NASHVILLE — Behind Mariah, Michael, and the constellation of stars at arguably the most successful record label in history stood a man who didn’t often talk to the media or explain his motivations.
Now, a decade after leaving Sony Music Entertainment, Tommy Mottola tells his story in a new book, Hitmaker: The Man and His Music. He apologizes for the fallout from his marriage to Mariah Carey. He explains the label’s behind-the-scenes support for Michael Jackson as the singer’s life and career took one strange turn after another. And he traces the arc of the music business as it evolved over the course of his lifetime — from Elvis to the iPod.
As a label executive, Mottola made it a point to stay out of reporters’ notebooks. But as an author, he didn’t shy from the topics longtime industry watchers are interested in — though he threw away two versions of the book he hated before finding a groove he was comfortable with.
“I always try to take a backseat, even with this book,” Mottola said in a recent phone interview. “And my thoughts were always, ‘Do the work, try to do good work, and the results will speak for itself.’ That was always my philosophy, though I went against my own philosophy and decided to write this book. So there you go, so much for that.”
Mottola, a Bronx native, is a former singer and song pitcher who went on to manage Hall & Oates through superstardom before joining future Sony acquisition CBS Records. He helped guide Sony into the record business and eventually took over the worldwide chairmanship of the company, which sold eight billion records and earned $65 billion in his 15 years as the head of the company.
Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey are just the beginning of the list. The roster also included Bruce Springsteen, Destiny’s Child, Celine Dion, The Dixie Chicks, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel ... and don’t forget the Latin Explosion with Gloria Estefan, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, and Shakira.
His fingerprints remain all over the record business.
“I think he was a genius and ... I don’t think we’ll be able to see what Tommy Mottola did again because it’s definitely a different business out there,” said Emilio Estefan, who described Mottola as his brother in a phone interview. “He definitely wrote a chapter in the music business that I don’t think will be done again.”
Hitmaker, written with Cal Fussman, is no fairy tale, however. He details his successes and the drive that propelled him to the top of the business, but also talks at length about the down times. The 63-year-old is fairly unsparing of the executives who ushered him out at Sony.
“I had a vision really of building this total entertainment company, which obviously today exists as public companies in Live Nation and lots of other companies like that, or AEG, where the company could have participated in every source of revenue,” he said. “But there was no one there who even remotely understood what I was talking about at that level.”
Mottola says Jackson “snapped” when he lashed out at his label — and Mottola personally — amid accusations of child molestation and declining record sales. Jackson called Mottola the devil and waged a public campaign to be released from his recording contract.
Over time, Mottola said, the two repaired the rift: “That blew over and we ended up being great friends.” But as the label’s chairman, Mottola was in the uncomfortable position of being the only person telling Jackson no when expenses began to mount on his increasingly extravagant projects.
“We tried on his behalf, for his sake, to put the brakes on many times ...” Mottola said. “And we did the best we could. But at the end of the day Michael was an adult. M was a man in his 30s and 40s when I worked with him and he could make his own decisions at the end of the day even though his advisers may be telling him different.”
As for Jackson’s legal troubles, Mottola said the label played the role of supporter without forming an opinion about the charges.
“It wasn’t our position to pass judgment,” he said. “It was really our position to support Michael and that’s what we did. We were there and we supported Michael to the best of our ability.”
Even more public than the rift with Jackson is Mottola’s romance, marriage, and eventual divorce from Carey, a 19-year-old backup singer he helped guide to the top of the music industry. Over the years Carey has characterized Mottola as controlling, cloistering her in a mansion she later called “Sing Sing” even as she became the world’s most popular performer.
In the book Mottola writes it was “absolutely wrong and inappropriate” to become involved with Carey. He writes he’s “truly sorry for any discomfort or pain that all of my good intentions inevitably caused her, and most of all for the scars it left on my two oldest children” from his first marriage.
Mottola felt it was important to lay out the story as he saw it after “harsh” and “untrue” descriptions Carey has given in interviews over the years. He notes Carey asked him to marry her. And of the charges he was restrictive and controlling, a Svengali figure? “Lots of crap.”
Emilio Estefan said the divorce from Carey, who was unavailable for comment, led to a dark period for his friend personally, one he’s delighted to have helped end by introducing Mottola to his third wife, Mexican actress and singer Thalia. They now have two children together.
“I know the separation between him and Mariah was hard for both of them,” Estefan said. “I love both of them, of course. I was a witness and a friend with Mariah, too, for many years being with them at big parties and celebrations. Sometimes things happen and when the whole thing happened I saw him very lonely and I knew Thalia was in New York filming a movie.” He suggested they have dinner: “And you know something? They clicked. He called me that night and said, ‘I love this girl,’ and she called me and said, ‘I love this guy.’ Both of them love each other and they have an incredible relationship.”