Tom Moulton and his extended disco remix forever changed recorded music

Meeting Tom Moulton is a bit like meeting Henry Ford. Whether you know it or not, if you’ve driven a car, you owe something to Ford. And if you’ve danced in a club, you owe something to Tom Moulton.

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Tom Moulton

Courtesy of Tom Moulton

 

Meeting Tom Moulton is a bit like meeting Henry Ford. Whether you know it or not, if you’ve driven a car, you owe something to Ford. And if you’ve danced in a club, you owe something to Tom Moulton. Before we go any further, I should mention that, just as Mr. Ford did not invent the wheel or the automobile itself, Tom Moulton did not invent music, discos, dancing, or vinyl records. But he has a fair claim to the patents on several of the most important innovations rising from the combination of those ingredients.

 

Originally published as “Beat Doctor” in Wax Poetics Issue 45, 2011

 

“He pretty much singlehandedly created the art of extended remix,” states Dimitri From Paris, one of today’s leading practitioners of the art. Along with this creation came its natural partner, the 12-inch single. And what about those long, soloed sections of percussion beloved by dancers and disc jockeys, known as the “disco break”? Another Moulton invention. But as impressive as these accomplishments are, they are merely plaques on the wall of a hall-of-fame career that seems to have encompassed several lifetimes of a passionate relationship with dance music and the industry that lies behind it.

We met in his music-crammed Manhattan apartment to talk about some of his discoveries and the path that led to them.

Born in 1940 in Schenectady, New York, about three hours drive due north of Manhattan, the young Tom Moulton was a fanatic for the radio, particularly WKBW located in nearby Buffalo. “I used to hear all these Black records on the Hound’s show,” he recalls, referring to George “Hound Dog” Lorenz, one of the most influential radio DJs in history, thanks to the virtually inescapable 50,000-watt signal of WKBW, which could be heard over much of the East Coast. “When I was a little kid, I always thought I’d grow up and play records on the radio and turn people on to music and have it all beautiful and nice. That’s what I really thought it was like.” Unfortunately, these dreams were shattered by the payola scandal. “When Alan Freed got caught… That hurt more than anything. How can you get paid to love something?” Moulton pauses before answering his own question. “You can’t.”

First Choice - Tom Moulton Mix

Tom Moulton Mix

In 1958, at the idealistic age of not quite eighteen, Moulton and a few friends piled into a car and drove west. “We went to Los Angeles. Why? It was sunny, bright, and when you’re young and from the East Coast, L.A. represents Hollywood, the glamour and glitz.” Moulton adds, “And I knew I loved music, and I wanted to be somehow involved with that.” His first job was with Seeburg, which was, along with Rock-Ola and Wurlitzer, one of the largest manufacturers of jukeboxes. In an almost metaphoric foreshadowing of a role he would play later in life, Moulton worked at the Seeburg “one-stop” as a 45s buyer. (Instead of going to different labels to find music to stock their jukeboxes, owners would visit a one-stop, which had them all, paying a slight markup for the convenience.) Moulton, in other words, would choose which songs from the record labels’ catalogs would subsequently be available to fill Seeburg jukeboxes. “I always had a good ear for music, and I knew that if I went crazy for something, then everybody else more than likely would too. I’m not bragging, but ninety-nine percent of the time, I was right when it came to picking whether a record was going to make it or not.” When stereo was introduced, Moulton became one of the newfangled format’s biggest boosters. “I was a big stereo nut,” he affirms. “Seeburg was starting to make stereo jukeboxes and we wanted to have special stereo mixes for these jukeboxes. Most of the companies would do it, if you requested it.”

After getting this brief taste of the power he would wield in the not-so-distant future, Moulton’s ear was caught with the next hi-fi fad, and in the early ’60s he moved to San Francisco to join forces with Madman Muntz, who owned the patent on the special playback head used for eight-track tapes. This didn’t last long, however, and he was soon hired by the branch manager of King Records to do sales and promotion in San Francisco. “I was at King for three years and really liked it a lot,” he says. Moulton worked with King artists Earl Bostic, Freddie King, Hank Ballard, and, of course, the Godfather of Soul himself. “I’ll never forget meeting James Brown as long as I live,” he says. “He pulls up in this white limo and gets out. I was all nervous because I just idolized him. He says, ‘I want you to meet my latest protégé, Yvonne Fair.’ I thought it was so cool the way he talked, in sort of a raspy whisper. I went to shake his hand, and he goes, ‘Gimme some skin…on the dark side!’ I think I wore a glove for several days because I didn’t want to wash my hand! I was so excited James Brown had given me ‘some skin on the dark side’!” Laughing, Moulton continues, “I told him the story of when I first saw him, years before in Albany when he was doing ‘Please, Please, Please.’ I was the only White guy in the audience. He goes, ‘Yeah, I remember you.’”

In the mid-1960s, the music scene in San Francisco was just beginning to blossom, and King distributed the local label Autumn Records, who had a staff producer by the name of Sylvester Stewart. “Nice kid,” Moulton says, describing the future Sly Stone. But right at the point where our story could’ve taken a different turn, an illness in the family forced Moulton to move back to the East Coast. The next few years saw him continuing to work in promotion for RCA and United Artists, until a creeping disgust with the disingenuous tactics used to shill records became impossible to ignore.

Tom Moulton MixTom Moulton Mix

“I got fed up with the music business. I like to be honest about a record,” Moulton states, explaining that he preferred to build enthusiasm about a record based on its real, not invented, merits. “But they didn’t want you to do that. It might be the owner’s girlfriend who’s singing on the record, and you have to constantly plug it. That’s not my style.” He emphasizes, “There was so much phoniness. You couldn’t be honest; no one wanted to hear that. They wanted to hear the hype. It was all about hype, not about what’s real. You had to exaggerate everything. And I kind of got fed up with that.”

In 1970, Moulton was in his late twenties and had spent most of his life in the music business. So, on quitting his job, he did what anyone might in that soul-searching scenario: took a long trip to Europe. “I spent three months there. But I broke a tooth, a front tooth. I had to get it fixed.” Back on the streets of New York, “There was so much pain involved that I wouldn’t eat, and I must’ve lost thirty pounds.” His good looks and newly slim physique attracted the eye of a modeling scout, and looking for something different, Moulton signed on.

It was at the modeling agency that Moulton met John B. Whyte, a fellow model who owned property on Fire Island, a popular summer resort located off the shore of Long Island. By the early ’70s, largely thanks to Whyte’s efforts, the Pines community and its sole guesthouse, the Botel (owned by Whyte), had become a prime destination for New York’s hippest and most hedonistic gay men. The reputation of the dances held at the Botel soon reached Moulton’s ears. “Someone suggested that since I liked music, I should go out there and see what it’s like. I did and was absolutely shocked to see all these White people dancing to Black records. They were dancing to Al Green and Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave.” But there was one problem: the DJ. “He’d try to mix one song into the other and everybody would walk off the floor. You could see that they were trying to get excited, but then the other record would come in and ruin the whole buzz. So I thought there had to be a better way to do this, and I tried to do it.” Moulton decided he would make a tape for Whyte.

Tom Moulton MixTom Moulton Mix

“I noticed when people were dancing that they always left the floor on the ‘one,’” Moulton recalls, referring to the first beat of a measure, “so I made a tape that overlapped the transitions so people couldn’t leave the floor. By the time the one came around, I’d have already brought in the next song, and they would already be dancing to it. It was more scientific than anything. I tried to constantly increase the intensity, to get them to a point where you’d have to peel ’em off the walls.”

Moulton estimates it took him eighty hours to put together the forty-five-minute reel-to-reel tape. He gave it to Whyte and eagerly awaited word of its effect. “The following week in the office, I saw John, and he just said, ‘Don’t give up your day job.’ ” Moulton was devastated. “I don’t know if he ever played it at his place or if he just listened to it himself. I was very hurt and went out the following weekend to get the tape back.” In a twist of fate, Gene Smith, a restaurateur who ran the nearby Sandpiper club, heard Moulton’s story and convinced Tom to let him try the mix at his place.

“I had nothing to lose, so I gave it to him.” Moulton headed back to New York. Very late Friday night, he got a call from the restaurant, which converted to a dance club in the evenings. “He says, ‘They hate it; nobody likes it.’ So I try to go back to sleep, which I did, eventually. The next night, Saturday night, two o’clock Sunday morning, I get a call, and everybody’s screaming and yelling in the background, and I couldn’t hear him. I kept hanging up. He must’ve called back five or six times. Finally, I just unplugged the phone.” To Moulton’s great surprise, he got a call the next day from Ron Malcolm, Gene Smith’s partner at the Sandpiper, gushing over the mix. Malcolm explained that when people come up for the weekend, on Friday night they want to unwind with things they are familiar with. But Saturday night, they’re ready for new songs and want to party, and Moulton’s progressive tape went over great. Could he get Tom to make a tape every week? “I said, ‘In your dreams! It took me eighty hours to make that one!’” Moulton laughs. “So I said I would do the big holidays but that was it. It was too hard to do.” Though Moulton says he was paid well for the nine or so tapes he made, the job wasn’t about the money, but more the buzz of playing “new stuff that nobody knew. I eventually went out there to see it myself, and I was thrilled because I couldn’t believe how people were going nuts over it. They were going nuts over it like I was going nuts over it when I was doing it.” Moulton underlines a philosophy that would serve him well throughout his subsequent career: “I was really doing it for me. I figured if I got off on it, then everybody else would too.”

Devil's Gun Tom Moulton MixIsaac Hayes Tom Moulton Mix

The mixtapes also served to bring Moulton back into the music industry, and set the stage for the achievements he is best known for. “I was trying to get instrumental versions of things so I could make records longer,” he explains. “How excited could you get in three minutes? Not very.” Moulton had noticed that when a new song came on, especially if it wasn’t mixed right, the buildup of the previous three minutes was gone. “Sometimes you got lucky, the songs connected and took it to a whole other level. It made me wonder, what if you could take a song and really extend it so you’d have this mood going up and up and up? So I had this crazy idea to try that. That was my concept.” He laughs and says, “I didn’t believe that you could get too much of a good thing.”

In early 1974, in his quest to take songs beyond the de rigueur three-minute mark, Moulton went to see Mel Cheren at Scepter Records. Cheren, a habitué of both New York City’s hottest clubs and the Fire Island scene, was sympathetic. In his memoir, Cheren recalls playing Tom a previously released Scepter single by a singer named Don Downing called “Dream World.” He had an extra copy of the master tape and let Moulton bring it home to experiment. When Tom brought it back a few days later, Cheren writes, “We were amazed: a so-so record was suddenly snappy, upbeat, and ten times better.” But the biggest surprise, Cheren continues, was something “so radical I could hardly believe my ears.” Moulton had somehow stretched the original track, not even lasting three minutes, to almost double its time, and in the process debuted what would become known as the disco break.

In order to extend the short track, Moulton needed to transition back to the beginning of the song, to reprise the introduction. But the song modulated up, or rose to a higher key, halfway through. This is a common songwriter’s technique to generate energy, but it meant Moulton was faced with the unfortunate corollary, that modulating down would drain the momentum he was trying to build. Necessity gave birth to invention, as Moulton recalls thinking, “I guess I’ll have to start getting rid of everything musical. You see, when you drop that out, you’ve lost the key in your head. So the only thing I had left were the drums and the congas and the tambourine.” He continued to experiment. “I thought, ‘What I’ll do is raise the congas and the tambourines there, and let that go on for a few bars, then I’ll just bring in the bass, and then the piano, and then build it back up that way to extend it so it doesn’t sound boring.’ ” This method for getting around an awkward key change by stripping tracks down to their raw rhythm became one of the breakthrough innovations that changed the sound of dance music. DJs loved the freedom these percussion breaks gave them to mix and even extend songs themselves, and dancers were driven wild by the “tribal pounding that went on and on,” as Cheren described it, “perfect for dancing yourself into a trance.”

It wasn’t long before Moulton got the chance to rework another Scepter artist. “The band was called Brothers Truckin’,” Moulton recalls. “They were from Brooklyn. I told [Cheren] I thought it was a lousy name. He asked what I thought it should be. I said, well, if they’re from New York, how about a subway or something? They took that idea and renamed the group B.T. Express.” Working with the master tapes of “Do It (’Til You’re Satisfied,” Moulton performed his magic, extending the three-and-a-half-minute original to almost six minutes long. The band was not pleased. “They didn’t like what I did with it, because I cut the vocal off to bring the organ in,” Moulton remembers. It was only a few months later that the song was an unqualified smash hit and the band appeared on Soul Train. “Don Cornelius asked them how it felt to hear their song, at almost six minutes long, getting played on stations that usually won’t play anything over three minutes long. ‘That’s the way we recorded it!’ they said.” He laughs at the memory. “They hated it, and yet when it became a big hit, all of a sudden,‘That’s the way we recorded it.’”

Poison Tom Moulton MixTony Valor Sounds Orchestra Tom Moulton Mix

By this time, Moulton was already a recognized name in the nascent disco community. His mixes for the Sandpiper were legendary, and thanks to another quirk of fate, in October 1974, he inaugurated a new column in Billboard magazine dedicated to disco. “That came about because I was doing Mel Cheren a favor,” Moulton explains. Cheren had promised his boss at Scepter, Florence Greenberg, that he would take her visiting boyfriend around the hot clubs in New York. The boyfriend from out of town was none other than Bill Wardlow, who ran Billboard ’s charts out of his Los Angeles office—obviously a very influential person. But Cheren had to attend a cousin’s wedding in Boston and couldn’t do it. So, Cheren writes, “I hooked Bill up with the one person who knew as much as I did.” Moulton set out a menu for the evening that would take in a wide spectrum of the New York City club scene. “I thought I’d take him to the Limelight to see David Rodriguez, because he was a real good DJ who plays what he wants and the hell with everybody else. And I’d take him to Hollywood to see Richie Kaczor, who played what people wanted to hear.” When they got to the Limelight, Moulton laughs, “David was in one of his moods.”

“People wanted to hear [Eddie Kendricks’s] ‘A Date with the Rain,’ and he didn’t want to play it,” Moulton continues. “He wanted to play [Gladys Knight’s] ‘Make Yours a Happy Home,’ and kept getting on the microphone saying, ‘Until y’all get up and dance to this, I’m going to play it all night. I don’t care if you go somewhere else. Go!’ Of course, the owner was furious, but that was David. Finally, people reluctantly got up and danced to the record, and he says, ‘Okay, one more time with more enthusiasm!’ I thought, ‘Wow, you’re really pushing it!’ I didn’t know what to tell Bill Wardlow; he was just looking at David like he was nuts. Suddenly, you heard boom! The sound of thunder, rain. It went on for twenty minutes. That’s all you heard! Then, after all that, there was Eddie Kendricks’s voice: ‘rain, rain, rain.’ And he played ‘Date with the Rain.’ Everybody started screaming. Until then, Bill Wardlow never realized the power that DJs had.”

At Wardlow’s urging, Tom Moulton became Billboard’s official chronicler of the disco scene, with his first column appearing in the October 26, 1974, issue of the magazine. “I decided I wouldn’t write about any of the stuff that I did. I thought it would be a conflict of interest.” When some of the biggest records were ones he had a direct hand in, this would prove to be impossible, and at Wardlow’s insistence he soon began dropping hints about the projects he was working on. “I would try to be objective and just write about it as if it was someone else’s record. Even on that first Gloria Gaynor, I got the gold record for it, but my name isn’t on the record. MGM thought it would be payola all over again since I wrote this Billboard column.”

Gloria Gaynor’s first album, 1975’s Never Can Say Goodbye, was produced by Meco Monardo, Tony Bongiovi, and Jay Ellis, the same team that did Downing’s “Dream World.” They asked Moulton to mix the record, hoping that he would simply take Gaynor’s three successful singles that had previously been released and extend them for the LP. He did much more than that. Working on the same concept that drove his Sandpiper tapes, Moulton decided to mix the songs into a sidelong continuous medley. “This was something unheard of in album production,” Cheren recalled, “and the producers thought it was idiotic.” But Tom had his reasons. “On every mix I’ve done, I can always tell you why I’ve done something,” Moulton says. “I wanted DJs to be able to go to the bathroom!” He laughs, “It may be used in another way, but that’s really true.” Whatever the motivation, the effect was undeniable. As Vince Aletti reported in his January 4, 1975, column in Record World, it received “a knockout response, especially when the pressing is played straight through.” Aletti goes on to quote David Rodriguez, who validated Moulton’s inspiration, saying, “It gives me a chance to take a break, too.”

First Choice Tom Moulton MixGrace Jones Tom Moulton Mix

It was around this time that Moulton began what would be a long-standing relationship with Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. Moulton had mixed his very first record in Philadelphia—the Carstairs’ “It Really Hurts Me Girl” in 1973—and found he enjoyed the tempo of the city. “Their idea of rushing is my idea of working at a relaxed pace,” he explains. “In New York, where everything moves so quickly, you’re bound to miss some things.” Indeed, in a 1978 Billboard ad for the studio, Moulton is quoted as enthusing, “I’m never rushed.”Though demand was high for his services (“Stuff was flying at me,” he remembers), he initially had to wait to get time booked at Sigma. “I loved the sound of that studio, but I didn’t want to come down until I could get a chunk of time blocked out.” Once his turn came, he didn’t hesitate. “I had Studio A at Sigma booked a year at a time, four nights a week: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. I’d work through the night on Thursday, and come back to New York on Friday. Then I’d go to Media Sound and I’d cut ref discs of what I mixed, to play them for the different clients.”

Reference, or “ref,” discs were one-off acetates cut to the exact specifications of the finished record. They were used to check levels and EQ, and to get the go-ahead to cut a master from the company who would be putting the record out. One evening in late 1974 at Media Sound, Moulton and mastering engineer José Rodriguez chanced across a discovery that would send reverberations—literally—throughout the industry. “The accident?” Moulton begins an oft-told tale. “José ran out of seven-inch blanks. I needed to take the song in question, ‘I’ll Be Holding On,’ [coincidentally by Al Downing, Don’s brother] to Chess Records, so I asked him to cut it on a twelve-inch blank.” Rodriguez cut it in spec, and ended up with a twelve-inch-wide record with a gulf of blank vinyl surrounding a little circle of grooves in the center. Moulton repeats what he told Rodriguez: “This looks ridiculous, I can’t give this to anybody. Can you start it at the beginning and just spread the grooves out?” No problem, the engineer replied, but we’ll have to raise the levels. “So he cut it at plus-8 [decibels]. I took it home and the sound was just incredible.” That night, Moulton took the acetate out and passed it to DJ Tony Gioe at the Copacabana, who put it on. “Tom, this is not going to work!” Moulton recalls Gioe saying. “You’re going to blow my speakers! I have to turn the damn thing down, it’s so loud!” Thirty-five years later, Moulton beams at the memory. “I said, ‘I know! Isn’t it great!’ ”

Fortunately, Mel Cheren immediately grasped the implications of Moulton and Rodriguez’s inadvertent breakthrough, and consequently Scepter was one of the very first companies to begin pressing single cuts on twelve-inch pieces of vinyl, although they limited these to DJ promotional copies only. Vince Aletti’s Record World column of June 14, 1975, mentions that that Bobby Moore’s “(Call Me Your) Anything Man” “will be shipped to DJs on special 12-inch records… something that other record companies have been talking about doing for the disco market, but that Scepter is the first to carry out.” Almost a year later, Ken Cayre at Salsoul took the leap and issued the first commercially available 12-inch single, “Ten Percent” by Double Exposure, and the floodgates were officially opened.

Rockets Tom Moulton MixTom Moulton Mix

All the while, four nights a week, Tom Moulton was hard at work behind the boards at Sigma Sound, cranking out his trademark extended mixes. As Aletti put it in July of 1975, “Tom Moulton seems to have singlehandedly invented the profession of the disco mixer.” It was perhaps inevitable that he would collaborate with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Sigma’s first and most consistent clients. “One day, Harry Chipetz, the manager at Sigma, asked me why I didn’t do something with Gamble and Huff. I told him I thought they were doing fine without me, but he kept on it,” Moulton remembers. “We’d like to keep it in the family,” Chipetz told him, and Moulton had become part of the Philadelphia family. “I got some acetates of some unreleased stuff, and I liked this one particular song,” Moulton says. It was called “Do It Any Way You Wanna,” by People’s Choice. “When he first heard my mix, Gamble didn’t like it. He didn’t like what I did to the intro, that big snare hit,” Moulton recalls. “I said, ‘Kenny, when they hear that slap, they’ll know this is a serious record. Because nobody’s going to slap me across the face and not follow it through with something.” The record was released with Moulton’s mix and took a mere six weeks to hit number one on Billboard ’s Hot Soul Singles chart. “Still to me one of the most funky, funky records ever,” Moulton declares.

There was one small problem, however. “My name was left off the record. And I didn’t even get paid for it,” Moulton relates. “I just said, ‘Make sure my name’s on it.’” Chipetz apologetically suggested that Tom come up with an album-length project that he could do with Gamble and Huff material. “Why don’t we do an album called the Philadelphia Classics,” Moulton recalls proposing, “and have an old Rolls-Royce on the cover or something, real classy looking,” with remixes of his favorites from the Gamble and Huff catalog. “They liked the idea and were cool with all of my song choices except one: ‘Love Is the Message.’ They didn’t want me to do that one, because it was the only song that hadn’t been a hit, but I insisted.”

Moulton’s reworking of MFSB’s “Love Is the Message” became the breakout tune from 1977’s Philadelphia Classics album and a bona fide timeless disco anthem is a testament to Moulton’s ear and ingenuity—and a new electric piano solo that seemed to set the clubs on fire. “I wanted to do a piano overdub, but I had to trick Huff into doing it.” Moulton was after a particular loose feel for the solo and was worried that the perfectionist Huff would overthink his part. “I got the engineer I was working with to set up the Rhodes and get me a ladder.” Moulton climbed up and unscrewed the “record” light that lets musicians in the live room see when the tape is rolling. When Huff, who was taking a break while recording the Jacksons at Sigma, came in, Moulton said they would “just run it down. Just play what you feel.”

“I made sure the organ, bass, and the drums were up in his earphone mix. Nothing else. The rhythm was so loud in his ear that he had to go with it. He was just playing over that part, unaware that we were recording. I kept signaling for him to keep going. After he got out of the change, he stopped and said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to work,’ and left. It was one take. It became very popular, that piano part.”

Another Life Tom Moulton MixKongas Tom Moulton Mix

A bit of an understatement. As Dimitri states, “The classic of classics is ‘Love Is the Message.’ All things disco were never the same after [Moulton’s] take on it.” Danny Krivit’s famous edit of “Love Is the Message” focused on the supreme groove of that piano part. “Tom’s work was key to me,” Krivit says. “He always respected the original and its musical flow.” Moulton says as much, noting, “I’ve always been funny about that: having it sound like it was recorded that way as opposed to sounding like an edit. So it wasn’t an abrupt thing that would completely change this trance you were in—I didn’t want to break that mood.” He goes on, “I wanted to give DJs elements that I knew would be exciting in clubs. I know how effective it is to build up to something and then break it down.” Warming to the subject, he explains, “It’s like going over a cliff and you have a rope or a bungee cord that you’re tied to. You don’t know if it’s going to break or what’s going to happen! Then all of a sudden, something starts to build and you have something to stand on. It was fun creating these things.”

Suffice it to say, Tom Moulton was having a lot of fun. There is no definitive reckoning of the number of songs he mixed—even disregarding his numerous uncredited efforts, the discography runs to the hundreds, if not thousands. “I don’t think he even knows how many,” Danny Krivit comments. It includes monster hits from the Trammps (“Disco Inferno”), Loleatta Holloway (“Love Sensation”), South Shore Commission (“Free Man”), Grace Jones (“La Vie en Rose”), Double Exposure (“My Love Is Free”), First Choice (“Dr. Love”), Dan Hartman (“Instant Replay”), and the Andrea True Connection (“More, More, More”). Throughout it all, he stuck with his simple formula: “I try to put in the elements that people would like. Like the breakdown. Even I got off on that. I looked at it as making music, not as making ‘disco records.’” He emphasizes, “I always made records you can dance to, not ‘disco’ records. It still had to be a listening record. I never wanted to tarnish that and cross the line to where it’s no longer a listening record. ‘A Tom Moulton Mix’ meant that you were getting something special. It was going to sound like a million dollars; it was well thought out and well planned. That’s what I wanted that name to mean.” For the millions of music lovers who have gotten off on his mixes, the definition fits to a “T.”

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