In a rehearsal studio in midtown New York, Mariah Carey is singing "Vision of Love" – over and over. Her left hand moving at her side, she experiments with the harmonies, improvising a new arrangement with a pianist and two backup singers. In contrast to the lush production that dominates Carey's debut album, the trio provides a spare accompaniment, leaving plenty of room for her mighty voice to explore the shape of the melody. Why, she's asked during a break, didn't she record the song this way? "It wasn't my choice to do so much production," she answers quickly and goes back to work.
If Carey had less control over her debut than she wanted, it's because of Columbia Records' immense expectations for her career. The label followed the June release of her album with a promotional blitz equal to the push given Bruce Springsteen in 1975. "We don't look at her as a dance-pop artist," says label president Don Ienner. "We look at her as a franchise."
Only a month after the album's release, the expectations appear to be justified. Mariah Carey is the fastest-breaking LP this year, climbing in just four weeks to Number Fifteen on Billboard's pop-albums chart, while "Vision of Love" has moved to Number Five on the singles chart.
Before the rehearsal, Carey talked over dinner at a chic Italian restaurant, watched by a chaperon from Columbia. The twenty-year-old singer was raised by her mother, a voice teacher and former New York City Opera singer who named her third child after a song from the Lerner and Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon. Inspired by her older siblings' love for classic soul and gospel, Carey headed for Manhattan the day after graduating from high school to pursue a singing career. She wrote songs during the day and waited tables at night at a series of restaurants, getting fired frequently "for having attitude."
It was perhaps an abundance of attitude that enabled her, at a music-business party in 1988, to hand her demo tape to Tommy Mottola, who six months earlier had become president of the CBS Records Group, Columbia's parent company. "I said to myself, 'Great, another demo tape,' " says Mottola. But after he played it in his limo later that night, he was impressed enough to return to the party in search of Carey.
In 1989, Mottola lured Ienner away from Arista Records, where he had helped build Whitney Houston's career. Mottola wanted him to take charge of restocking Columbia's roster with younger acts, and for Ienner, Carey was an "inspiration" to change labels.
"For this particular time," he says, "she is my No. 1 priority." Thanks to New Kids on the Block, Columbia was the Number One label of 1989, according to Billboard's year-end chart. And the label boasts a lineup of prestigious artists, such as Springsteen, Dylan, the Rolling Stones, George Michael, Billy Joel and Barbra Streisand, but they record infrequently. At a time when women have been dominating the charts, Columbia lacked a young female superstar. In selecting producers for Carey's debut, Ienner took no chances, tapping Narada Michael Walden and Ric Wake, who'd given him hits with Whitney Houston and Taylor Dayne, respectively.
In early June, Columbia secured promotional appearances on The Arsenio Hall Show and arranged to have Carey sing "America the Beautiful" before the first game of the National Basketball Association finals, unusual opportunities for a singer whose debut album hadn't even been released. As further evidence of Columbia's corporate dedication, the first "Vision of Love" video was scrapped, and a new clip was commissioned. An informed source places the combined cost of both videos at $450,000. Ienner dismisses this figure as "total bullshit" but says, "If we're gonna take the time and effort that we did with Mariah, on every level, then we're going to image her the right way. If it costs a few extra dollars to make a splash in terms of the right imaging, you go ahead and do it."
And how did Carey, who describes herself as strong-willed, feel about having her music so carefully monitored by Columbia? Initially, she says, she asked to produce the record with Ben Margulies, her longtime writing partner. "I wasn't open to working with a superstar producer," she says. She was also wary when asked to collaborate on additional songs with her producers and worried that Narada Michael Walden might make her music "too schmaltzy," an apparent reference to his work with Whitney Houston.
"I'm sure she wants to do a lot more on her next album, make it more stark," Mottola says. "She deserves it," says Ienner. "She has a great feeling of what's right and what's wrong."
Asked to evaluate what's right or wrong with her first album, Carey answers diplomatically. "I wasn't used to working that way," she says. "I think it worked out okay in the end." But as she returns to her rehearsal, far from her label's supervision, Carey continues to rearrange her hit single the way she hears it.
This story is from the August 23, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.