Tommy Mottola Tells All in 'Hitmaker'
by jennifer demeritt
“From Elvis to the iPod” is the scope of the new memoir Hitmaker: The Man and His Music by Tommy Mottola, 63, one of the few record company executives (along with David Geffen and Clive Davis) to become a household name. As the chairman of Sony Music for 15 years, he guided the careers of some of the biggest pop stars of their day—including Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan, Celine Dion, Ricky Martin, and Jennifer Lopez—and presided over the sale of 8 billion units of CDs and cassettes. As one of the most influential executives in the history of the industry, he’s in a unique position to reflect on the transformation of the music world—from vinyl LPs to MP3s. On a more personal level, he wanted to document his achievements in that world “before it all gets vaporized someday,” he says.
Mottola’s roots in popular music run deep. His name crops up in the lyrics to the 1976 number- one dance hit “Cherchez la Femme” by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band (as their manager, he secured the band’s first major label deal, with RCA). And his voice can be heard in Paul Leka’s 1969 hit “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)” (while working at Mercury Records, he answered a call for extra background singers—not necessarily good ones—to fill out the final chorus and give it that rude, jubilant attitude that has made it an undying favorite at football halftimes).
But it all started when Mottola was growing up in the Bronx and the nearby suburb of New Rochelle, listening to Elvis on AM radio. His trumpet playing earned him a music scholarship to Iona Grammar School, and in high school he scored paid gigs as a singer and guitar player with a popular local band. He also immersed himself in the live music scenes in New York City and in Miami, where his family vacationed. “In my teenage years, Miami was loaded with incredible live music,” Mottola recalls. “There used to be a place on the 79th Street Causeway called The Barn, and it had this crazy guy, Wayne Cochran, who used to play there with his big band. If you went up to 263rd Street, there was a hotel called The Castaways and the Newport—they had fantastic music clubs.”
Soon after high school, Mottola released two singles under the name T.D. Valentine. The songs received airplay on the radio but no traction beyond that. In his memoir, he bluntly explains the reason why. “If a demo from an 18-year-old kid named Tommy Mottola had come across my desk when I was running Sony Music, I never would have signed him. I would have known immediately that on a scale of 1 to 10, his voice was only a 5 or 6—even though his singing interpretation and intention was there.”
So he decided to get a job in the business. He credits the years he spent performing and learning everything he could about music for his stratospheric success. “I was able to communicate with artists, songwriters, musicians, and producers in their own language,” Mottola says. “I think they had a different respect for me than most executives because I understood what they were about.” He also had the ability to identify talent in other people, which he believes is a talent in its own right. “I absolutely think it’s a gift—100 percent,” he adds.
That gift made an impact when he met Daryl Hall and John Oates while working at Chappell Music in the mid-1970s. Mottola started managing the band, steering them to become one of the most popular duos in rock music. His success managing them and other stars such as John Mellencamp and Carly Simon earned him credibility throughout the industry. That, along with his ferocious ambition, fueled his rapid ascent from talent manager to the head of US operations for CBS Records and then chairman and chief executive of Sony Music.
At CBS and Sony, Mottola worked with the stars that made him a star in his own right—most famously with Mariah Carey, whose gospel-tinged, five-octave voice captivated millions of fans, and who also became his second wife. He admits that their tumultuous relationship was partially driven by a “midlife crisis” on his part, but his influence on her career cannot be denied. He signed her first record deal and personally oversaw the production of her debut album, which went multiplatinum in 1990 and spawned a string of number-one hits, launching her as one of the top-selling female vocalists of the decade. He took a similar hands-on approach when he saw star potential in other singers, putting in long hours at night in the recording studio after a full day of running the company. “I would personally be in the studio at nighttime, whether it was Mariah, Celine Dion, Shakira, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, and put the songwriters and producers together, literally work on every detail of the process—the record making, the album artwork, marketing, touring, television shows.”
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was engineering the so-called “Latin explosion,” which brought singers like Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, and Jennifer Lopez to the fore. “I was always puzzled, having grown up as a kid in the Bronx, hearing those [Latin] rhythms—why can’t we take this music, the flavor and rhythms, and fuse it with pop? Get these artists to sing in English, and why wouldn’t this become a global hit? Well, the answer was, because nobody did it—and we did.” Martin went on to sell more than 60 million albums, Lopez achieved multiplatinum status, and Estefan has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide.
Sony’s US Latin operations division was headquartered in Miami, and Mottola often spent time here for business. His personal connection to the city deepened when Gloria Estefan introduced him to the Latina pop sensation Thalía, who has been his wife for 12 years. This “circle of connection” inspired him to move next door to Gloria and Emilio Estefan on Star Island. “We loved it. We lived there for about six years,” Mottola says, though eventually Thalía’s enormous fan base in Miami made living on Star Island overwhelming. “We would have the tour boats come by every day and people following us. It was more than we bargained for,” he says. “I ended up selling it to Puffy.”
Mottola was once famous for enjoying the high life. At the peak of his tenure as chairman, Sony was valued at $14 billion, with the artists he signed channeling millions in record sales to the company—and to himself. But as electronic file sharing hammered CD sales, it became harder to justify the lavish budgets that supported Mottola’s biggest stars. He left Sony in 2003.
Soon after, he launched Casablanca Records in a deal with Universal Music Group, and he signed Lindsay Lohan and the singer Mika under the imprint. Today, he’s also involved in the production of three Broadway shows (though details were hush-hush at press time), the private-equity business, and a few other ventures. He also has a hand in managing Thalía’s career. “I help her along,” he says. “I helped make her new album, which, I’m proud to say, the Billboard Latin chart came out today, and it’s number one [in Mexico]. And she just had a one-hour special on Univision, and I helped produce the show. And why not? It’s the person I love most in my life, and if I can lend my experience to help her, it’s more than my pleasure.” Not a surprising sentiment from a man whose lifelong passion is music.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BOBBY BANK/WIREIMAGE.COM (MOTTOLA 1976); JOE CORRIGAN/GETTY IMAGES FOR TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL (SIMON); FRANK MICELOTTA/GETTY IMAGES (MELLENCAMP); ROBIN PLATZER/TWIN IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES (LOPEZ); RON GALELLA/WIREIMAGE/GETTY IMAGES (THALÍA, CAREY)
Peter Max talks 'Ocean Drive'-commissioned cover artwork & more with Mika Brzezinski