Mariah Carey: Once Again, The Most

Mariah Carey talks to CBS News correspondent Troy Roberts
CBS
Mariah Carey is one of the headliners at Tuesday night's Neighborhood Inaugural Ball. It's just the latest highlight of her life and career.

Everyone loves a superlative - the best, the brightest - and CBS News 48 Hours correspondent Troy Roberts reports pop star Mariah Carey collects one in particular like jewelry: the most.

She's spent the most time atop the Billboard charts - more time at No. 1 than the Beatles.

And she's had the most No. 1 songs of any solo artist - more than Elvis, whose record she beat last August when "Touch My Body" became her 18th No. 1 hit.

"It's so surreal," Carey says. "I'm grateful to even ... for someone to say my name in the same sentence as Elvis. I mean, come on!"

For her newest album, Carey looks to the successes of her past. It's a collection of her favorite ballads.

"They're songs that I think are nostalgic for a lot of people, and for me as well," she said. "So I think that at this point in time, especially with the success that I had last year ... just to release the sort of retrospective of those songs, I think it's a good time."

Roberts met with Carey at Camp Mariah, a camp for underprivileged children run by New York City's Fresh Air Fund. Mariah's long been one of its big supporters.

"I didn't come from money at all. And I did, at one point, go to a publicly-funded camp," she said.

She was born in 1970 and raised on New York's Long Island, the youngest child of an Afro-Venezuelan father and a mother of Irish descent who soon divorced.

"My mother was definitely the first person who inspired me. She was an opera singer. She still sings," Carey said.

"When did she realize you had special talent?" Roberts asked.

"Well, my mother tells a story," Carey replied. "She said that she was doing 'Rigoletto,' and she kept rehearsing one part over and over and over. And then, she messed up. And I said, 'No, it goes like this,' and sang it to her."

Carey says that was when her mother decided, "'OK, she definitely has a special ear. And let me encourage this.'"

There was never any doubt, Carey says, that she wanted to be a singer.

"I started writing songs when I was 13," she told Roberts. "And I was already doing demos when I was in high school."

After finishing school, Mariah moved to New York City, where she waited tables and sang backup for pop singer Brenda K Starr. One night Starr took Mariah to a party, attended by Columbia Records executive Tommy Mattola.

"Tommy asked her who I was. And she said, 'This is my friend, Mariah. You know, she's a teenager. She writes her own songs,'" said Carey.

Starr handed Mottola Carey's demo tape.

"And then he tracked me down over that weekend, and basically offered me a deal."

Her first album sold more than 9 million copies and earned Carey two Grammys. Her first five singles rose to No. 1, something no other artist has ever achieved.

She was 20 years old.

"I wasn't prepared at all," Carey admitted. "I just wanted to hear my song on the radio. To me, when I heard my song on the radio for the first time, that was success. That was huge."

It wasn't just the hits, but the quality of Mariah's voice that made her a phenomenon, with a five-octave range, and the ability to sing in the "whistle register," the highest range of the human voice.

High, too, the critics carped, was the sugar content of her music.

How did she deal with that kind of criticism?

"Music has always been escapism for me," Carey said. "So I think writing inspirational songs is something I need to do. And something that I feel other people need to hear."

As her stardom grew, her professional relationship with Tommy Mottola - 20 years her senior - became romantic, and they wed in 1993. But the marriage was a stormy one and ended a few years later.

"Did the end of your marriage change you creatively?" Roberts asked.

"Yes, it definitely changed me creatively, because it allowed me to come out of my shell, and to do what I really wanted to do," she replied.

Mariah embraced Hip Hop, and a more provocative image. But by the end of the decade, her album sales were sagging. She left Columbia Records, only to be dropped by her next label. The struggle took a toll.

"I had no moments of peace," said Carey. "And it was all at the same time as this huge, you know, disaster, with a movie and a soundtrack that I put so much hope into."

The movie was 2001's "Glitter," Carey's first big leap into acting. It was an embarrassing failure at the box office, and came on the heels of a widely publicized hospital stay.

She was driven to physical, emotional exhaustion, despite a circle of people that were supposed to protect her.

"The funny thing is, sometimes the more people that are around, the less you actually are protected," she said.

"If I were to have just gone downhill because of that, just continued a roll downhill, I never would've gotten back up, and I think it's my faith in God that has always gotten me through the darkest times of my life. And music is part of that," Carey added.

She got back up in a big way. Mariah signed with a new label and in 2005 released "The Emancipation of Mimi." It became the year's best-selling album.

Fast-forward to April of last year. Carey's surprise marriage to actor-comedian Nick Cannon, 10 years her junior, was tabloid heaven. They'd dated for just two months.

Did her reputation as a diva frighten Cannon?

"You know what? What is the definition of a diva? Because I hear 'a diva is a good thing, a diva's a bad thing,'" Cannon said. "So it's like, 'If you want to think Mariah is a diva, and she bathes in Evian,' or all of that stuff, let 'em think that."

"Where do I see you ten years, 20 years from now?" Roberts asked Carey.

"Hopefully at a good, fun party," she laughed.

... such as a party like Tuesday night's Neighborhood Ball for the Obama Inauguration, where Carey will perform her hit song "Hero."

"For me to be able to say, 'I'm going to be a part of the moment' ... It's like I still can't believe it," Carey says. "Just even a little, teensy part, by singing this song - which I think is appropriate for him.

"Because it's about not losing hope ... and I think that's the message people, especially young people, have gotten from just being able to see Barack Obama be elected president."