Read an Excerpt
Hitmaker The Man and His Music
By Tommy Mottola
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2013 Tommy Mottola
All right reserved.
The beauty of going to Arthur Avenue is that it always opens its arms and takes you back even if you’ve never been there before.
There are no longer teenagers singing doo-wop on the corners, and there are now flatscreen TVs in all the restaurants and bars. But outside of that, Arthur Avenue doesn’t look much different than it did when I was a kid.
The butcher. The fish market. The bakery. The pasta store. The fruit stands at the huge indoor market. The old-school espresso machine at DeLillo’s pastry shop. There aren’t many other places in America where you can find lettering over a restaurant’s doorway that says Five Generations. Hey, you want some clams? We can have them fresh, right on the street, they’re over there on ice in front of Cosenza’s. Let’s get a dozen. Here, try it with a little cocktail sauce with horseradish, a touch of vinegar, a squeeze of lemon, and a drop of Tabasco. What did I tell you? The best!
You get your mozzarella fresh out of the water at Casa Della Mozzarella. And your onion bread at Madonia Brothers—but remember, they only make it on weekends. Look, there’s Full Moon Pizzeria. It was the first stop to feel better after every funeral when I was a kid. In this neighborhood, there’s a pizzeria on almost every block. But each one does it a little differently, which gives you its own particular reason to come through the door. It’s like music.
Arthur Avenue was one of my first tastemakers. It taught me what is good.
We all went to church at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The people who got married there when I was a kid didn’t get divorced.
My parents were married for seventy years. It’s important that you know that because family framed my youth. Music has taken me around the world, and I was fortunate enough to meet and work with some of the biggest stars and most influential people in business. But my successes were accompanied by personal mistakes—some very public. In so many ways, I’ve spent much of my life trying to become the man that my father was.
My father, Thomas Mottola Sr., was a quiet man whose sole mission in life was to take care of his family. I couldn’t imagine having a better dad. It was no secret what drove his complete devotion to his children, and to me in particular. My father never knew his father. The only image he had was a framed photo of his dad in an Italian army uniform. I don’t think he ever found out how his father died. My father was born on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, as the nation was struggling through some hard financial times. His brother and a sister were taken in by a kind woman who owned a farm in the Bronx and could better care for them. That was how it was done back then.
As a teenager, my father went to Roosevelt High School on Fordham Road in the Bronx at night so that he could work during the day downtown as a runner for a customs brokerage firm. He ran entry forms to the Customs House for approval, enabling the importers’ goods to enter the country. After scraping together $750, he left the company he was working for and started his own business. It was called Atlas Shipping. His office was the definition of paperwork and drudgery. Every case of liquor brought in by Seagram’s and every crate of furnishings made in India had to be meticulously documented. While it didn’t elicit passion, this work took care of his family, and very well. I watched my father go off every morning like clockwork, and I often went with my mother to the train station in the evening to pick him up. He steadily moved us up from a small apartment only a few blocks from Arthur Avenue. First, to a home connected side by side with another only a few miles away on Pelham Parkway. And then, eight years later, to a comfortable suburban house about thirty minutes north in New Rochelle that might have been his father’s idea of the American Dream.
My father wasted little time when it came to starting a family. He met my mother—Lena Bonetti, whom everyone knew as Peggy—when she was fifteen in the Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx. My mother had wanted to be a singer. But her father was very strict and traditional. He did not believe it respectful for a young woman to go into show business. When she told him of her career aspirations, he made his point by smacking her across the face.
I remember how my mother loved to sing, but she did so only in church as a child, or in our home in the company of family and friends. My father played the piano and the ukulele, and my uncles joined in on the guitar. On weekends, the family room in my house was filled with food, guests, food, music, food, laughter, and more food. The foundation of my parents’ marriage couldn’t have been more solid or clear. They had a common ancestry—her family came from Naples and Bari, and his came from Naples and Avellino. They had their church and religious traditions. They shared an unrelenting devotion to their kids. And underneath all that and the personal chemistry, Thomas and Peggy Mottola were connected by a love of family meals and music.
My parents had three daughters long before I was born: Jean and Joan, the twins; and Mary Ann. But they’d always wanted a boy, so my arrival made me the Christ child. The godfather they chose for me bore little resemblance to Marlon Brando or Al Pacino. His name was Victor Campione and, early on in his life, he’d worked for the FBI. So much for stereotypes.
After he left law enforcement, my godfather decided to go into local politics, and he eventually evolved into the Democratic district leader of the Bronx. Uncle Vic was one of those guys who wielded tremendous power behind the scenes in the age of Tammany Hall, a kingmaker, who helped people like Abe Beame get elected mayor of New York City. He was a stern and direct man, and you paid attention to his every word. All I had to do was look at Uncle Vic to know that it was my duty in life to become a prominent professional and make my parents proud.
My three older sisters had grown and moved out of the house by the time I was five. That gave me 1,000 percent of my parents’ time. My mother took me to school. She picked me up from school. She worked with me on my homework. She rubbed me down with alcohol when I had a fever. She was also the disciplinarian. She had to be. I could do no wrong in my father’s eyes. Once, when I was very young, maybe three or four years old, I was in the basement playing with a hammer and hit one of my older sisters in the head. When she complained, my father asked: “Who left the hammer out?”
I was bursting with a boundless energy that today would probably be diagnosed as ADD. It sure came in handy much later on when I became chairman of Sony Music, because that kind of energy and personality was perfectly suited to the constantly shifting demands of the job. But it got me into some trouble when I was young, even though I wasn’t a bad kid, because I was incredibly restless and always sticking my nose into something new. My oldest friend, Ronny Parlato, remembers a day when I turned the ignition key that had been left in a bulldozer and drove it around the empty lot behind my home on Pelham Parkway. He swears I was only three years old at the time. My endless supply of energy often took me where I wasn’t supposed to be, and I rarely met a wall that I didn’t want to smash through.
The Christian Brothers of Ireland at Iona Grammar School in New Rochelle had ways of dealing with kids who deviated from their rigid expectations. The brothers used to walk around with cat’s-paw straps under the sleeves of their habits and whack you if you got out of line. Once, I stuck my tongue out at the principal and another kid snitched. The principal took me into his office and beat the crap out of me. That night, when I was getting into the bathtub, my mother noticed bruises and welts on my behind. She immediately told my father. My father was the kindest and sweetest man you could imagine. But you’d never want to threaten or harm his children because that sweet man would turn ferocious in a way that you didn’t want to imagine. My father didn’t say a word—he just put on his coat, left the house, and went directly to see the principal. I was never told what was said or what transpired. But I can tell you that the Christian Brothers of Ireland never touched me again.
C’mon, let’s go to Dominick’s and get a quick bite to eat.
Oh, boy, we’re only on page 6 and I’m already in trouble. I just know the hard time I’m going to get from my friends at Roberto’s and a few other restaurants for not choosing their place. Listen, before you die you’ve got to go to Roberto’s for the cavatelli with sausage and broccoli rabe sautéed in garlic and oil because it’s to die for. But that’s another meal for another day.
By the way, there are no menus at Dominick’s. Either you tell the waiter what you want and you get it, or he tells you what you want and you get it. There are long tables. Everyone sits together. If there’s one place you want to eat in your life with your best friend, it’s Dominick’s.
And right now I want to talk about my oldest and dearest friend. My connection with Ronny Parlato will explain a few things that may surprise you. For instance, you probably didn’t know that I once converted to Judaism. It’s a long story, and we’ll get there in time. But it all starts with Ronny and the neighborhood I grew up in.
The Pelham Parkway neighborhood where I first started to hang around with Ronny was a mixture of Italian and Jewish families, and Ronny was a mixture himself. His mother was Jewish and his father was Italian.
My mother and Ronny’s mother, Libby, were like sisters. No, they were closer than sisters—almost joined together at the hip. As soon as we moved from the Bronx to New Rochelle, Ronny’s mother and father moved from the Bronx to New Rochelle. Every day Peggy and Libby would go out together.
When Ronny celebrated Chanukah there was always a present for me as we lit the candles of the menorah. My parents sent me to an all-Jewish camp for a couple of summers that included Friday night services. So I knew what it was like to put on a yarmulke, light candles, follow the prayers in Hebrew, and drink Manischewitz. I thought it was fun to say baruch. I always liked the khhhhhhhh sound.
Likewise, there was always a present under my family’s Christmas tree for Ronny. Every year my mother would prepare almost thirty different seafood dishes to celebrate the holiday, and over the years Ronny probably tasted every one of them. I can’t remember a better time than my childhood Christmases. But from early on I was comfortable at any holiday. Religion seemed and felt seamless to me. The only walls I didn’t have to smash through in life were religious and cultural walls. They didn’t exist for me. That was a gift from the streets of the Bronx.
I soon was putting a towel around my shoulders in the school bathroom so it would look like a cape when I tried to mimic the dance moves of James Brown singing “Please, Please, Please.” When I was about fourteen my parents allowed me on many occasions to take the train to Harlem with my friends to watch Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett, and Joe Tex sing at the Apollo Theater. When I met Gloria and Emilio Estefan nearly twenty-five years later, they were immediately like family because their Cuban culture made me feel like I was back in the Bronx. This openness to all cultures became a real strength as I became the head of a multinational corporation, and it also was reflected in my personal life. My first wife was Jewish; my second was part Irish, part black, and part Venezuelan; and the beautiful woman I now wake up to every morning, Thalia, was born and raised in Mexico City. So, years later, when Michael Jackson staged a press conference to call me a racist and a devil, it had nothing to do with race, heaven, or hell. It had to do with an artist who was starting to melt down because he couldn’t adjust to his shrinking album sales. Michael was lashing out at authority and simply looking for a way to get out of his contract with Sony.
The attack was sad and pathetic. As the head of the company, I remained above the fray and most certainly did not comment on it. Now that Michael has passed there’s little benefit to me in bringing the incident back up. But if you know me, you know that I’m not the kind of guy to avoid it. This is the story of my life, and it’s important to get it straight for the record. So I’ll tell you what really happened. You just have to be patient. It’ll be a little while before we get there.
You want some wine?
One of the things that writing a book about your life forces you to do is to think back on the earliest moments that helped turn you into what you have become.
For me, timing and growing up in the Bronx were key elements. On the day I was born I had fifteen-year-old twin sisters and a thirteen-year-old sister. From the first day I woke up in the tiny apartment that was our home, my ears were listening to pop hits blasting from the radio in their room. As soon as I could walk, I would stop in my tracks when I heard different sounds that attracted me—and my mother was keenly aware of this. She’d be holding me by the hand as we walked to Alexander’s department store on the Grand Concourse and Fordham Road when I’d just stop, stand still, and listen to the sound of music coming out of the many storefronts up and down the street. When that happened, she didn’t impatiently tug me along. She’d stop and even sing the melody to me.
There were so many diverse sounds booming out of those stores—doo-wop, salsa, rock, Sinatra—or if you were shopping late on a Thursday night, you might even hear Tito Puente’s band playing on the Concourse. Back in my home I would hear my mother sing and my sisters harmonize every single day, and on weekends I would watch my father on ukulele and my uncle Ray on guitar. Music was around me from morning till night. From the time I was two years old I would climb on the stool and bang on the keys of our family’s piano.
But there was one single defining moment that ran through me like a bolt of electricity when I was eight years old: that was the first time I heard “Don’t Be Cruel” blasting through my sisters’ AM radio. The beat and the rhythm of that song branded me forever and was everything that motivated and inspired me to become what I became. Elvis Presley, the King.
I pestered my mother relentlessly to take me to the record store on Fordham Road, and I reached into the bin with two hands for my very first album. That first album was Elvis’s first album. I loved everything about it. I loved the photo of Elvis in action on the cover with his mouth wide open, his eyes closed, and the guitar in his hands. Elvis was spelled in pink vertically down the left side of the album and Presley came horizontally across the bottom in green. I loved looking at the RCA label in the upper right-hand corner with the dog listening to the gramophone. I loved taking off the plastic shrink-wrap. I loved smelling the vinyl as I slipped the album out of its thin paper sleeve. And I loved placing the record on the turntable, setting the hi-fi to 33 1/3, picking up the arm, and lowering the needle into the groove. In my mind and in my ears back then, the clicks and pops on that vinyl actually enhanced the sound of the music.
I wasn’t really conscious of the sexuality in Elvis’s gyrations at first, or the controversy that his dance movements caused. There was no negativity toward Elvis in my home. Both my parents thought he was phenomenal. I was completely unaware that church leaders were writing to J. Edgar Hoover to warn the FBI that Elvis was a threat to morality and a danger to national security. Or that whites in the segregated South who didn’t like what they called the “race music” coming out of Elvis’s mouth were smashing his records to pieces in public. To me, at eight years old, it was simply about just how good music could make you feel.
I’d come home from Catholic school and change out of my uniform into black chinos and a leather jacket, take my sister’s eyebrow pencil and draw sideburns over my temples, pump up my pompadour, and put on sunglasses to walk around the block. But there was one thing that I could never figure out. How did Elvis get that bluish tint in his black hair? To this day it’s still a mystery to me.
There were only three major television networks—CBS, ABC, and NBC—at the time. That limited the opportunities we had to see Elvis and made each one even more special. Television shows were not just television shows when Elvis appeared. They were events that we waited for all week. Sixty million people crowded around black-and-white television sets with rabbit-ear antennae to watch Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. That’s three times the number of people who now watch American Idol—and it came at a time when the country had roughly half the population it does now.
There was a lesson that Elvis ingrained in me from the very start, even though I didn’t understand it as a lesson at the time. I saw it as a succession of hits. “Heartbreak Hotel.” “Blue Suede Shoes.” “Hound Dog.” “Don’t Be Cruel.” “Love Me Tender.” All in the same year. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Years later, when I was running Sony, I would seek to duplicate that whenever I could. Introducing that same strategy actually created friction between me and Mariah Carey, but that’s for a few pages down the road.
It may seem odd that I started to play the trumpet around the time that Elvis exploded across America. But when you hear why, it’ll make sense. My sister Mary Ann married a guy named Joe Valentino, who sort of became a mentor for me at that time. Sometimes I’d stay with Mary Ann and Joe on weekends. I tried to emulate my brother-in-law in many ways. He played the trumpet and told me about Harry James, so it seemed like the thing to do. Before I had a chance to think about playing the guitar, there was a trumpet against my lips. I got good at it, so I got stuck with it. I became first trumpeter in the school orchestra, played all the solos, and was given a music scholarship to Iona Grammar School after attracting the attention of the principal, who never stopped kissing my ass after my father paid him a visit and who, as it turns out, was a trumpet player himself.
The trumpet came easy to me even though I eventually considered it torture. I began to study Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method For Trumpet, which has been in print since 1864 and, for a kid, is the definition of demanding. I had to learn all the notes and the signatures as well as music theory. It put me that far ahead of the game musically, even as I began to grow and realize that trumpet players didn’t get the girls. Singers, guitar players, and actors got the girls. And if you could do all three like Elvis…
The concept of cool got closer still when Dion and the Belmonts came out with “I Wonder Why” and “Teenager in Love.” The band’s name made a doo-wop monument out of Belmont Avenue in the Bronx. All our friends worshipped Dion and seemed to know him or somebody attached to the group. As Bruce Springsteen once said, Dion was definitely the link between Frank Sinatra and rock ’n’ roll. Elvis was everybody’s. But Dion was ours.
I continued to play the trumpet during grammar school. But I began running home every afternoon to watch Dick Clark and American Bandstand. I would watch that show intensely. The beauty of American Bandstand was that Dick Clark programmed it as if it were a radio station. He counted down the top hits like a DJ—only it was on television. The show was based in Philly. But it featured a huge cardboard cutout map of America that the camera zoomed in on to show cities and promote the call letters of television affiliates. Dick might read a letter from a kid in Akron and tell you she listened to WAKR. It was interactive TV long before the word interactive ever became famous, and it made every teenager who watched feel connected to something larger. When Buddy Holly sang, you knew you were getting a piece of Lubbock, Texas, and when Smokey Robinson came on, you understood what was going on in Detroit.
I can remember the stars that I saw on that show: the Big Bopper using a phone as a prop onstage to perform “Chantilly Lace.” Jerry Lee Lewis banging the keys to “Great Balls of Fire.” Chubby Checker doing “The Twist.” Fats Domino, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin, Jackie Wilson, the Temptations, the Marcels, the Duprees, the Coasters, the Drifters, the Shirelles (sha-la-la la-la la-la), and, of course, James Brown and the Fabulous Flames. That’s just a short list off the top of my head, and it doesn’t nearly convey the world that show opened for me.
There were some really great weekly shows, too, like Shindig. But American Bandstand was so ahead of its time. I’d study the fashions of the teenage dancers. I knew every kid who was dancing off against every other kid. It was almost a model for shows like Dancing with the Stars. The music on American Bandstand not only opened a door in my mind, it evoked my dreams and pointed me toward where I wanted to go. And Motown, the music that was about to change the world, was not even in full bloom yet. Sometimes after the show ended I’d head out with my mother to pick my father up from work at the train station. Seeing him come home the way he did, same time, every day, day after day, made me start to question whether l ever wanted to follow him into his business. One thing was for sure: I no longer wanted to play the trumpet in the school orchestra.
After I left elementary school my brother in-law started taking guitar lessons, and, following his lead, I picked one up when I was about eleven.
I started with a cheap one—I think it was a Harmony—that you could get at Sears for about thirty bucks. As I began to get good, I asked my parents for Fenders—the solid-body electric guitars that were becoming the rage. I got a Telecaster, a Stratocaster, and then a Jazzmaster. I became obsessed. I knew everything about these guitars. Fender guitars were geared toward mass production, and I’d known how to take them apart and put them back together. But I wish I’d known enough to keep them, because the same $300 Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster that I was messing around with are each worth about $50,000 today.
I started playing in two or three different garage bands at other kids’ houses. And as I began to meet more experienced musicians, word spread that I was pretty good. Out of the blue I got a call from somebody asking if I’d like to audition for the Exotics.
The Exotics! Oh, my God! The Exotics! The hottest local band in New Rochelle. They played covers of the latest hits at school dances and at country clubs over the summer. You could not be a teenager in New Rochelle in the early sixties without knowing about the Exotics. When one of the members left the group, the audition fell in my lap.
I walked in nervous, anxious, cocky, and assured—if you could be all that at once. I was at least four years younger than the other guys in the band. But as I started playing along with them, I noticed them all looking at each other, as if to say, Hey, check this guy out.
After we finished playing, the leader said straight up: “Do you want to join the group?”
“Yeah,” I said.
I was so excited I ran home to tell my parents. They were excited, too. They had no idea that I was going to age four years overnight. At least it seemed that way to them.
My first stop with the Exotics was the tailor, to be outfitted for my new group jacket. If you were an Exotic, you had to look like an Exotic. Even though the other band members were only eighteen, they had the air of hardened professionals and they were very particular about their look: “Fit him like this…” I got collarless sport jackets in three different colors, which came down over white shirts, a skinny tie, tight black pants, and pointy Flagg Bros. shoes. I most remember the royal blue jacket. Once I put that jacket on, I felt official.
The Exotics began treating me as if they were my older brothers, but they were not the older brothers that my parents wanted for me. They were street kids living in apartments on the other side of the tracks. When they showed up at my suburban house to pick me up, the disparity was clear to my parents. These guys were mesmerized by the fact that I actually lived in a nice house.
It wasn’t any particular band member that bothered my parents. It was the energy around all of them. My parents just didn’t like where they were taking me. I had been raised to assume my father’s business, or to become a doctor, or a lawyer. In their eyes, the Exotics seemed to be pulling me back toward everything on the other side of the tracks they had worked so hard to cross.
The guys in the Exotics had no curfew. Their parents let them do whatever they wanted. You’re playing music, that’s great. So go make some money! Soon I was making two hundred bucks for a Friday night gig. Hanging out with these guys, whether we were playing music or not, was fun and exciting for me. When my parents would go out I’d sneak off in my father’s Caddy and drive it down to the College Diner to hang out with my friends from New Rochelle High. They were so much cooler than the guys I went to school with at Iona Prep. Also when my parents were out, I’d bring my girlfriend home and fumble around with her on the living room couch. Funny, the stuff that you remember. Just when you were trying to get from first base to second or, if you were really, really lucky, to third, you were always sliding off that couch because it had a plastic slipcover, and it would blow the mood.
Before long, I started to ask my parents to let me out of rigorous Iona Prep so that I could hang with all of my new friends at New Rochelle High. The Exotics’ rehearsals and gigs became more and more frequent and my arrivals at home later and later into the night. My parents did set a curfew, and when I started to break it they began to worry that I was headed into a world of danger, drugs, or whatever and wherever their imaginations took them. Looking back now, I certainly understand their concerns. I was only fourteen years old.
They tried to reel me back in, but I fought them. Over about a year, the conflict built to a crescendo that peaked at a high school gig.
We were performing our best show ever that night. As I was playing and singing, I could see the impact on the faces of some of the kids who were dancing. A few of the girls’ heads were tucked on their boyfriends’ shoulders, but their eyes were looking up at me. It was an unbelievable feeling. It reminded me of watching Elvis on TV when the girls were looking up at him—which, of course, like any teenage boy at that time, was all I wanted in life.
My parents showed up early to pick me up that night and watched this magnetism unfold from the side of the stage. When I first noticed them, I was happy. I thought they finally understood where I was at, and where I wanted to take my life. The performance ended, and a few girls started coming over to me on the bandstand. They wanted to know my name and were looking for a way to give me their phone numbers. My mother pushed straight through them.
“Get in the car!” she yelled.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“But I want to hang around for a little while!”
“That’s it, Tommy. Let’s go!”
My mother practically dragged me out of the place by my royal blue jacket in front of all these girls and the other band members. I couldn’t have been more stunned and embarrassed. She marched me straight into the backseat of the car, while my father sat behind the wheel in silence. She got in the front, slammed the door, turned around, and said: “That’s it. It’s over. You’re not going to hang out with those bums anymore. You’re not going to play the guitar anymore.”
My father drove us home. When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t believe it. All of my guitars were gone.
The loss of my guitars led to my first deal. Looking back, it was one of the hardest deals I ever made. You could even say that every deal that came after it was easier because of it.
I went through every closet in the house, searched up in the attic and down in the basement. But I couldn’t find those guitars.
Over and over I asked my parents when I could get them back.
The only answer I got was: “We’ll see.”
Then one day toward the end of summer the house became quiet—conspicuously quiet. Almost everybody had left, and I was alone with my father.
“I’d like to talk to you,” he said.
He was solemn and his eyes were teary. I knew something was about to happen. Whatever it was, it was not going to be easy for him.
We went to the living room. He took his special chair, the large recliner. I sat on the couch. There was no reclining for him. And there was no slipping on the plastic for me.
My father started to speak. He was very firm, but gentle and calm. I don’t remember his exact words. But he started by saying something to the effect of: This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you. And he knew it was going to hurt me plenty.
You know how in a movie you see a scene from a character’s point of view, and then something happens so that the character can still see everything around him but suddenly the sound is gone. That’s just the way it felt—like the blood was rushing out of me.
My father and mother had enrolled me at a military boarding school in New Jersey.
When the sound came back I was shouting, “No, no, no! I’m not gonna go!”
But my father was prepared. It was sort of like an intervention. Everything had been arranged.
Pack him up.
Then drive him to the institution.
I ran up to my room. I was infuriated. No, I was beyond infuriated. I was apoplectic. That’s the word. Apoplectic! A lot of that day is blocked out of my memory, but I do recall phoning my sister Mary Ann and her husband, Joe, for help. There was no getting out of it. They were behind my mother and father.
“It’s gonna give you some boundaries,” Joe said, “and the academics are really going to help you.”
Looking back now, I can understand how my parents were thinking. I was fourteen going on twenty, hanging out on the wrong side of the tracks with greasers who were a lot older than me and had no curfew. All of my parents’ giant aspirations for me were dissolving right before their eyes. I seemed to be going headstrong in the other direction, even trying to squirm out of Iona Prep, my private school, and into nearby New Rochelle High because that was where my friends went. In their eyes, I was on the road to becoming some kind of show business bum.
So they’d asked around and been assured that the discipline at Admiral Farragut Academy would set me back on the right course. It wasn’t long before I was being guided into the backseat of my dad’s Cadillac. The very same Caddy that my friends and I used to fill with laughter on our way to the College Diner now felt like a hearse.
My dad drove to Toms River in New Jersey, and through the gates of what looked like a miniature Annapolis. If you ever dreamed of becoming an astronaut and going to the moon like Alan Shepard, this was a great place to be. But for a guy like me, Farragut Academy was Mars with prison gates.
From the moment I stepped on campus I was stripped of everything I cared about. With words, I’ll never be able to make you feel in your belly what I felt in mine the moment I stepped into the campus barbershop with some of the other newcomers. The best I can do is a scene from the movie Saturday Night Fever. Remember when John Travolta is eating dinner with his family, and his father is angry and takes a swing at him from across the table. Travolta says something like: “Don’t hit my haih!” Like, you can hit me in the face, but don’t touch my hair. Your hair was your signature—more than that, it was everything that made you you. Which was probably why it was the first thing Farragut Academy wanted to take away. I heard the buzz, looked down, and saw the black strands that I had Brylcreemed to perfection for twenty minutes at a time every single day lying in thick clumps on the floor. It felt like my heart and soul had been cut out of me all at once.
Every turn I took on that campus was a reminder of something else lost. Meeting my three new bunkmates let me know just how far away I was from my buddies and my girlfriend. And just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, they did. I remember going to the dining hall for the first time. My mother’s home-cooked meals were replaced by some sort of bread, with some sort of fried ham and cream on top that the cadets called SOS—shit on a shingle. As an underclassman, you couldn’t even eat until you were told. We’d have to sit in the cafeteria with our arms crossed—shoulder to the elbow straight out, then arms folded in front of the chest, one overlapping the other. The arms were supposed to be six inches apart to make it more difficult. You didn’t get to eat until it hurt. Then when you did it was shit on a shingle.
Late nights of music were replaced by nine o’clock curfew. And at five in the morning, the damn bugle was outside the door—
Duh, duh, teh-deh-duh
Duh, duh, teh-deh-duh…
Those notes ripped us out of bed, a bed that had to be made so crisply that a tossed quarter would bounce off it, and if the quarter didn’t, the inspecting officer would strip the bed, throw it on the floor, and have you make it up in front of him until it was perfect.
If the usual rituals of military school weren’t maddening enough, there was one upperclassman from Staten Island who delighted in constantly looking for new ways to make my life miserable.
No matter how rigid I was standing at brace position, the guy would always have a frown or a comment. The worst part was I always seemed to give him an opening. In those first few weeks, I could never figure out how to spit-shine my shoes to a high gloss.
Get back and shine those shoes!
Forget fun and fries after school at the diner. Now, there were hours of marching drills.
I had only a few fleeting moments of comfort at Farragut Academy. There was a music class where I learned to play the upright bass. There was the sight of my name on envelopes in the handwriting of my girlfriend—and the reading and rereading of the aching love letters inside. And there was the sound of seagulls coming through the little transistor radio hidden under my pillow at night, telling me the Tymes were about to sing “So Much in Love,” one of the great love songs of all time—but more than that, those seagulls meant freedom. No matter where on earth you were, that song could magically put you and your sweetheart barefoot on the beach. As the last notes faded away there’d be tears in my eyes—and cold reality in front of me. I was miles from my girlfriend, and marching drills were only a few hours away.
After only a month at Farragut, I couldn’t take it anymore. “I’m getting out of here,” I told another student. “You wanna come with me?” He said he was in. It wasn’t like the campus was barbed-wired, but the escape took on big-time proportions. It felt a little like The Shawshank Redemption. We left with the lights out. But the other guy got scared along the way and turned back. “See you later, man,” I said, and just kept running. I didn’t stop for miles until I was in town.
I went to the Greyhound Station and got on a bus to New York City, then I called Mary Ann and took a train to Westchester. She and Joe picked me up, spent hours convincing me to return, then drove me to the academy in the middle of the night. I was back by six in the morning. I don’t remember being caught or getting in any trouble. Didn’t matter, when the bugle sounded that morning the upperclassman from Staten Island woke up smiling with the thought that the sun had come up shining on another day to bust my balls.
Some of the more experienced guys taught me the secret to making my shoes shine like they were patent leather, so after a while the upperclassman could no longer complain about that. Didn’t matter. When he didn’t have a reason to torment me, he invented one.
One day he ordered all the underclassmen at my cafeteria table to cross their arms six inches apart. After a while, he said: “Everybody put his arms down except Mottola.”
I kept my arms up for about five more minutes and then one of them got tired and sagged just a little. The son of a bitch took a spoon and smashed it into my elbow—right into my funny bone. The force went through me like a shock and I totally snapped. I leaped out of my seat, got behind him, grabbed him by the throat, and pulled him back so hard that his chair flipped out from under him and over as he went down. I jumped on him and whaled away, just beat the shit out of him until the other cadets stepped in and pulled me off.
I’ll bet nobody in the history of Farragut Academy was ever so happy to do hours of extra marching drills. My punishment was totally worth it. That guy never stopped hating and resenting me. But he never bothered me again.
It was time to get the hell out of there. I escaped again at the beginning of December. I got to Mary Ann’s house and my parents came over.
“I don’t care what you do,” I told them. “I’m not going back. I will not go back there.”
That was how I learned to make a deal. Basically, I just said no. If you can say no, you control the negotiation.
Okay, my parents said, we’ll let you come home. But you have to finish high school at Iona Prep. No more talk about going to New Rochelle High.
Oh, man, I felt like I had just parted the waters. “Fine,” I said, “just take me back home.” I didn’t get everything I wanted, but it was a good deal. It taught me that both parties have to walk away feeling like they got something.
I came home to another great Christmas. Not long after that my parents gave me my guitars back.
Longtime friend and builder
There I was, five years old, maybe five and a half. And Tommy is three, maybe three and a half. And he told me to climb over the fence because he was going to show me how to start up that bulldozer.
We went over there, and he knew where the key was and everything. He started it up and began to drive. I got so scared, I jumped off and ran home. That was the start of our relationship—the younger guy being in charge of the older guy.
Tommy knows how to draw people in. He knows whom to hire. He knows how to delegate what he wants them to do. And that was his masterful dynamic at Sony that turned a company that was purchased for $2 billion into a company that at one point was worth $14 billion.
In the case of Tommy, and even somebody like myself, growing up in the neighborhood you get a great street sense and you learn how to manipulate. You know how to talk to people. And you know where people are coming from when they talk to you. You know what’s on the guy’s mind right away. You know where to go, how to approach them, things like that.
Tommy knows how to treat people really well. I mean, he moved into a whole area of Spanish-speaking people. How do you account for that? You have to be some kind of smooth talker and operator to get in there.
Nobody likes looking at scars. I have one that I couldn’t bear to look at for years. But when I look at it now I realize it changed my life.
During my senior year of high school, I felt a pain in my stomach. My life could’ve been very different if I’d never felt that pain. You know how it goes. Change one day, and there’s a chance it’ll change the dynamic of every day that follows.
If not for that pain, my career might’ve been delayed by a few years. Change the sequence of events, and maybe I’m not in an office at Chappell Music a few years later when Daryl Hall and John Oates first walk in. I was always driven to succeed. So maybe I would’ve gone on to run Sony Music in any case. We’ll never know. All I know is what did happen.
The pain in my stomach was one of those turning points that lead to other turning points. It came in 1966, at a time when my life at home was balanced and beautiful. I was putting on my jacket and tie in the morning, going to Iona Prep, and getting good grades. I was making plans to go to college at Hofstra University on Long Island. My parents were happy about that. I no longer had to sneak out in their Caddy. On my sixteenth birthday, they bought me a 1966 turquoise GTO with 389 cubes, triple carburetors, and a four-on-the-floor Hurst shifter. We’re talking right out of American Graffiti. The only thing that car didn’t have was air-conditioning. I specifically ordered the car without it, because air-conditioning makes the engine overheat more quickly, and I wanted all the heat in that engine focused on going fast. No matter how much I drove that GTO, the white leather interior stayed showroom clean.
As soon as my day at Iona ended, I headed home, took off the jacket and tie, changed into jeans, got behind the wheel of that GTO, and left skid marks for the College Diner. You’d find me at a booth by the window—in the spot closest to the miniature jukebox on the wall at the end of the table. Always. That seat wasn’t even up for discussion. I was in control of that jukebox. My buddies would crowd in, we’d order our french fries and cherry Cokes, and check out the parking lot for the hot cars coming in and the girls that might be stepping out of them. There was a whole strategy to timing the mood in the diner to just the right song on the jukebox. My hands would flip through the metal-backed menu of selections and I’d make the call. Might be “Under the Boardwalk” by the Drifters. Or “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King. If I wanted to get the attention of a particular girl coming by the table, I could always reach for the Duprees’ “You Belong to Me.” Sometimes I and my buddies would join in on “Hold On, I’m Comin’ ” as if we were Sam & Dave. Our joy in that jukebox was boundless and infectious. The guys sitting in the booths around us would join in, and the next thing you knew half the diner would be throwing their heads back and wailing “When a Man Loves a Woman” from the depths of their souls. Percy Sledge, man. Those were the days.
The nights were even better. Sometimes my buddies and I would start out at the Riviera Lounge in Yonkers just to hear Larry Chance and the Earls sing “I Believe” and “Remember Then.” From there, we’d drive over to Mamaroneck to see one of the greatest guitar players of all time at the Canada Lounge. His name was Linc Chamberland and he was the leader of an R & B horn band called the Orchids. You won’t find any mention of Linc when Rolling Stone magazine does a cover story listing their top hundred guitarists. Take it from me. In 1966, you never heard anything like Linc Chamberland.
Not many people knew of Linc outside the Northeast. The Orchids put out only one album, entitled Twistin’ at the Roundtable with the Orchids, on a small label called Roulette Records. But if you pulled up to the Canada Lounge on a Friday or Saturday night, there was no disputing the uniqueness of his sound.
Nobody else could even play Linc’s Fender Telecaster because of the way he tricked it out. I know because I took some guitar lessons with him and tried to emulate him any way I could. One of his techniques was to replace the E string, the bottom string, with a banjo A string that he bent to almost the top of the neck of his Telecaster. There was no way to bend a normal guitar string like that because the tension was too taut. But the banjo string was so thin that it allowed Linc to bend it and create his signature style of rhythm and blues. He pushed that sound out even further by hooking his guitar to an amplifier that was made for a bass, and, in fact, he used a double-stacked Fender Bassman amp. Going to hear Linc play rhythm and blues for the first time was like ordering a dish that you loved, but then having it prepared with an amazing spice that you’d never tasted. Nobody, nobody, nobody in this universe had a sound like Linc Chamberland’s.
The Canada Lounge had room for about 150 people. But 250 people who understood exactly what was going on packed the place on a Friday night. Linc was not out front. He was behind the Orchids’ lead singer. The only way you can understand how much influence Linc Chamberland would soon have on the undercurrent of music was by knowing who was in the room.
When you hear Dr. John sing “Right Place Wrong Time” and when you hear Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold,” you’re listening to the guitar of David Spinozza. David was at the Canada Lounge, listening and studying Linc, just like me. When you hear James Taylor’s “Walking Man,” the drums you hear are coming from Rick Marotta. When you hear Orleans’ “Still the One,” that’s Rick’s brother, Jerry, on drums. Listen to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album Double Fantasy, and you’re hearing the drums of Andy Newmark. All of us came to this little musical hot bed in Mamaroneck because of Linc and the Orchids. If you were lucky enough to be part of this brotherhood, you were connected and influenced by this music for the rest of your life.
What a scene it was. I’d be looking like Sal Mineo in Rebel without a Cause and ordering these horribly sweet Sloe Gin Fizzes from the bar with the little umbrella poking out the top of the glass. If I had one of those drinks today, I’d probably vomit. But back then it was part of the religious experience. The drinking age in New York was eighteen back then, and it was always cool to look old enough to drink when you weren’t.
Linc would be dressed in a sharp suit with an open collar, and he’d have a great rhythm section and big band of horns behind him. The Orchids were all about great musicianship rather than crazy gyrations. Linc stood tall and proud as a master of his craft, and when he started playing I’d be locked into his every lick. I know I’m going on and on, but I just can’t convey how powerful this music was and, like Elvis, the influence it had on me. When Linc Chamberland was playing I didn’t even notice the women around me.
And if you can believe it, sometimes life got even better. I might drive my GTO over to McDonald’s on Boston Post Road in Mamaroneck, where the parking lot looked like a drive-thru for drag racing instead of hamburgers. All it took was a challenge and everyone would head over to a quarter-mile stretch of Mamaroneck Avenue. One guy would go down the road to the finish line to declare the winner, while another would stand between the two cars in the hole and raise his arms for the start. When the arms came down the tires squealed.
Nobody could ever beat this guy called Superman in his red 396 Chevelle with a single four-barrel carb. Nobody. So I went to this hot mechanic who bored and stroked my engine and then installed a Crane roller camshaft. I put on headers, which allowed the exhaust to flow more freely, and finished the job off with cheater slicks, racing tires that were modified to make them street legal. Took two weeks to get the job done. And when it was I pulled into McDonald’s looking for Superman.
Superman had this big, confident smile on his face. You know, that look that said, How many lessons do I have to teach you guys? But everyone in the parking lot came to Mamaroneck Avenue to watch. In the hole, I could see Superman listening to my engine, and his face had a very different expression. This time it was Something’s going on here.
The arms dropped. I popped the clutch, my slicks dug in, and there was so much power in my engine that the front tires actually came off the ground a few inches and I popped a wheelie. Superman was ahead of me by second gear, but when I threw it into third I pulled two car lengths in front of him, and by fourth gear he was eating my dust.
Superman got out of his car. “Yo, man! What you got in there? What you got in there?”
I played it smug. “Just running some slicks, that’s about it.”
“Nobody beats me. Nobody!”
The word traveled faster than the GTO. “Mottola blew Superman’s doors in!” People wanted to see the GTO; they’d come by just to listen to the engine and try to figure out what I’d done to it. I eventually told everyone… eventually.
Beautiful, beautiful days. The future seemed like a cloudless blue sky. Sometimes I’d get in that car and drive through Westchester’s most exclusive neighborhoods and dream. There was this one beautiful brick mansion in Rye on the Westchester Country Club grounds that just kept tugging at me, just kept pulling me back. One day, I swore to myself, One day I’m gonna own that house. It was a dream, yeah, but it was as real to me as my seat next to the jukebox at the College Diner. Which meant that it, too, was not up for discussion.
When the world seems sweeter than a Sloe Gin Fizz, you’d better be careful. A sucker punch may be coming your way. I was completely blindsided by this strange pain that showed up in my stomach one afternoon during my senior year.
I figured I’d eaten something bad at lunch and paid no attention to it. But as time passed, there was no avoiding it. The pain became sharper and sharper. By six o’clock, it doubled me over.
My father drove me straight to New Rochelle Hospital. The next thing I knew I was on my back getting rushed through the corridors on a gurney to X-ray. The doctors’ and nurses’ expressions only made it worse. They looked like they didn’t have a clue what was wrong. Then, all of a sudden, a doctor was talking to me. His words were all white noise blurred by pain. But I got the message: they were going to put me out, and then cut me open to figure out what the hell was going on.
I’m not sure if I replied. If I did, it must’ve been something like: “Hey, whatever you gotta do. Just get rid of this pain.”
The next thing I remember is my mother standing over me with happy tears in her eyes. My whole family was hovering over my bed in the recovery room. They’d all been waiting for me to wake up. The surgeons had made a huge exploratory gash in my stomach. They figured out it was my appendix that had to go, and they cut it out just before it was about to explode.
The scar that it left behind freaked me out, and my parents were far more affected by it than I was. It wasn’t hard to see what was rolling around in their minds. If my father hadn’t gotten me to the hospital in time, they’d have been looking at me in a coffin.
After the operation, I remained in the hospital for a few days, and about a month later, once the doctors had gotten me stabilized and I was feeling okay, my parents took me to South Florida to fully recuperate.
Better medicine could not have been prescribed. We stayed at our old favorite, The Castaways, once the hottest place in North Miami Beach. It was built by Teamsters’ pension funds, if you know what I mean, for the type of guys who wanted a taste of the exotic but would never think of making a trip to Tahiti. There were waterfalls, tiki-style houses, lamps with flames. Just waking up and heading to the pool on the ocean was intoxicating. The air was filled with a blend of rum from the tiki bar, Coppertone suntan lotion, and salt air. Beautiful girls were all around in Capri pants, high heels, and Cross Your Heart bras. They were coming out of the pool in their bikinis on those little metal ladders—headlights first. A jukebox by the outdoor bar between the pool and the beach was loaded with incredible music. But everybody who put a quarter in seemed to punch in the same song: “Summer Wind” by Frank Sinatra.
I remember closing my eyes and seeing an image of Frank performing live just a few years before in the Boom Boom Room at the Fontainebleau Hotel. I saw him give a nod to the orchestra, and that command brought them in with a downbeat.
I opened my eyes, and to my right at the tiki bar was this stunning girl with dark hair, and I knew I was no longer in a trance. She was real. She was not a 10. She was a 20. Every guy was trying to catch her attention. I got up, walked over to her, and asked her out to dinner. She said yes. It was like a fantasy. At dinner, I leaned over and whispered in her ear: “Hey, it’s so beautiful out. Why don’t we get a blanket and sleep on the beach?” She smiled and nodded yes. The next morning I woke up completely bitten by sand fleas. Every single bite was worth it. I’d say it was a dream come true, but I couldn’t have dreamed it up.
Being in Miami Beach was like vacationing in a live jukebox. Just walking down the street you’d stop to hear music pouring out of the hotels. I’d pass the Newport and know: they’ve got Steve Alaimo tonight. But some of the really amazing sounds came out of a place on the 79th Street Causeway called the Barn—especially when Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders were in town.
People called Wayne Cochran the white James Brown. He was this big redneck guy from Georgia with a two-foot-tall blond pompadour. That’s no lie. If Madame de Pompadour—the mistress of Louis XV whom the hairdo is named after—ever saw Wayne Cochran, she’d have fucking fainted. And that’s not all. Wayne came onstage wearing a cape and jumpsuit that would’ve made Elvis jealous. He looked like a perfectly coiffed villain out of professional wrestling, and he sang with the fervor of a Baptist minister. His white patent-leather dance shoes almost levitated off the floor as he blended rhythm and blues and gospel while beer bottles went flying. Let me tell you, when Wayne Cochran sang “Goin’ Back to Miami” at the Barn, you didn’t want to be anywhere else on earth.
I didn’t even realize everything I was taking in at these performances. But I was making subconscious connections. Even though Linc Chamberland played behind a lead singer and was all about the craft and musicianship, and Wayne Cochran was out front and trying to tear the beams down from the roof, there was something very similar about them. They were both local superstars—almost gods. But neither had singles that made it to Top 40 radio. Both recorded on small independent labels that didn’t have major distribution. A seed was being planted in my mind, an awareness of what separated a local superstar, a regional superstar, a national superstar, and a global superstar. I had no idea that it was even in my mind. All I knew was, I was having the time of my life.
And you know what made that trip even better? My parents finally got it; finally, they looked at me and understood. I could see the change in their eyes: Life is short. You know what? We’re not gonna fight him on this anymore. We’re going to let him follow his dreams. Our dinner conversations were no longer about what courses I should take in college. They were about what I’d like to do in music. I’ll never know if my mother was thinking back on the slap in the face she took from her father when she mentioned “show business.” The fear of what might have happened if my appendix had burst was overwhelming enough.
By the time we headed back up north I was ready to follow in the footsteps of Dion and Elvis. The scar and everything it stood for had left an indelible mark on me, a mark that nobody saw more clearly than my parents. They were now behind me 100 percent.
I’ll give it to you straight. If a demo from an eighteen-year-old kid named Tommy Mottola had come across my desk when I was running Sony Music, I never would’ve signed him. I would’ve known immediately that on a scale of 1 to 10, his voice was only a 5 or 6—even though his singing interpretation and intention were there.
Deep down inside, I’ll bet I knew that it was a 5 or a 6, even when I was eighteen years old. I knew it because, thank God, I was blessed with a great set of ears. Those ears have always known what’s good—even more than that, they’ve allowed me to hear the potential in unknown talent. That blessing, that gift, worked both ways because when I listened to myself playing the guitar I understood that my hands couldn’t do what my ears wanted to hear.
But, hey, you’re only eighteen once in life. Not only did I have ambition in overdrive, but I was rolling on an indestructible set of wheels because I was innocent and naïve. I didn’t know what I didn’t know about the music business. So it felt like there wasn’t any obstacle I couldn’t run over. I’d seen Dion make it out of Belmont Avenue and Sal Mineo make it onto the big screen opposite James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. So it was the most natural feeling in the world for another Bronx guy with a pair of balls like mine to think: Hey, if they can do it, why can’t I?
The quickest way to the top, I figured, would be to have a singing and acting career at the same time. My father helped pay for my acting lessons in the city at the Wynn Handman Studio. That was big-time. Wynn is the artistic director of the American Place Theatre. If you’ve never heard of Wynn before, you’ve probably heard of some of the people who worked with him. To name a few: Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Lee Marvin, and Denzel Washington.
My parents were not only behind me financially. They were behind me emotionally. That meant I also had the benefit of all my father’s connections. He asked a cousin who knew Sinatra about a singing coach. This led to lessons in Carnegie Hall with a big-time voice coach named Carlo Menotti.
I felt like a made man. I’d drive my GTO from my dorm room at Hofstra into the city for my lessons, have a bite at the Carnegie Deli, and stroll through the lobby of the Americana Hotel at night to see if I could run into any famous celebrities. Then I’d walk down Broadway past the Brill Building—which housed the offices of the big music companies—in the hope that some of the magic dust in the air would sprinkle down on me. Dreamer… dreamer… dreamer… I actually believed I was on my way.
I got a part in No Way to Treat a Lady with Rod Steiger. Didn’t matter that it was a bit part walking by Rod on the street. Didn’t matter that I was a $75-a-day extra. I was acting with Charley from On the Waterfront. I was going to be seen on the same big screens around America as Sal Mineo and Elvis. I did work as an extra on about eight films. I was like a sponge soaking up every detail—studying the moves of the directors, the actors, and the lighting crews. There was no better student on those sets. I was where I wanted to be. I dropped out of Hofstra with my parents’ blessing.
My father had a childhood friend from the Bronx who knew people in the nightclub business. That friend introduced me to Pete Bennett. This was huge, the next big step. Pete Bennett was the number one radio promotion man in the country. When it came to getting a record played on the radio, there was nobody more powerful in 1968. I’m telling you, Pete Bennett was wired like Con Edison. At one point, he was working simultaneously with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Sinatra. I may have been unknown, but it was said that Pete made “unknowns into stars and stars into superstars.” And it was said in Billboard.
Pete was a short, chubby guy with a cherubic face, but he spoke and acted like he was connected to the mob. While he may have come off as a “dem, dese, and dose” guy, he was a street fox. He could take the money out of your pocket without you even knowing, then smile at you and walk away. He could also give off the aura that he’d shoot you if he needed to. Nobody crosses a baby-faced killer. Moral of the Pete Bennett story is, if he walked into the offices of WMCA in New York with a record, it got played—period. End of story. And WMCA was the breakout radio station at that time.
Pete listened to some demos I’d created with my buddy David Spinozza and talked it over with my father. I don’t know the details of the deal they made. But it wasn’t long before I was walking behind Pete into the offices at Epic Records. There I was, nineteen years old, being ushered in to see the vice president. The vice president was David Kapralik. David Kapralik had good ears, too. He’d signed Sly & the Family Stone.
“Dis,” Pete Bennett said, nodding to me, “is my nex protégé.”
“Okay,” Kapralik said. “No problem.”
Excerpted from Hitmaker by Tommy Mottola Copyright © 2013 by Tommy Mottola. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.