A Pop Fairy Tale

Music Connection (US) February 4, 1991. Text by Pat Lewis.

If there ever was a real life story that more closely resembled a Cinderella fairy tale, it would have to be that of the rags-to-riches story of Columbia recording artist Mariah Carey. Seemingly overnight, and barely into her twenties, this soul-pop stylist has bulldozed her way through the ever-evasive music maze and managed to capture the hearts and record-buying dollars of millions of American music lovers in the process.

In less than six months, Carey's self-titled debut album has slide past the double-platinum mark (that's two million-plus in sales) and, as of this writing, was closing in on the top position of the Billboard album charts. Thus far, the LP has yielded two Number One singles on the pop charts, "Vision Of Love" and "Love Takes Time," and the third single, "Someday," is presently burning up both the pop and R&B charts. And if that wasn't enough, when "Vision Of Love" his the Number One spot on the pop charts, it simultaneously hit Number One on the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts as well. The last time this crossover feat was accomplished was over six years ago by Stevie Wonder.

Mariah's talent certainly didn't go unnoticed by the NAACP, who nominated her for their prestigious Image Award for Best New Female Artist of 1990. Carey, who not only wrote all of the lyrics on her debut album but played a major role in the vocal arrangements and even co-produced several tracks, didn't win the award, but nevertheless, the nomination music have been a healthy ego boost for the soulful singer who turns heads with her model-quality looks.

Another ego boost for this young singer-songwriter came recently when the nominations for the 33rd Annual Grammy Awards were announced. After the dust settled and the tallies were in, it became immediately apparent that Mariah's fairy godmother was once again waving that wand of hers and pointing it in the direction of the stunning vocalist. She received the second most Grammy nominations — five — for Record of the Year ("Vision Of Love"), Album of the Year, Song of the Year ("Vision Of Love") and New Artist.

Mariah Carey grew up in and around the state of New York. When she was three-years-old, her parents divorced. Mariah, who is in her own word of "mixed heritage" — her mother is Caucasian and her father is black and of Venezuelan descent " was raised by her musician mother. A jazz and classical vocalist, her mother sang with the New York City Opera and gave vocal lessons in her spare time. "I didn't gravitate toward opera for my own listening pleasure or to sing," recalls Mariah, "but it was around me, and I would hear [my mother] singing all of the time. She also sang jazz. She was listening to a lot of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and I had those influences as well." But while her mother was listening to jazz and opera music, her young daughter could be found glued to the radio, mimicking R&B heavyweights like Aretha Franklin or Minnie Ripperton or gospel singers such as Shirley Caesar or the Edwin Hawkins Singers. "She has to drag me away from the radio when I was a little girl and make me go to bed because I was just singing constantly," she says.

Even before graduating from high school, Mariah had already made up her mind to pursue a career as a professional singer and songwriter. Her older brother introduced her to songwriter Ben Margulies, and soon Ben and Mariah began writing songs together and cutting demos in his closet-sized studios, located in the back of a wood shop.

Just a week after receiving her diploma, Mariah (who was only seventeen at the time) moved into her own Manhattan apartment to seek her fame and fortune. "I didn't move in by myself," she explains, "I moved in with two other girls — an aspiring actress and another aspiring singer. I waitressed and hostessed and coat-checked — I did all those kinds of aspiring-type jobs. I would wait tables until one or two in the morning and then work in the studio with my writing partner, Ben Margulies, until seven or eight in the morning. I would do that everyday."

Within a year of all this laborious work, she secured a position as a backup singer with Brenda K. Starr, who befriended Mariah and provided her with the key that would eventually unlock the most important industry door of her fairy-tale career. "Brenda was so supportive of me, and she always wanted to help me out," says Carey. "When people in the business would be around, she would say things like, 'Listen to this girl sing. She writes all of her own songs. She's only eighteen-years-old.' And so on. So, this one time, we had just come off the road after a four-month tour, and she brought me to this CBS party and gave my tape to the President of CBS Records [Don Ienner]. And that was basically the beginning for me. That was my big break."

Interestingly, Mariah insists that her success did not happen overnight, "I've always known what I've wanted to do," she says. "It really took a lot of hard work."

Much of that hard work included the many hours of songcrafting she and Margulies put in during the three years that preceded her recording contract. Carey, who perks right up when the conversation shifts to songwriting, describes the creative process that she and longtime collaborator Margulies usually go through when writing together. "With Ben," she explains, "we'll sit down together, and either I'll have a melodic idea or he'll have a chord progression or I'll have a chord progression, and we'll sort of just jam with that for awhile. Then we'll put the music together — here's the intro, here's the verse, here's the chorus, do a double chorus here, whatever — and then I'll hum about five different melodies over it and take that tape home and write the lyrics."

And while you probably won't find any deep messages or dark, personal secrets in those lyrics, there's still more there than meets the ears. "What I do a lot of the time," she offers, "is I'll write something that may seem like it is a love song or whatever, but really it's about other things. For example, 'Vision Of Love' isn't really about a guy-girl love relationship. It's more like a celebration. In my life, I was going through a major turning point — I was going through my deal, which was a big accomplishment for me. I was really happy, and things were starting to go great for me. It's really about realizing dreams and, sure, there's a little bit about a love situation, too."

With her success has also come an onslaught of Whitney Houston comparisons, and she complains at the frequency of these comparisons. "Every time I answer this question," she sighs, "I try to think of a creative way to answer it. Whitney is a great vocalist and, you know, that's basically it. I don't aspire to be Whitney Houston. I'm not trying to follow in her footsteps. I,m a singer-songwriter, and writing is a major part of what I do — which I know isn't something that she's really ventured into. So I think that's a major difference between us."

Of course, having a hot-shot producer like Narada Michael Walden (who produced Whitney Houston) involved in her project has only helped give credence to those Whitney-sound-alike comparisons. Carey protests: "Narada did one song, and the rest he did some re-mixes on. So it wasn't like he did my whole album."

Along with Narada Michael Walden, Mariah Carey was produced by Rhett Lawrence and Ric Wake. But of the three producers, it was probably Lawrence who spent the greatest number of hours with Mariah in the studio. Lawrence, who calls Mariah "the best vocalist I have ever heard in my life," offers'a particularly memorable studio anecdote: "One time while Pat Dillett [the engineer who worked with Carey in New York] and I were doing background vocals, I asked Mariah to double the melody. And so she doubled the melody — no problem. And then I said, 'Okay, double it an octave up.' And she doubled it an octave up. I smiled at Pat, and we started playing a game with her. So I said, 'Go ahead and double it an octave above that.' And she did it with no problem — she just kind of smiled. [Pat and I] just looked at each other. It was amazing, because it was a pretty complicated riff, and it just sounded perfect. So, I asked her if she could double it an octave above that. And she did it — no problem. We were floored! To be able to work with somebody that can do just about anything that you can think of vocally is a real pleasure."

Mariah's debut album took over a year to complete. And while a good deal of attention was spent on songwriting; vocal performances and song arrangenents, a fair amount of the time was also spent passing some of the actual multi-track master tapes from one producer/re-mixer to the next — the record company, apparently, looking for that magical mix.

The first single, "Vision Of Love," was a prime example. "With 'Vision Of Love,'" says Narada Michael Walden, "it was cut, and Donny Ienner [Columbia's President] and Tomy Mottola [Sony Corp's President] liked it, but they wanted to know how it would sound if it came through my studio. So I listened to it and made suggestions, and they gave me the green light to go ahead and take what I was given and just sort of polish it and spruce it up and add some production value that hopefully would help it to be a hit."

But how much did the song actually change from the time Walden received it until the time he sent it back? "It's hard to say how much it changed," Walden answers, "because, you see, the song was already great as a song, and I liked the production. It was just that there were some things that I heard that I might be able to bring to it — you know, a change in the bass line or drums or a change in the sounds. It's small things to me that make hit records. Great songs, yes, but in the production, it's some of the small things."

Originally credited on the album with "additional production" for "Vision Of Love," Narada Michael Walden's name did not appear on the Billboard charts credits; Rhett Lawience was credited as the song's sole producer. However, as the song approached the Number One position, Walden's name suddenly appeared.

And once again when "Vision Of Love" was announced as a Grammy contender for Record of the Year, Walden's name was not included. Currently, Walden is in the process of having his name added, while Lawrence is fighting to keep Walden's name off. As of this writing, NARAS has confirmed that Walden's name wilt, in fact, be added to the ballot and he will share the producer credits of the song with Rhett Lawrence.

While Carey's producers continue to fight for the appropriate credit, Princess Mariah is readying herself for the Grammy ball and keeping herself busy in the interim writing material for her follow-up album.

"Sure, I'm busy," she admits, "but there are a lot worse things I could be busy doing [laughs]. I'm just very excited and very thankful for everything that has happened to me. I feel if anything, it's more humbling to have this success because it really makes me realize that I was so close to not even getting a deal. I mean, I'm sure it would have happened eventually, because I was just going to work that much harder for it. But you never know what's going to happen, and all the things just fell into place. I'm very fortunate, you know."