Still, Mottola recounts happy days at the beginning of his romance with Carey and refutes all reports that he was a Svengali who hypnotized her with his power. But, he adds, “I should have listened to the piercing voice of my shrink and maintained my distance.” He’s quick to clarify, however, that, “by the way, it was Mariah who asked me to marry her.”
Most of us can remember the photos and footage from Mottola and Carey’s frivolously opulent wedding ceremony, with the 50 flower girls and every major celebrity in attendance. That’s about all Mottola can remember too. “When I think back to the wedding to Mariah, all that’s left in my mind is a stop-action still frame—the kind of publicity shot that might be in the newspaper the next day or that I see still floating around the internet.” The one vivid memory—and his biggest clue that he was making a major mistake: his 12-year-old daughter weeping during the ceremony while his 13-year-old son held her. “They felt terribly out of place and uncomfortable, and they knew in their bones what I simply couldn’t feel,” he writes.
3. They broke up after the 1996 Grammys.
With Carey’s career in the stratosphere and a lavish wedding behind them, “the fairy tale continued,” Mottola writes, with a mansion in Bedford, New York. It had a salon for Carey, a state-of-the-art recording studio, and an indoor swimming pool covered by a cloud ceiling. By the time their relationship was heading toward its end, Carey would call the palatial estate Sing Sing, after the prison.
The two attended the 1996 Grammy Awards together, and Carey, despite being all but assured by Mottola of winning a handful of trophies, went home empty-handed. “You could hear the crack between us cracking open a little wider on a night that I was hoping would allow to look back on all the good times that had brought us this far,” he writes. The couple broke up soon after. Mottola went to work and left a note with lyrics to an Elton John song on the nightstand: “Butterflies are free to fly/Fly away…”
4. Michael Jackson was as weird as you think.
While Mottola shows a soft spot and sympathy for Jackson and the tortured life he led, he doesn’t shy away from revealing the extent of the King of Pop’s quirks. When he renewed his contract with Sony in 1991, for example, Jackson insisted that the company issue a press release saying that the deal was worth $1 billion. It wasn’t, and everyone knew it, but Jackson still insisted. (The real advance was more in the range of $35 million.) During negotiations, Mottola remembers visiting Jackson’s hotel room at the Four Seasons and encountering 24 life-size, fully clothed mannequins. “Oh, I just like them,” Jackson said. “They’re my friends.” Mottola awkwardly complimented them, and the next day Jackson sent two of them to his office.
5. Jackson also thought Mottola was racist. Nobody agreed.
Jackson had strong-armed Sony into pouring tens of millions of dollars into his album Invincible, Mottola writes, and when the album flopped and Jackson couldn’t recoup the money, he started on a smear campaign to cut ties with the record company. He held a press conference with Al Sharpton to denounce racial inequality in the music industry and called Mottola a racist and a devil. “I didn’t know whether to laugh hysterically, because it was really kind of comical, or to be violently offended and pissed off,” Mottola writes.
He immediately called Sharpton, who said he was sorry that Jackson had turned the press conference into a soapbox. Carey’s spokesperson publicly refuted Jackson’s accusations, and Russell Simmons spoke on Mottola’s behalf. Mottola offers a blunt assessment of the ordeal: “Michael was lashing out at authority and simply looking for a way to get out of his contract with Sony. The attack was sad and pathetic ... Now that Michael has passed there’s little benefit to me in bringing the incident back up.”
6. So many classic songs nearly didn’t happen.
You know how the best part of every December is the joyful playing of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on a near-constant loop? That song almost never existed. Carey was especially insecure about being thought of as too mainstream and poppy and worried about alienating urban hip-hop fans. So when the idea of a Christmas album was pitched to her, she initially balked. When she saw the now iconic album cover, with her in a sexy Santa suit on a sleigh, she raged, “What are you trying to do, turn me into Connie Francis?” Of course, as the years passed, Carey’s changed her tune and calls the album and the track one of her favorites.
Another song that almost never came to be for the same reason was the megahit ballad “Hero.” Carey was actually writing the song for Gloria Estefan. But Carey sang through what she was working on, and Mottola stopped her immediately: “This could be one of the best songs I’ve ever heard,” he told her. She didn’t want to record it because “it’s too white-bread—it’s just not me.” Mottola eventually wore her down, he writes, and the rest is bestselling history. Yet another future smash that took coaxing to get the artist to record was Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Mottola writes that Dion had no interest in the song and had to be persuaded just to cut a demo of it. The demo was recorded in one take and was so flawless that it ended up being laid on the track.
7. John Mellencamp was a nightmare.
By the mid-’80s, Mottola was a star manager, having shepherded the careers of Hall and Oates to blockbuster success. But he wanted more, and he can thank one particular singer for that epiphany. “There’s one person I must credit for helping me see my way out of management and eventually up to the top at Sony: John Mellencamp,” Mottola writes. “Excuse me for being sarcastic when I say that. But the truth is the truth. There were many moments of working with John that made me want to run straight for the exit.”
It shouldn’t be surprising, as Mottola reveals that Mellencamp had earned himself the nickname Little Bastard. In one instance, the two men disagreed over the allotment of tour percentages, and Mellencamp challenged Mottola to an arm-wrestling match to settle it. Neither could beat the other, so they called it a tie and split the difference. Another time, Mellencamp and his team challenged Mottola and his co-workers to a football game with a $1,000 prize. After losing, Mellencamp called his wife over and had her throw the grand of cash in the snow at Mottola’s feet.
8. He was once a recording artist himself ... named T.D. Valentine.
Before puppeteering the careers of music’s biggest stars, a teenage Mottola scored his own record deal—though he let his managers convince him to change his name to T.D. Valentine. He recorded songs including “Women Without Love,” “Allison Took Me Away,” and “Love Trap.” That his career fizzled, Mottola says in hindsight, is not so surprising. “My singing voice may have been a 5 out of 10,” he writes.
Even after entering the corporate world, he never left singing behind completely. Mottola—in addition to several other brass at MRC Music—can be heard singing the chorus of “Na na na na…” on the sports-arena staple “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”