In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
For the first few years of her career, Mariah Carey didn’t tour. It just wasn’t something that she had any interest in doing. Carey is a studio rat and a perfectionist, and in the early ’90s, she was busily cranking out new records. And Carey didn’t need to tour. These days, the road is where even the biggest acts usually make their money; that’s one of the reasons that the past two pandemic years have hit musicians so hard. But in the early ’90s, a whole lot of people were making their livings from actual record sales. For a pop giant like Mariah Carey, a tour could’ve been just one more way to promote a record — one that, at least for her, was unnecessary.
At the very beginning of her career, before her debut album came out, Mariah Carey did a quick run of acoustic college gigs. But when Carey started releasing music, she became a massive star almost immediately. She sang on TV a lot — talk shows, awards telecasts, sporting events — but she didn’t want to deal with the exhaustion and the vocal wear of a full arena trek. Instead, she just wanted to keep making records; her first two albums came out barely a year apart from one another. At a certain point, Carey’s handlers worried that people would start to think that Carey couldn’t sing live. Fortunately, they had a platform that they could use to prove otherwise. They had MTV Unplugged.
Unplugged was the brainchild of a couple of TV executives who came up with an idea for MTV to combat the perception that the channel only showcased flash-in-the-pan prefabricated pop stars. The network was dubious, but a Bon Jovi acoustic performance at the 1989 VMAs gave them some faith, and the show launched that same year. In its first couple of years, Unplugged picked up steam. Former Eagles Joe Walsh and Don Henley each made Unplugged appearances, which caused a few veteran acts to sit up and take notice. Paul McCartney did a 1991 episode and got good reviews when he released it as a live album. In 1992, Unplugged probably hit its cultural peak, and the Mariah Carey episode was a big part of that.
A few nights before taping her Unplugged special, Carey got word that most acts who played the show did covers. So Carey and her regular collaborator Walter Afanasieff chose “I’ll Be There,” the stirringly perfect Jackson 5 ballad that had been a #1 hit 22 years earlier. Carey has said that she had no plans to release “I’ll Be There” as a single, but radio stations started asking for a radio edit of the cover, so Columbia put the song out. Three months after Mariah Carey taped her Unplugged special at a Queens studio, her version of “I’ll Be There” became her sixth #1 hit.
In the oral-history book I Want My MTV, the two producers who created Unplugged take shots at Mariah Carey. They saw her as a diva. Carey came in with her own hair, makeup, and costume people, as well as “a woman who made tea for her.” In the book, co-creator Bob Small says, “When Mariah Carey came in with her two lighting designers, the show went from credibility to prima donnas.”
That’s always been the perception of Mariah Carey — the demanding and self-obsessed woman who maintains a steely control of her public presentation and ices out anyone who goes against her wishes. Carey herself has often played into that. But Carey is also a pop mastermind and a great songwriter. By any standard, in fact, Mariah Carey is one of the most successful songwriters in the entire history of pop music. Carey has 19 #1 hits, and she had a hand in writing 18 of them. “I’ll Be There” is the only one where Mariah Carey doesn’t have songwriting credit.
Mariah Carey has sung plenty of covers over the years, and a few of those covers have been hits. But unlike most of her contemporaries, Mariah Carey’s never really been an interpreter of other people’s songs. Carey’s greatest chart rival Whitney Houston, for instance, wrote basically none of her biggest hits, and many of those hits were covers of half-forgotten older songs. That’s never been the Mariah Carey way. Carey has used samples, or repurposed bits from older songs, but she uses those pieces in service of her own songs. In her long history of chart-toppers, “I’ll Be There” is an outlier.
Given how meticulously Mariah Carey has plotted out her career, I’m a little skeptical of the claim that she didn’t know “I’ll Be There” would be a single. There’s probably never been a star who’s been more conscious of her chart placements or her Billboard records. From that perspective, there’s a nice symmetry in Carey releasing her “I’ll Be There” cover as a single. In 1970, the Jackson 5 became the first group ever to reach #1 with their first four singles. A couple of decades later, Mariah Carey broke that record. When Carey’s “Emotions” topped the Hot 100 in 1991, Carey became the first artist ever to hit #1 with her first five singles. That streak ended when Carey’s next two singles merely went top-five, but I’d like to think that she sang “I’ll Be There” as a kind of nod to the group who she’d just replaced in the record books.
Carey was one year old when the Jackson 5 released “I’ll Be There.” Michael Jackson himself wasn’t that much older; he turned 12 the day after the single came out. Jackson was still very much a chart presence when Carey released her “I’ll Be There” cover, but all of his stadium spectacles and weird contortions hadn’t erased the golden memory of the Jackson 5. When Carey’s version of “I’ll Be There” reached #1, the song that it replaced was Kris Kross’ “Jump,” a track that sampled the intro from the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Twenty-two years after the Jackson 5’s insane rookie year, the group’s music still floated in the ether.
The original “I’ll Be There” is a miracle of a song. The song came from the Corporation, the short-lived group of Motown professionals that Berry Gordy assembled specifically to write Jackson 5 hits. On that song, baby Michael found notes of warmth and sadness that very few adult singers could ever match. The result ranks as one of the all-time great bittersweet ballads.
With her version, Mariah Carey doesn’t mess with “I’ll Be There” too much. Her voice — high, keening, expressive — has a some striking similarities to that of the young Michael Jackson. Instead of Jackson’s explosive force, though, Carey’s got that showy melismatic virtuosity. She sings the melody straight-up, never letting her vocal runs derail the track, but she also uses the song as a way to showcase all the different dips and trills and curlicues that nobody else could do. Trey Lorenz, one of Carey’s backup singers, sings all the Jermaine Jackson parts in the same theatrically pyrotechnic style that Carey used.
Trey Lorenz, a South Carolina native, was a college student when he met Mariah Carey in 1990, and he joined her as a backup singer soon afterwards. On that “I’ll Be There” cover, Carey introduces Lorenz by name and gives him a big platform, and he mostly nails it. Lorenz’s runs aren’t quite as commanding as Carey’s, but that makes sense for the song; Jermaine Jackson never upstaged Michael, either. Later in 1992, after that “I’ll Be There” cover hit, Lorenz released a self-titled album of his own. Carey co-wrote and co-produced a bunch of the songs on the album, including the single “Someone To Hold,” which peaked at #19. But Lorenz’s album didn’t really sell, and he’s continued to sing backup for Mariah Carey in the years since.
For the Unplugged special, Mariah Carey’s live band was full of big-deal studio musicians, including future American Idol judge Randy Jackson on bass. On some of the songs, C+C Music Factory’s David Cole, one of Carey’s favorite collaborators, played piano and sang backup, but he’s not on “I’ll Be There.” Instead, Walter Afanasieff played piano on the cover.
Carey and Afanasieff co-produced the whole Unplugged EP, and Carey later said that she learned a lot from the experience. She told Billboard that Unplugged taught her not to obsess so much over her vocals because “the raw stuff is usually better.” From where I’m sitting, her vocals on “I’ll Be There” don’t sound raw at all. Instead, she’s almost absurdly poised and controlled. But just by virtue of being a live recording, her Unplugged EP does sound a little less produced, in a good way, than most of Carey’s records.
But Carey’s version of “I’ll Be There” doesn’t really stand up as its own thing, either. She certainly doesn’t improve on the original song. That’s not possible. The musicians in her backing band know what they’re doing, but they’re not on the level of Motown’s in-house geniuses. Carey herself doesn’t have the same ache in her voice that the young Michael Jackson brought. Carey’s cover of the song isn’t a violation of the original, the way Michael Bolton’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” is, but it doesn’t push the song into new territory, the way George Michael and Elton John’s live “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” duet does, either. Her “I’ll Be There” is just a great song, sung well. It’s perfectly pleasant on its own, but it doesn’t exactly need to exist.
Mariah Carey and Trey Lorenz sing the hell out of “I’ll Be There.” In fact, they might sing it too hard; there’s one stretched-out falsetto note where the song seems to get away from Lorenz a little bit. There’s fondness in their take on “I’ll Be There,” but there’s no urgency, no stakes. The cover is polished, but it’s not immediate and intense, the way the original was. There’s definitely a market for that kind of cover song — vocally impressive, emotionally inert, theatrical in a quiet sort of way. Maybe Mariah Carey’s take on the song is the platonic ideal of the whole American Idol style, which really took hold about a decade later.
In any case, the success of Carey’s “I’ll Be There,” along with those Michael Bolton and George Michael covers mentioned above, probably speaks to a certain kind of nostalgia that was hitting the charts hard in the early ’90s. While things like rap music were starting to dominate the charts, a certain segment of the pop audience looked backwards, to old reliable pleasures. A certain segment of the pop audience is always looking back, especially at moments of aesthetic shift.
Unplugged definitely played into that sense of nostalgia, too. Earlier in 1992, Eric Clapton’s dead-kid lullaby “Tears In Heaven,” a song that he originally recorded for the soundtrack of the 1991 movie Rush, reached #2. (It’s a 4, and that’s me being nice.) Early in 1992, Clapton taped his own Unplugged special, and his live album Unplugged came out in August. That album went diamond in the US, and it won the 1993 Grammy for Album Of The Year. Two years later, another MTV Unplugged live LP, the Tony Bennett one, also won Album Of The Year. For a little while there, the music business was really into the perceived credibility of MTV Unplugged.
Mariah Carey’s own Unplugged EP sold four million copies — the same number that her sophomore album Emotions did. The cover of “I’ll Be There” was the only single from the EP. When they agreed to do the whole Unplugged thing, Carey and her camp were a little afraid that it would mean pushing back her next album, which they were already starting to put together. But it seems safe to say that the Unplugged experience worked out just fine for Mariah Carey. We’ll see a whole lot more of her in this column.
BONUS BEATS: In 2009, Mariah Carey and Trey Lorenz sang their version of “I’ll Be There” at Michael Jackson’s memorial service. Here’s that performance: