Historic meetings: When Mariah met a music mogul

When Mariah Carey met Tommy Mottola, the future singing superstar was working as a waitress in New York. Little did she know her life was about to change beyond all recognition after the music mogul gave her a record deal.

Back in 1988, Carey was 18 years old and living in New York, having graduated from Harborfields High School in 1987. Her mother Patricia was a vocal coach and former opera singer. Carey started singing at home at the age of three and began writing lyrics while still at high school.

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Her mother gave her vocal training and Carey found part-time work in the Long Island music scene as a backing singer, making demo tapes for other aspiring musicians and also recording her own demo tape. However, her music career didn’t take off and she attended beauty school in New York City.

Fateful meeting

Carey needed to work as a waitress to pay her rent after moving into a shared apartment in Manhattan with four other female students, but she carried on singing as a side-line.

In December 1988, she landed a live gig singing backing vocals for Brenda K Starr, the famous freestyle, R&B and salsa singer. Afterwards, Starr invited Carey to a CBS record executives’ gala. The savvy teenager took her own demo tape and handed it to the head of Columbia Records, Mottola, whom she had never met before.

The 40-year-old was chairman and CEO of one of the world’s biggest record labels, Sony Music Entertainment. He heard demo tapes all the time and put Carey’s in his pocket. Sometime later, he left the event to be driven home.

Finding Carey’s tape in his pocket, he played it in the car and realised he was listening to a very special and unique talent. Legend has it he immediately asked the driver to turn round and return to the party, as there were no contact details on the demo. However, he discovered Carey had already left and no-one knew where to find her.

Cinderella story

Mottola spent the next two weeks using his contacts in the music industry to search for the unknown singer, in what was described as a “Cinderella story”.

When he finally managed to contact Carey, another record label was already wooing her, but Mottola was determined to sign her and offered her a record deal with Sony Music she couldn’t refuse, as he was prepared to spend more than $1 million promoting her first album.

Mottola enlisted top producers Narada Michael Walden, Ric Wake and Rhett Lawrence for Carey’s first album, called Mariah Carey. Released on 12th June 1990, it was a massive hit, topping the US Billboard chart for 11 consecutive weeks. Enjoying a meteoric rise to stardom, she rivalled the likes of Whitney Houston and Madonna.

At the 33rd annual Grammy Awards, Carey won the Best New Artist award and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the single, Vision of Love, taken from her album. Her next three singles – Love Takes Time, I Don’t Wanna Cry and Someday – all topped the charts and Mariah Carey became the best-selling album of 1991 in the United States, selling 15 million copies.

Personal life

When Mottola first met Carey, he had been married to Lisa Clark since 1971 and they had two children. However, they divorced in 1990. Following his divorce, Mottola’s relationship with Carey changed and they started dating. In June 1993, they married, when he was 43 and she was 24 years old. Shortly after their wedding, Carey spoke of their “fairy tale” relationship. As well as being married, they were also collaborating on her blossoming music career.

While recording her fifth studio album, Daydream, Carey had more creative control, but this led to tension with her record label. The album was less pop-oriented and featured more hip hop and R&B influences. Critics described the album as her best to date and the New York Times hailed it as one of 1995’s best albums.

Carey reportedly began focusing on her personal life after the success of Daydream. Her marriage to Mottola was reportedly beginning to deteriorate and had become a constant struggle. It was said to be as a result of their growing creative differences when it came to the direction of her albums.

After separating on 30th May 1997, the couple divorced in 1998. In an interview in 2019, Carey described her former husband Mottola as a controlling person, who tried to keep her at home, despite her being a pop superstar.

She likened herself to a “child bride” and said the marriage was “very controlled”, making her feel almost like a prisoner.

In his 2013 book, Hitmaker: The Man and His Music, Mottola described his relationship with Carey as being “absolutely wrong”. He apologised for the pain she had gone through but said his actions all stemmed from good intentions. However, he denied being controlling and said he wanted to set the record straight after the way Carey had described him. He believed they had given their marriage the best shot they could.

Career highlights

After the marriage ended, Carey’s career continued to be highly successful. As one of the best-selling artists in history, with sales of more than 200 million records worldwide; nineteen of her singles made number one in the Billboard Hot 100 chart. She holds the record for the most chart-topping singles by a solo artist, a female producer and a female songwriter.

In 2019, Carey was named the all-time top female artist in the US by Billboard. With 19 World Music Awards, 15 Billboard Music Awards, five Grammy Awards and ten American Music Awards, she has also been inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

No-one can say for sure whether Carey would have been a successful singer without Mottola’s help. He helped her at the start of her career, not only giving her a record deal but also using his influence within the music industry to promote the young star. Undoubtedly, she reaped the benefits of the relationship, in terms of the immense marketing power he had, although all these years later, she is managing just fine on her own!

Without her initial meeting with the music mogul, it’s impossible to say whether she would have become such a massive icon.

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