Classic Songwriter Story: How Walter Afanasieff Wrote The Classic Hit, “Hero,” With Mariah Carey

Walter Afanasieff
Walter Afanasieff

Walter Afanasieff has been widely regarded as a top record producer and songwriter over the past decade. He has produced major hits for Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Kenny G., Michael Bolton, Regina Belle and Savage Garden, and he has won the Grammy Award for Producer Of The Year. With Mariah Carey, he has co-written such number one hits as “One Sweet Day” (with Boyz II Men) and “My All.” But in the years following the tragic events of 9/11, it is his song, “Hero” (also written with Carey), which has probably had the greatest impact

“Hero” has re-emerged as one of the inspirational, heartfelt songs which have provided comfort and hope to many people. “Hero” was written by Afanasieff & Carey in 1992, and was originally conceived as a theme song for the movie, Hero (starring Dustin Hoffman), which would potentially be sung by Gloria Estefan. “I had been asked by Sony’s soundtrack division to write and produce the end, title theme for Hero,” recalled Afanasieff. “Soon after, when I was in New York working in the studio with Mariah, I suggested we try to write a song for this movie. During a studio break, I was tinkering at the piano, playing the notes that would become the piano intro to ‘Hero.’ Mariah liked what she heard, and we started writing the song, with the ‘Hero’ theme in mind. She sang, ‘then a hero comes along.’ She was truly inspired; the words just flowed out.”

It was during this writing session that Sony Music President & COO Tommy Mottola (who was Carey’s fiance at the time) came into the studio and heard “Hero.” “I told Tommy we were writing a song for this movie,” said Afanasieff. “He said, ‘Stop, this song is brilliant. We need to save this song for Mariah’s album. We decided to keep it for ourselves, and we recorded it for her Music Box album. As for the Hero film, Luther Vandross ultimately wrote and recorded the end title song.”

Afanasieff produced “Hero” with Carey, and he performed all of the music tracks. “When I recorded the track, I tried to simulate an orchestral sound with my synthesizers,” explained Afanasieff. “There’s a huge, timpani roll, a swell of strings, and french horns, which were all done on keyboards. In the back of my mind, I thought we might have an orchestra re-create the string parts. However, when Mariah completed her vocals, she said the recording sounded fine just the way it was, and that we didn’t need to bring in an orchestra.”

Hero” was subsequently released as the second single from Music Box, and reached number one on the Billboard “Hot 100” chart on December 25, 1993. It stayed atop the chart for four weeks. Upon its initial release, “Hero” was quickly recognized as an unique, inspirational song. At her Madison Square Garden concert in mid-December 1993, Carey dedicated her performance of “Hero” to the victims and families of a tragic, Long Island train shooting which had occurred on December 7. She also donated proceeds from “Hero” to the victim’s families.

Over the years, “Hero” has been regarded as one of Carey’s most significant and memorable recordings. “It has become a song which has given a lot of meaning to people in times of despair,” said Afanasieff. “Mariah told me she has received thousands of letters from people who were moved and helped by the song. For kids who were messed up on drugs, or were contemplating suicide, the song helped give them hope and strength.”

In the wake of 9/11, the song’s impact has risen to a new level. “The events of the world have resulted in certain songs [like “Hero”] being embraced by people.” explained Afanasieff. “Following September 11, everyone involved has truly been a hero. All of the firemen, police and victims were heroes, as well as the military personnel in Afghanistan. We’re always going to live in a world where there are tragedies. Everyday someone has to be a hero.”

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Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima