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Tommy Mottola: From the Bronx to the Boardroom to the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Tommy Mottola lives on the road.”

If you were in or around New York City in the summer of ’76, you couldn’t help hearing that verse come out of every radio. The song was “Cherchez la Femme” by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, and disco was in full swing.
That was the first time many people heard his name, but the public still had no idea who the darkly handsome kid from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx was.

“I’d walk down the street and see kids wearing T-shirts with my name on it,” says Mottola, who managed the proto New York dance group, signed to RCA, at the time. Dr. Buzzard members “Stony Browder and August Darnell were brilliant. Their potential was unlimited, but craziness, alcohol and drugs, and an inability to control themselves and stay on track did them in.”

Thomas D. Mottola had a particular affinity for an artist’s life, having begun his own unlikely musical career as T.D. Valentine, a Len Barry-esque pop crooner who released a single album for Epic Records before realizing he’d rather be promoting other performers.

“Being an artist turned out to be a lot tougher than I expected,” says Mottola. “My first father-in-law [ABC/Dunhill Records founder] Sam Clark told me early on, I should probably forget it if I wanted to marry his daughter [Lisa Clark].”

Mottola, who will be presented with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Oct.10 (watch the live stream below), turned out to be a world-class starmaker. He discovered, developed and eventually married Mariah Carey during his 15-year reign at CBS Records and then Sony Music, where he helped launch the careers of divas Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Ricky Martin, as well as working with such superstars as Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Beyonce and Tony Bennett.

From 1988 to 2003 — when he was relieved of his duties by Sony’s Nobuyuki Idei and Howard Stringer (older brother of current Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer) — Mottola spent money like the proverbial drunken sailor but also tripled the company’s revenues, generating sales of some 8 billion CDs and more than $65 billion in sales. The arrival of Napster in 1999 changed the landscape of the music business drastically. Mottola, a hitmaker with A&R ears in the mold of his idols Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Doug Morris, Clive Davis and David Geffen, was back on his own, a survivor dealing with a transformed music industry landscape.

“It was a time when the opportunity was there, we seized the moment and took charge,” he says of those halcyon days. “It was a great run.”

The Bronx-born Mottola grew up a fan of R&B and pop music in a neighborhood where doo-wop singer Dion was the local hero, digging on James Brown, Joe Tex, Otis Redding and Jackie Wilson. After trying and failing as an artist, he went to work for his father’s customs business before landing a $125 a week job as a song-plugger at MRC Music, a publishing company owned by Mercury Records and headed by another first-time music business exec named Joel Diamond, a 26-year-old part-time insurance salesman who still lived at home with his mom and worked as a singer at weddings and bar mitzvahs on weekends.

“I’m a good reader of people,” Diamond says. “I knew from the start Tommy was a real team player. He was upbeat and once we started, he was very supportive of all our writers. He was, like me, hungry to learn.”

When the parent company, Philips-Siemens, consolidated its publishing holdings, MRC Music, which Diamond described as “a little Brill Building,” was absorbed by Chappell. And while Diamond lost his job, he recommended Mottola for a gig at Chappell, where his pay went up to a princely $225 a week. It was there he discovered a blue-eyed soul duo from Philadelphia that appealed to his street-corner R&B sensibilities, Daryl Hall and John Oates, who auditioned for him in a rehearsal room.

“That changed my life,” says Mottola, who eventually set up his own Champion Entertainment shingle to manage the group, along with Dr. Buzzard and, for a time, John Mellencamp.

Hall and Oates were signed to Atlantic, where their first album was produced by one of Mottola’s idols, Arif Mardin. But the group failed to dent the charts, and after the flop of the experimental rock album “War Babies,” were allowed to exit their deal. They joined the RCA roster and saw “Sara Smile” hit big. The rest is history, as Hall and Oates became the top-selling American pop duo of all time.

Mottola’s success caught the eye of Walter Yetnikoff, the erratic, irascible lawyer who ran CBS Records, but was chafing under the corporate wing of the Tiffany Network, which owned it. The wily Yetnikoff enlisted Mottola to sell CBS to Sony, which was looking for content for its groundbreaking hardware, including the Walkman and, eventually, the CD. When the veteran record man succumbed to self-destruction, fueled by his outsized appetites, Mottola stepped in with the blessings of his Japanese bosses, Akio Morita and Norio Ohga, who agreed to his demands to invest heavily on new talent, both artistic and executive. His first moves included hiring lawyer Michele Anthony, the daughter of famed U.K. manager Dee Anthony, to help him run the company.

“Morita and Ohga were creative people at their core,” Mottola says. “Ohga was an opera singer and his wife a renowned concert pianist, Midori Matsubara. He got that I was a music guy. He gave me a green light to do whatever I wanted.”

That included discovering a young biracial Long Island girl named Mariah Carey, whose multi-octave range knocked him out when he first heard her sing in a small workshop room accompanied only by a piano player. “It was an all-encompassing infatuation,” he says, admitting even his therapist warned him not to go there. “I had this shrink who’d look me in the eye and tell me, ‘You are delusional, out of your mind. You can’t do this.’”

But Thomas D., as he was then known, merely replied: “Listen. You don’t understand something. Mariah Carey is going to be bigger than Michael Jackson.”

Of course, the lifelong romantic succumbed to the “Pygmalion” myth, the George Bernard Shaw play turned into the hit Broadway musical, “My Fair Lady.”

“The bigger she became, the more pressure it put on both of us, and the relationship,” recalls Mottola ruefully. “Once she became an established global superstar, she knew how to do every-thing. She didn’t need me any more.  … We see each other here and there, and it’s always pleasant. I only hope good things for her. Life is too short.”

Mottola’s exit from Sony came after he was unable to persuade the Japanese company to partner with Apple on a proposed digital service. “It was 100% on the table,” he says. “But Tokyo looked at them as competition, another manufacturing company. And that was that. We could’ve controlled the modern-day music business as we know it now.”

Meanwhile, the third time has turned out to be the charm for Mottola’s love life. Having recently celebrated his 70th birthday, the eternally youthful Mottola also marked a milestone: 20 years of marriage to his current wife, Latin pop and telenovela star Thalia. The two are parents to Sabrina and Matthew, 12 and 8 years old, respectively.
“I got lucky,” he admits. “God was good to me. I feel amazingly blessed. To have people who you care about and care about you. My primary concern is my wife and children. And hopefully do some great work, like we’ve always done.”

Following an executive producer role for the HBO docu-series “15: A Quinceañera Story,” co-directed and produced by his wife, Thalia, Mottola’s interests these days center around Broadway productions of his pal Chazz Palminteri’s “A Bronx Tale,” “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” and “Groundhog Day,” with an Off Broadway run for “Jersey Boys.” He has planned jukebox musicals on Johnny Cash and Ray Charles and is launching a TV production company with 10 shows in development through a deal with Entertainment One, a management consultancy and even a proposed Latin Music label.

“I want to be involved from 20,000 feet, be part of a bigger structure, to leverage my contacts, and deal with developing content, branding and licensing,” he says. “Give artists who are on top of the world the advice to keep them there.”

Mottola has already accomplished one major life goal, authoring his 2013 autobiography, “Hitmaker: The Man and His Music.” His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame checks off another important box.

“For me it’s an affirmation,” he says of the honor. “It’s something that represents — at least for our generation — a big deal. When I first started as a musician, getting a gold record was an accomplishment. That meant you made it; it was a benchmark. [The Hollywood Walk of Fame] is another platform to use as a springboard. I’m in a whole other head space and career plane right now.”

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