Mariah Carey - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
It would be easy to cite the sheer caliber of Mariah Carey’s five-octave vocal range as the sole reason as to why she was the most successful solo artist of the 1990’s. Indeed, the Long Island native’s impressive vocal gymnastics even extends into the elusive whistle range—an octave so high it sounds like whistling—yet her vocal prowess alone is only part of why Mariah Carey holds a record shattering 18 #1 singles in the US alone. But Carey’s chameleonic ability to remain relevant amidst the music industry’s ever-evolving trend shifts is her real gift. Unlike most of her ’90s contemporaries, Carey has hop-scotched from contemporary R&B balladeer to hip-hop vixen to modern diva without sacrificing her staying power. Aside from a few personal and professional pitfalls, Carey has navigated a massively successful career by churning out one multi-platinum hit after another. After the trials and tribulations of a near two-decade career, Carey has earned her position as the world’s premiere R&B diva and most dependable hit-maker, putting her on a short list of the R&B elite.
Mariah Carey was born on March 27, 1970 in Long Island, New York. She inherited a broad vocal range from her mother, Patricia, who was at one time an opera singer and introduced her youngest daughter to music at an early age. While still in high school, she became acquainted with keyboardist Ben Marguiles and the pair worked up a demo tape, and Carey began shopping it around New York City just one day after graduation.
On the heels of securing a gig as a back-up singer for Brenda K. Starr, Starr passed along Carey’s demo to Columbia Records label head, Tommy Mottola, at a party. One version of the story ran that Mottola began listening to the demo in his limousine on his way home and, after hearing the first song, had his driver turn around so he could track down the young singer at the party. Carey signed to Columbia shortly after and immediately began working on her debut full-length album with Mottola acting as executive producer.
Carey was one of the few R&B solo artists to write or co-write the bulk of her own material, and this lent her career a level of legitimacy right away—and most of the material on her debut was co-written with Marguiles. During the recording sessions, Mottola and Carey’s business relationship quickly evolved into a romantic one despite a 20-year age difference between the pair. Columbia gave Carey’s self-titled debut album, Mariah Carey (1990 Columbia), the royal publicity treatment and it wasn’t long before Carey achieved “over night” success on the strength of four #1 singles, “Love Takes Time,” “Someday,” “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” and the opening track, “Visions of Love.” To cap her immediate success off, she would earn two Grammy awards for Best New Artist and Best Female Vocalist in the process.
Featuring production by C+C Music Factory’s Clivilles and Cole, Carey’s sophomore full-length, Emotions (1991 Columbia) contained a slight Motown influence, but largely followed with the successful blend of contemporary balladry with the swing dance numbers of her debut. She also showed some gospel influence in the track, “If It’s Over,” which was a new wrinkle from her frosh effort. A lukewarm critical reception didn’t stop Emotions from spawning Carey’s record-breaking fifth consecutive #1 single, “Emotions,” with subsequent singles, “Can’t Let Go” and “Make It Happen” all cracking the US Top 5.
Debilitating stage fright had dissuaded Carey from performing live in support of her first two albums, leading to rumors that her impressive vocal range was merely a studio fabrication. Carey put those rumors to rest in 1992 with her first live EP, MTV Unplugged (Columbia), taken from a taped live performance at MTV Studios in New York City. The live session not only delivered another #1 hit single with a cover of the Jackson 5’s standard ballad, “I’ll Be There,” but also launched the career of her duet partner, Trey Lorenz.
The following year Carey and Mottola were married, and their lavish wedding made major headlines. The spotlight stirred up extra publicity for her third full-length, released only a few weeks later—Music Box (1993 Columbia). The album became the highest-selling album of Carey’s career to that point, moving over 32 million copies worldwide. The high-energy first single, “Dreamlover,” spent eight weeks at the top of the charts. Carey’s epic ballad, “Hero,” also rocketed to #1 on the charts, and Carey, with pressure to tour in its support, took to the road for the first time. In spite of the record’s success, the tour was universally denounced by critics as an unmitigated disaster.
Carey returned the following year by releasing Merry Christmas (1994 Columbia)—and it became the most successful holiday album of all time. Currently certified platinum five times over, Merry Christmas is regarded a modern holiday staple on the strength of Carey’s enduring classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and the operatic version of “O Holy Night.”
In 1995, Carey broke yet another long-standing record by becoming the first female to have a single debut at #1 on the charts. The breezy pop song “Fantasy” was a juggernaut, spending eight weeks at the summit. The song was the opening track on Carey’s sixth full-length, Daydream (1995 Columbia), which has sold a monumental 30 million copies worldwide to date. Carey’s second single, a duet with Boyz II Men called “One Sweet Day,” was another record breaker, spending an astounding 16 weeks at #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. Daydream was considered by many critics as her best.
Carey embarked on her first worldwide tour in 1996, starting with a capacity crowd in Tokyo, Japan of 50,000 people, and ending at the famed Wembley Arena in London, England.
Inspired by the emancipating dissolution of her marriage to Mottola, Butterfly (1997 Columbia) was touted as Carey’s declaration of independence. With plenty of classy ballads and a version of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” contained therein, Carey had clearly adopted a more sexually explicit persona that matched her erotic hip-hop flavored first single, “Honey.” The Puffy Combs-produced single ended up in the familiar #1 spot on the charts. Butterfly went multi-platinum worldwide, and garnered two Grammy nominations for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song.
The following year Carey teamed up with her idol, Whitney Houston, for the Academy Award-winning ballad, “Prince of Egypt (When You Believe).” The song was recorded as part of the soundtrack to the animated film The Prince of Egypt. It would also be included on Carey’s first greatest hits compilation, #1’s (1998 Columbia), which was a collection of all of her chart-topping singles, as well as the new tracks “Sweetheart” and “I Still Believe.” Despite Carey insisting she hadn’t recorded enough material in her short career to warrant a greatest hits package, #1’s was very successful, selling over 17 million copies worldwide.
Carey closed out the ’90s with one more record-breaking/chart-topping success. Prior to the release of her sixth full-length album—Rainbow (1999)—Columbia released the single “Heartbreaker,” and it became another #1 hit. Mariah Carey would become the only artist to have #1 singles in each year of the decade, placing her ahead of The Beatles with most consecutive weeks at the top spot. Even still, being heavy on hip hop royalty with producers and guest artists ranging from Jay-Z to Missy Elliott, wasn’t enough. Rainbow—which Carey assessed as a chronology of “the emotional roller coaster ride” since her divorce to Mottola—was a relative commercial disappointment. It bowed out at #2 on the charts, making it the first album since Emotions in 1991 to not ascend all the way to the top spot. Nonetheless, the album was still certified platinum three times over by the end of the year.
By the late ’90s, Carey had developed a reputation as an ego-maniacal diva, a public persona she only exacerbated at the turn of the millennium with a series of bizarre public antics, ill-fated forays into a Hollywood career, and highly-publicized multi-million dollar label woes. Upon signing a record-breaking $80 million contract with Virgin Records in early 2001, Carey began working on an ambitious new project—a joint album and feature film called, Glitter. In the next few months Carey began acting erratic, bottoming out in a forgettable appearance on MTV’s TRL where she handed out popsicles to the live television audience wearing nothing but a T-shirt.
Before the end of the summer Carey had been hospitalized for “exhaustion.” Released on September 11, 2001 the timing for Glitter (Virgin) couldn’t have been more disastrous, but it was the resounding critical thrashing of the film and ensuing ’80s pop-inspired album—which featured collaborations with icons Rick James and Cameo—that made Glitter a colossal flop in both entertainment mediums. As part of the fall out, Virgin would pay Carey $28 million to nullify her contract, leaving the troubled star without a record label for the first time in over ten years.
In 2002, Carey signed a $20 million contract with Island Records, who also gave her the MonarC Music subsidiary imprint. Charmbracelet (2002 Island) largely catered to Carey’s early ’90s adult contemporary persona and was hoped to be her big comeback—or at very least a distraction from Glitter—yet her once bombastic voice wasn’t what it used to be, having grown thin over time. Charmbracelet was another critical and commercial bomb, and Carey spent the next three years under the radar, recuperating her vocal chords.
The sleek neo-soul/hip-hop hybrid, The Emancipation of Mimi (2005 Island) marked the rejuvenation of Mariah Carey’s floundering career. Essentially titled after Carey’s alter ego and featuring notable contributions from The Neptunes, Snoop Dogg, Jermaine Dupri, and Kanye West, the album was the big comeback Charmbracelet claimed to be. Bouncing between dance numbers, sweeping ballads, and classic ’70s soul, The Emancipation of Mimi found Carey —and her renewed vocal chords—back to form, and a return to the top of the charts. The album’s instant #1 classics included “Don’t Forget About Us” and “We Belong Together,” the latter of which remained at #1 for 14 weeks. Carey supported the album with “The Adventures of Mimi Tour” in the summer of 2006.
E=MC² (2008 Island) was billed as the sequel to The Emancipation of Mimi, with Carey penning the majority of the material while on the Mimi tour. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, with first single “Touch My Body” becoming Carey’s eighteenth #1 single, breaking the solo artist record previously held by Elvis Presley, and just two shy The Beatles overall #1 singles record of 20.
Carey married actor/rapper Nick Cannon in the spring of 2008, who is—in contrast to Mottola—ten years her junior.