Tommy Mottola's Memoir Strikes a Chord
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 his day, including Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Ricky Martin, and Jennifer Lopez, and presided over the sale of eight 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 “before it all gets vaporized.”
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 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. Soon after, he released two singles under the name T.D. Valentine. The songs got airplay on the radio but no traction beyond that. In his memoir, Mottola explains the reason why bluntly. “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… On a scale of 1 to 10, his voice was only a 5 or 6.”
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 as a recording executive. “I was able to communicate with artists, songwriters, musicians, and producers in their own language,” he 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. One hundred percent.”
That gift made an impact when he met Daryl Hall and John Oates while working at Chappell Music in the mid-1970s. He 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 driving ambition, fueled his rapid ascent from talent manager to the head of US operations for CBS Records and then chairman 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. In his memoir, 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 personally oversaw the production of her first album, which went multi-platinum 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. “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? The answer was, because nobody did it—and we did.”
One of the memorable moments of the Latin Explosion was Ricky Martin’s performance of “La Copa De La Vida” at the 1999 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, which electrified the nation with its surging Latin rhythms and a line of drummers streaming down the aisle of the Shrine Auditorium. “That show single-handedly broke Ricky’s career,” Mottola says. “We sold 30 million albums.” As anticipation builds for the 55th annual 2013 Grammy Awards at Staples Center, Mottola recalls how the show could be a game-changer for an artist. “If you had a new album happening and timed it right, that show could be the icing on the cake that would catapult that album all the way to the top 10.”
When he was running Sony, Mottola was often at the company’s Santa Monica headquarters, and in the 1970s and early 1980s he had a house in Coldwater Canyon. “It was a golden time,” he says. “And the best place ever in the history of the world, at a certain time, was The Beverly Hills Hotel. Hotel California.” He won’t reveal any of the goings-on there, “but you can imagine them,” he says. “They’re all in the song Don Henley wrote.”
Mottola was 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. 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’s also enjoying his 13th year of marriage to the stunning Thalía, one of the most popular singers in Latin America, and he has a hand in managing her 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 ron galella/wire image/getty images (carey); robin platzer/twin images/getty images (lopez); frank micelotta/image direct/getty images; ron gallella ltd/getty images (sodi); BOBBY BANK/WIREIMAGE/GETTY IMAGES (MATTOLA); FRANK MICELOTTA/IMAGEDIRECT/GETTY IMAGES (MELLENCAMP); JOE CORRIGAN/GETTY IMAGES FOR TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL (SIMON)
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.