Maybe I’m beginning to lose track of this Every Number-One Single challenge, but is this the first song I’ve reviewed on this project to have topped the charts by two different artists? I know that it isn’t the first single ever to do so – that distinction would go to Donny Osmond’s rendition of “Go Away Little Girl” (I previously reviewed Steve Lawrence’s ghastly original). Nor is it the first cover song I’ve encountered – “Maria Elena”, “Mack the Knife”, “Everybody Loves Somebody”, “Rhinestone Cowboy”, and “A Whole New World” have all accomplished this. Hell, this isn’t even the first Mariah Carey chart-topper about which I’ve written (see also: “Don’t Forget About Us”), nor is it the first composition intended to be sung by Michael Jackson (“Ben” and “Dirty Diana” came first). I’ve been doing this challenge for quite a while now!
It’s interesting that I’m starting with Mariah Carey’s version of the song, though. Doing so requires me to take this all the way back to square one and talk about the song itself before even getting anywhere near this single. “I’ll Be There” was written by legendary record executive Berry Gordy, along with Bob West, Willie Hutch, and Hal Davis. A delicate ballad about friendship, love, and commitment, it was passed along to up-and-coming pop group the Jackson 5, sung as a duet between Michael Jackson and his older brother Jermaine. At the time of its release, the group were set to become the biggest pop group of 1970 – in that year alone, they accomplished three number-one hits in a row, “I Want You Back”, “ABC”, and “The Love You Save”. But while these three singles lay within the consistent confines of their pop-R&B style, “I’ll Be There” slowed its tempo to a more sentimental ballad style. This resulted in a beautiful piece of work, eventually becoming the Jackson 5’s fourth consecutive chart-topper and an eternally memorable song to boot.
Fast-forward twenty-two years later, and Mariah Carey is now among the biggest names in the industry. Specifically during 1990 and 1991, Carey had topped the charts five times; however, when “Can’t Let Go” and “Make It Happen” only reached #2 and #5 on the Hot 100 respectively, her label and audiences alike started to wonder if her superstardom was beginning to sputter out. Obviously it did not, and in many ways we have her March ’92 MTV Unplugged set to thank for this. Added into her set as a last minute addition, Carey performed it as a romantic duet with R&B singer Trey Lorenz. The popularity of this particular show number pushed Columbia to release a radio edit as a single – this version would be Carey’s sixth number-one hit. Co-produced by Walter Afanasieff, this would also be the beginning of a long collaboration between the two, as he would continue to produce even more of her hits in the many years to come.
Like the Jackson 5, Carey’s recording of “I’ll Be There” shone a light on a different side of Carey never before seen by audiences. Previous hits like “Vision of Love”, “Someday”, and “Emotions” were studio productions, polished by a variety of electronic instruments and post-production techniques. Moreover, Carey captivated audiences herself through the sheer power and range of her voice, demonstrated explicitly through each one of her singles up to this point. Her cover of “I’ll Be There” is much different, though. Being a live recording, the sonic quality of the track is relatively raw and intimate. The performance itself is pretty straight-forward – while Carey adds a bit of her own flair to the melody, for the most part it remains unchanged from the original. This also means that her vocals are pretty subdued themselves – she still shows off her impressive range, but without any of the bells and whistles (and whistle tones) that has become synonymous with her thus far.
I think what makes this particular cover song unique from those I’ve reviewed before is that, despite topping the charts, it is significantly less memorable and impactful as its original. Most of the cover songs listed in my first paragraph are powerhouse tracks that took the initial recording and morphed it into something else entirely to successful results (Bryson & Belle’s “A Whole New World” isn’t much of a powerhouse, but it definitely got more airplay than the original from Aladdin). Nonetheless, “I’ll Be There” is, to this day, far more easily connected to the Jackson 5 than it is Carey. It’s not simply that the Jackson 5’s came first, but rather that when it did come, it was huge. Its sentimental melody and the heartfelt lyricism behind it has practically made the song a standard of sorts. So if anyone were to come along and take a stab at their own recording of the song – even a star as bright as Mariah Carey at her peak – it could only ever be seen as a cover of a classic.
Nonetheless, if anything should be expected of Mariah Carey at this point in her career, it’s that she could churn out one hell of a ballad. The arrangement here is simpler (the opening harpsichord of the original is replaced by a simple piano; the backup Jacksons become a gospel choir), which frees up enough space for Carey to make the song her own. From start to finish, she croons her way perfectly through the ebbs and swells of the tune. Considering how powerful her voice is, it’s no surprise that she takes Michael’s high notes of the original and pumps them up to a whole other level. Even though she’s definitely the star here, the contributions from Trey Lorenz aren’t too shabby either. Sure, he has a lot less to work with, but he pays his dues and acts as an adequate complement to the shining lead performer.
Still, as I mentioned earlier, there’s so much to love about the original recording, the stripped-down version was bound to be inferior by comparison. There’s plenty to admire about this live recording on its own – for one, it sounds pretty damn good for a live recording, thanks to the power of production and the talents of its performers. Nonetheless, there are plenty other Carey recordings much more worthy of ones time, and “I’ll Be There” has fallen into the hands of much more superior arrangement. Classics are tough to pull off sufficiently, but it certainly is admirable that enough felt moved by this one to take it all the way to the top. Now, when am I going to actually review the original…?