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How was Mariah Carey linked to the Mafia? [November 14, 1993]
Mariah Carey's Hero; plus, Four-Calendar Café by Cocteau Twins
Hey, welcome to This Week In The 90s where we tell stories loosely based on what was in the UK charts 30 years ago.
This week, we’re talking about the song that was at Number 7 on November 14, 1993…
Mariah Carey, ’Hero’
Joaquin Manuel Garcia was an FBI agent assigned to one of the most dangerous missions imaginable: infiltrating the Mafia. For several years, he pretended to be a wiseguy fixer called Jack Falcone, getting close to a mob capo called Greg DePalma. DePalma loved to talk about his exploits—and Garcia recorded all of his confessions.
In 2006, Garcia’s recordings were used as evidence in a racketeering trial. The jury heard DePalma bragging about how everyone feared him, even the manager of the upmarket Valbella restaurant, which had a $5 million wine cellar. DePalma schmoozed lots of high-profile figures there, including the head of Sony Music, Tommy Mottola, and his “very quiet, very reserved…beautiful” wife, Mariah Carey.
Mottola is a guy who often tried to portray himself as something of a Mafioso over the years. Some say it’s a facade; others claim he has some dark secrets.
Only one thing is for sure. The Mafia have always played a role in pop music.
If you look inside your heart
Back in the 1940s, popular music was booming, but consumer record sales were still a small business. The majority of discs pressed were for commercial usage, with around 75% of records ending up in jukeboxes.
Jukeboxes were an easy way to launder money, which made them highly attractive to organised crime. In New York City, almost every Wurlitzer in town was controlled by Meyer Lansky, who was known to many as “the mob’s accountant”.
In the 1950s, the consumer record market exploded, creating even more opportunities for opportunity. This was the era of the Payola scandal, in which record companies were found to have bribed radio stations into promoting their artists. When someone refused a bribe, gangs would step in with more direct methods of persuasion.
One person connected to both pop music and organized crime was Morris Levy, a Jewish impresario known as “The Octopus” because he had tentacles everywhere. Levy founded the legendary Birdland jazz club, regularly hosting names like Charlie Parker, Count Basie and John Coltrane.
After a run-in with ASCAP, the performing rights association that collected royalties from clubs like Birdland, Levy realised that there was a lot of money in music publishing if you could get songs on the cheap. He founded the Roulette Records label, producing a mix of pop, R’n’B and jazz—while also allegedly laundering money for the Gambini crime family.
Levy’s tactics were brutal, strong-arming artists into terrible contracts, adding himself to songwriting credits (entitling him to royalties), and buying up the rights to old hits.
(Levy won the rights to ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’ in a poker game and added himself as a songwriter. When the real authors asked for royalties, he threatened to kill them. They successfully sued for $4 million in 1992, but a legal technicality means Levy is still credited as a co-author.)
In fairness, Levy did seem to really care about having hits and pushed Roulette’s records hard. One of his artists was impressed by his enthusiastic support, saying:
“I’d get in the limo with George Goldner, an employee. He’d drive. It would be a couple of ladies of the evening, hookers, in the back of the limo and we’d drive to these towns. They’d meet with the deejays, give them an envelope with cash in it, allow them their way with the girls in the car, and then go on to the next town. And the next town. And the next town. Our records were played. God forbid they took the money and didn’t play the records. That’s when the baseball bats came out… and worse.”
Maurice Levy’s career came to a spectacular end in 1988 when he was convicted for extortion and assault. Levy had agreed a deal for $1.25 million of “cut-offs”—discontinued records that could be sold at a discount without any royalties to the artist. The buyer wasn’t happy with the quality of records provided and tried to back out, so Levy sent some guys with baseball bats.
The FBI had been watching this deal, suspecting it was the money-laundering wing of a massive heroin operation. Levy was convicted but denied any Mafia involvement. He died of cancer before serving any jail time.
A few years later, Michael Fuchs of Warner Music went to visit his rival, Tommy Mottola. According to New York magazine:
[He was] invited to lunch at Mottola’s sprawling house in Bedford. Fuchs asked Mottola who was the biggest influence on the house. “But I think he misheard the question,” says Fuchs. “ ‘The biggest influence on my life, everything,’ he said, ‘was Morris Levy.’”
And then a hero comes along
Tommy Mottola grew up in the Bronx, the son of an Italian-American customs broker who (according to Vanity Fair) may have had ties to organised crime. The Mottola’s were upwardly mobile enough to move to the suburbs, where Tommy became a face on the local rock’n’roll scene.
He started dating the daughter of Samuel Clark, a music industry veteran who started in Tin Pan Alley, spent years in the jukebox business, and finally became President of ABC Records. One source later said of Clark:
"That was a Mob business. Not everyone in it was a hood, but everybody who was in it was dealing with somebody who was a hood. If Sam wasn't tough, he wouldn't have survived."
Mottola married Clark’s daughter and tried to make it in the music industry… as a singer.
Mottola’s pop career didn’t work out, but he had more luck when he moved into management. In the mid-70s, he stumbled across a promising band called Whole Oates. He suggested the rebrand as Hall and Oates, got them a lucrative deal with RCA, and guided them to superstar status.
He also signed a contract that would make Colonel Tom wince, entitling him to 25% gross of Hall and Oates’ earnings. They struggled with bankruptcy in later year; his business soared.
Around this time, Mottola started portraying himself as a gangster. He liked to wear flashy purple leather jackets, and he founded a new management company called “Don Tommy Enterprises”. Maurice Levy took Mottola under his wing and started teaching him the dark arts of record promotion. He also introduced him to people like Vincente “Vinny The Chin” Gigante (who once ordered a hit on John Gotti).
Mottola’s career soared in the 80s, and he soon became the right-hand man for Walter Yetnikoff, head of CBS Records, which was now part of Sony. Yetnikoff was a larger-than-life figure who also enjoyed hanging out with shady characters and was linked to the “record promoter” Joseph Isgro, who was involved with the Gambino family and charged with using violent Payola tactics (he was cleared, but later jailed on other charges).
Mottola had so many unsavoury links that Sony felt compelled to do a F.B.I. check as he rose through the ranked. Their opinion of Tommy was:
"No, this guy is not somebody who will start dealing with people we should worry about. But he has friends who do."
Motolla’s mobster image didn’t hold him back. If anything, his ruthless boardroom behaviour was his biggest asset. He became known as a bruiser, a shark, a guy who wasn’t queasy about doing dirty work. Walter Yetnikoff trusted him as his right hand man
Then, in 1990, Walter Yetnikoff was ousted in a coup that Mottola may have orchestrated. Tommy became the head of Sony Music in America, and was on his way to becoming the most powerful man in the music business. But first, he was about to launch the career of his protege (and lover) Mariah Carey.
And the sorrow that you know
Was Tommy Mottola really a gangster, or was it all a facade?
It’s hard to say. John Mellancamp once laughed at the idea of Mottola as a hard man, saying, "He couldn't whip shit with an eggbeater."
Mottola never tried too hard to dispel the mobster allegations. He’s a man given to self-mythologising. When he signed Mariah, he concocted a fable about how she was a penniless waitress who snuck into a fancy ball, and he was the Prince Charming who found her demo tape, but she had vanished when he looked for her.
(The truth is more prosaic. One of Mottola’s rivals discovered and wanted to sign Mariah; Tommy swooped in with a larger offer.)
When Carey and Mottola were married in 1993, they copied every detail of Charles and Diana’s Royal Wedding, with Mariah studying videos of Di’s dress and movement. The lavish ceremony was described by some as being more like a coronation than a wedding.
Tommy also lived the dark side of the Mafia fantasy. At the height of his powers, he always carried a gun and travelled in a bullet-proof limo. His office blinds were permanently closed to protect him against snipers.
This paranoia extended to his new wife, who was frequently shut at home and only allowed out under supervision. She describes her time with Mottola like so:
“I was very much…what's the word, locked away. I was given the rules and had to stick with them."
Mottola’s controlling behaviour extended to her music. Mariah was young and cool, and she wanted to make R’n’B and hip-hop records. Tommy refused, insisting that she perform the kind of syrupy pop that defined her early career.
Mariah Carey was one of the world’s biggest pop stars in 1993, but she was living like a gangster’s moll.
You'll finally see the truth
Mariah writes most of her own music, and ‘Hero’ was one of her first attempts to write for someone else (Gloria Estefan, who was supposed to perform it on the Accidental Hero soundtrack). The song only took a few hours and she didn’t think much of it, but Mottola was blown away. “Are you kidding me?” he said. “You can't give this song to that movie.”
Years later, after she’d left Tommy, Mariah gave an interview where she said:
“Now I'm trying to have fun — I don't wanna be old before my time. I don't want to be on stage in a freaking sequinned gown singing 'Hero' every night.”
But she does sing it every night.
Even though the lyrics of ‘Hero’ are kind of bland and schmaltzy (according to Mariah herself), it’s a deeply meaningful track to many people. She’s received so many letters who talked themselves out of suicide after listening to ‘Hero’ that she’s scared not to sing it, so it’s become a non-negotiable part of her setlist. She’s stuck with ‘Hero’ forever.
That’s the thing about the Mafia. Once you’re in, you can never really get out.
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New in this week’s charts
Some of the latest hits (from 30 years ago…)
8—Elton John with Kiki Dee, ‘True Love’
Not quite a Christmas song, but Elton’s Duets album is clearly intended for the “last minute gift for mum” market.
This is a perfectly serviceable version of the Cole Porter classic. Fun fact: it originally appeared in High Society and was nominated for Best Song, but lost out to Doris Day’s ‘Que Sera Sera’ from The Man Who Knew Too Much.
9—Guns n Roses, ‘Ain’t It Fun’
I had planned to review G’n’R’s dreadful The Spaghetti Incident, but you know what? Let’s pretend it never happened. Moving on…
12—Janet Jackson, ‘Again’
Lot of ballads this week! This is probably the best of the bunch, although it’s still quite bland.
21—Sting, ‘Demolition Man’
Sting goes slightly industrial on this pretty good theme for a pretty great movie. Have you rewatched Demolition Man recently? You should, it’s aged like fine wine.
24—DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, ‘I’m Looking For The One To Be With Me’
You wouldn’t guess it from the title, but this is the least ballad-ey of today’s tracks. It’s fine, although Will Smith is audibly ready to move on from being The Fresh Prince.
Hear all of this week’s new tracks in the ever-growing 1993 playlist!
Album of the Week
Cocteau Twins, Four-Calendar Café
A recurring trend in this section is Indie Artists Trying To Follow Up A Perfect Album. We’ve seen people like The Cure, Depeche Mode, and The Sundays almost-but-not-quite reach the heights of their previous masterpieces. How will Cocteau Twins get on with their first album in three years? Will it match the dizzy heights of Heaven Or Las Vegas?
Almost. But not quite.
Four-Calendar Café is a surprisingly unsurprising album, filled with normal songs and—shock, horror—intelligible lyrics. It’s still magical, it still shimmers, but now Elizabeth Frasier is singing in plain English rather than assorted Unwinisms.
And what she’s saying is sometimes quite brutal. On ‘Know Who You Are At Every Age, she sings, “I won't heal unless I cry/I can't grieve, so I won't grow”. On the lead single ‘Evangeline’, she talks about how “I had to fantasize just to survive/I was a famous artist everybody took me seriously”, her voice wrapped in ghostly harmonies with herself.
‘Bluebeard’, which is maybe the most mainstream single they ever recorded, is an irresistible dreampop melody with a folky coffee shop air, but it’s also where we see the fatal fractures emerging in the Cocteau Twins as Fraser asks:
Are you the right man for me?
Are you safe? Are you my friend?
Robin Guthrie, her musical and marital partner, was not the right man for her in the end. He was struggling with a serious cocaine addiction and the couple broke up before the album came out.
Four-Calender Café is not quite the final Cocteau Twins album (they managed one more in 1996 before the project finally shut down), but it is where their remarkable story ends.
Not really a successor to Heaven Or Las Vegas, then. More of an epilogue.