Mariah Carey is being sued for allegedly picking off “All I Want for Christmas” from another songwriter. Does he have a case? Maybe not. But in the past, Mariah settled these kinds of suits left and right.
It’s ironic that the suit comes a week before she’s inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.; Mariah has never written a song by herself. She owes all of her catalog to collaborators who are not in the SHOF, from the “Christmas” writer Walter Afanasieff to Ben Margulies, who wrote “Vision of Love” and the other seminal hits from her first album.
I wrote a feature about Mariah’s legal issues with songwriters for “Spin” 20 years ago. The magazine was terrified and cut it to pieces. But the bones were still there. I was in the weeds of the LA Superior Court files and dug out all the details. One of Mariah’s minions even sent someone to see a songwriter while wearing a “wire” and recording the guy. The tape wound up in the evidence.
Here’s a story I wrote back in 2004 recapping this whole mess.
A California appeals court has done the one thing Carey must fear most in life, aside from having to do business with Tommy Mottola again: It’s reinstated a dismissed case and given two songwriters who claim Carey plagiarized them a chance to go ahead with their case.
The song in question is “Thank God I Found You,” a No. 1 hit Mariah had in 1999 with the group Xscape singing back up and Jermaine Dupri credited as producer.
Songwriter Seth Swirsky who’s got 30 gold and platinum records and is married to the head of EMI Music Publishing says that “Thank God” is in fact a re-doing of “Just One of Those Love Songs,” a track he and Warryn Campbell wrote for Xscape.
A chain exists linking Dupri and Xscape (featuring regular Carey back-up singer Kandi Burruss) to Carey. But more interestingly, Swirsky who is also well-known as a writer of baseball books may have the smoking gun.
When he first discovered that he’d been ripped off, he called the studio where Carey recorded the song, and requested a copy of the work tape that was used when Carey was composing with producers Jimmy Jam Harris and Terry Lewis.
“You can hear Mariah saying to them, I have a tune stuck in my head,” Swirsky told me yesterday. “They don’t know, they’re just writing down what she says.”
Work tapes and notebooks of writing sessions have haunted Carey in other plagiarism cases, of which there have been plenty over the years.
One contentious, unresolved case morally, if not legally involved the song “Hero.” Christopher Selletti, a limo driver, claimed that he wrote the lyrics as a poem, then handed them to his passenger, R&B legend Sly Stone, who in turn passed them to Carey.
Selletti was overpowered by Carey’s lawyers at every turn through an arduous process, and the case was dismissed over and over by federal judge Denny Chin.
Nevertheless, questions linger, since Carey’s defense was that she was commissioned to write the song as the theme for a Dustin Hoffman movie of the same name. But the movie “Hero” was released six weeks before Carey’s workbook says she wrote the song.
Carey also got into trouble with a song she called “Can’t Let Go.” Writers Sharon Taber and Ron Gonzalez said it was their song, “Right Before My Eyes.” Carey paid out $1 million to them in a settlement stipulating that no plagiarism ever took place.
On the work tape for that song, Carey tells collaborator Walter Afanasieff: “It’s too much like our other song. … What was the section from the George Michael thing?” At another point: “You know what doing it this, this way that I was thinking is more like a Janet Jackson thing where it’s like … not that I want to be like her. …”
Before she spent the $1 million to make the Taber-Gonzalez case go away, Carey sent then-manager Randy Hoffman, partner of her then-husband Tommy Mottola, to see back-up singer Billy T. Scott, who had evidently played “Right Before My Eyes” for her.
Hoffman went in with a wire and recording device, hoping to get Scott to contradict himself. The tape transcript wound up in the public court record, and I got to hear it a few years ago.
“Your actions speak louder than words,” Scott who was also offered his own gospel album by Sony, according to sources told an unsuccessful Hoffman at one point. “They always have.”
Carey has several other blots on her record in the songwriting department, including lifting the music from Maurice White’s famous hit by the Emotions, called “Best of My Love,” and re-recording it without his permission or knowledge as “Emotions.” White called his lawyers, who secured a hefty payment.
“Sampling is one thing,” White said, “but she took the whole song.”
Carey and company paid roughly half a million dollars to Detroit songwriter Kevin McCord; a musicologist had testified that “Make It Happen,” which was credited to Carey and C&C Music Factory, had heavily borrowed from McCord’s song, “I Want to Thank You,” which had been a minor hit for Alicia Myers some years earlier albeit recorded in a different key.
But Mariah has quite possibly met her match in Seth Swirsky, who says, “I don’t consider her a bona fide songwriter.” Unlike the writers in these other cases, he has the resources and the resumé to keep fighting for his rights.
“I’m trying to defend one of my children,” he says.
Again, unlike in the other cases, Swirsky’s other “children” are famous, including “Tell It to My Heart” for Taylor Dayne, and “Love Is a Beautiful Thing” for Al Green currently heard in an Almay commercial.
He’s had songs recorded by Celine Dion, Rufus Wainwright, Smokey Robinson and Air Supply. His own new album, “Instant Pleasure,” full of Beatlesque pop songs, can be heard at www.sethsroom.com.