There is any number of "first disco records." But there is no question that the first recorded disco mix — the first collection of songs beat-matched on tape to facilitate nonstop dancing — came from Tom Moulton.
In 1971, Moulton — a former A&R man for King Records, the home of James Brown in the 1950s and '60s, who'd briefly quit the music business and become a model — was inspired by a visit to New York's Fire Island to try his hand at making the dance floor experience more seamless. As Moulton told NPR last March, he spent 80 hours splicing together a reel-to-reel mix of current hits — then began to make them every few months for the Sandpiper, a Fire Island club. One of those early Sandpiper mixes — a 52-minute set from 1974 featuring classics such as South Shore Commission's "We're on the Right Track," the Temptations' "Law of the Land" and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "The Love I Lost" — was uploaded to SoundCloud, appropriately enough, on Christmas Day.
Moulton had a busy 1974. That year, he began remixing existing tracks that bridged the gap between funk and disco, elongating them for the dance floor. While the Sandpiper mix was for the delectation of a few, he took those innovations to the mass market with Gloria Gaynor's 1975 album, Never Can Say Goodbye, on whose groundbreaking A-side Moulton beat-mixed the songs "Honey Bee," "Never Can Say Goodbye" and "Reach Out, I'll Be There" into one another.
But maybe his most important accidental creation came in 1974, when Moulton pressed his re-edit of Al Downing's "I'll Be Holding On" with a 12-inch acetate rather than the normal 7-inch ones used for singles. It was simple physics— wider grooves contain more information — and the sound quality was huge, bassy and powerful: perfect for DJs working with big systems, and expanding the canvas for musicians.
Moulton's grandest work came for the R&B label Philadelphia International. In April, Harmless Records issued a luxuriant four-CD box, Philadelphia International Classics: The Tom Moulton Mixes, a mixture of previously released Moulton mixes (notably, his 11-minute turnout of MSFB's "Love Is the Message," first issued in 1977) and newer reworks, such as Lou Rawls' "You'll Never Find a Love Like Mine," which Moulton somehow makes even more floridly dramatic.
When we visited Moulton at the Upper East Side apartment he's lived in since the 1970s, it was crammed with books, LPs, CDs, and tape boxes, its walls liberally decorated with RIAA-certified gold albums. With more than 5,000 remixes to his credit, Moulton has never stopped working. In fact, he says, he's busier than ever.
NPR: How did you get started in the music business?
Tom Moulton: I was the buyer at a one-stop. A jukebox operator [would] go around and get all the new records. They'd sell for 52 cents, 53 cents. But if you go to a one-stop, you save yourself going to all these different companies and different labels. We had them, but we'd sell them for 56 cents, so we'd make a few pennies more on a single.
I was the buyer of 45s at the one-stop and I loved it. And then I heard about this television guy in California, Madman Muntz. He was the one that started 8-track [cassettes]. He had the patent on the player head. I was fascinated with stereo anyway — [with] both speakers, you just felt this unbelievable presence, like they were alive and in front of you rather than [recorded], hearing music like this. [Prior to the late '60s, mono was the default for most stereo systems—MM.] Like, "My God, I'm fifth-row center." So I thought, "I'll just go work for him."
The opportunity to came to work with King Records, and I mean, I jumped at the chance. I started working for King in late '59.
NPR: So James Brown was on the label by then?
TM: Yes, God was on the label.
NPR: Did you work with him directly?
TM: No, but I did meet him. I was so nervous. He pulled up in a white limousine and had a white suit on. My boss opened up the door for him and goes, "Mr. Brown, I'd like you to meet our promotions man." [Brown] goes, "How you doin'? Gimme some skin on the dark side!" I swear: I was never going to wash my hand again because he touched me. Really.
I left King in '63. There was an illness in my family and I moved back east [to] upstate New York, Schenectady. My grandmother was sick — my grandma and I were very close, so I thought I owed her that much. Of course, right after I moved back, she seemed to recover.
I got out of the record business for a while because I was sick of the B.S. involved in it. So I went to Europe and broke a tooth. And because I broke a tooth I had to have it ground down and capped. The pain was excruciating — so bad that I was afraid to eat. So I lost 30 pounds in six weeks. And someone said, "Hey, you ought to be a model." I go, "What's that?" I really felt like, "Blow dry my hair? Guys don't do that." It was quite a difficult thing. I kept saying, "Well, you didn't want to be in a B.S. business — now you're just using your body and not your brain." Then I found out, "Now you've really got to use your brain, too."
At the agency I happened to mention the music business. The booker says, "Do you know John White? He owns the Botel on Fire Island, out in Long Island." You have to take a boat to get out there. [I] saw all these people, especially white people dancing to the black music, I thought, "Oh my God, I'm finally home." In the '50s, especially up north, whites listened to whites and blacks listened to black stations.
Just watching how people danced, I noticed how they would get off on it — and then all of a sudden this other record would come in and ruin the whole vibe. People were going one-two-three-four, and they'd always walk off on one. So I said, "I'm going to try this at home. Let me see if I can get them on the first record. I'll have them for 45 minutes."
I didn't realize that this brainstorm of mine was going to take, like, 80 hours to do, to make it absolutely perfect. I thought, "I'll be better than a DJ, because there's no element of mistakes." I mean, it was going to be perfect. After I did it, I thought, "Well, I'd never do that again." I almost died — I mean, 80 hours for what?
I gave it to John. I said, "See if it works." He gave it back to me. So I went out to get the tape. I said, "What did you think of it?" He said, "Don't quit your day job." Believe me, after that, I wanted to go jump in the water.
So I was waiting by the boat [by] a place called the Sandpiper. I was so down, and this guy came out of there and he says, "Are you OK? You look like you lost you dog or parents or something. You're so depressed." I told him what happened and he says, "That guy's a b---- anyway. I don't do the music [at the Sandpiper] but my partner does — I run the bar and he runs the music. If you want, you can put your name and address on there, and your phone number. I'll see what he thinks of it and have him call you and let you know."
I got a call at that following Friday night. It was very noisy. They guy introduces himself. His name is Ron Malcolm, and he says, "They hate it! They don't like the music."
OK, well, I tried. What can I tell you? I got kind of depressed over it. The next night I got a call 2 o'clock in the morning. I'm hearing all this screaming and yelling. "They love it! They love it!" I'm saying, what the hell? I don't know what they're talking about. (That's before caller ID, I might add.) So I had no idea who it was. I hung up and they called again: "They love it! They love it!" Finally the next day, Ron called me and said, "They really loved the tape."
I said, "Wait a minute, I only gave you one. How can they hate it one night and then love it the next?"
"Well, Friday night everyone comes out to unwind after a busy week, so they don't want to explore, experiment — they want to be familiar with the music, and dance to the music they know. But Saturday night, they're ready, they're rested, they've been at the beach all day, and now they're ready to party. Now they want to hear the new stuff. Can you do a new tape every week?"
I said, "There's not enough hours in the week to make it. Forget it." They said, "What about the three main holidays?" I said OK, and they paid me good money for it. But it still really took a lot of time to do.
I always had a good sense of music. Music should flow, it should move — otherwise you get bored very easily. What happened before should always set up what's happening next. Even if it's the same piece of music, it should be constantly built or go somewhere. That was my approach to it.
NPR: What was the first record you remixed?
The first record was [B.T. Express's] "Do It ('Til You're Satisfied)." We took it across the street [from the recording studio] to master it, and they said, "You can't put 5:35 on a 45 [rpm 7-inch single]. It's too much low end." So went back and again and had to remix. I said, "Is there anyway we can eliminate the bottom [end] with some equalizations? Try that and then the snare too." And they did, so the kick kind of had a high sound to it, and so did the snare. That was the only way I could get that kind of a level on a 45.
It went to number one — and of course, the only place to go from number one is down. I thought, "How do I top this?" I didn't know what to do. Then the Gloria Gaynor thing happened. I thought, "I'm getting awful lucky here for some reason."
[Moulton points to his gold record for Gloria Gaynor's Never Can Say Goodbye.]
You know why we did [that]? So a DJ could take a lunch break. When you have all three-minute records, you don't even have time to go to the bathroom. Or you just want to stop for a minute. So that's 19-and-a-half minutes of 'I don't have to worry about a thing.' But I didn't do it to create this thing. I just did it to help the DJs out. Isn't it amazing? You don't set out to do something. I wasn't looking at it that way. I was looking at it as a way to give the DJ a lunch break.
Radio-wise, if you're coming up to news at the hour, and you've got only three minutes, [you] can take this short song and throw it in there and still have time to do the lead-in. That's how [radio DJs] used to think. I went in and did the complete opposite.
NPR: That leads us to the birth of the 12-inch single.
TM: You mean the accident? I finished [remixing] "I'll Be Holding On," [by] Al Downing, and I wanted to cut some ref discs at Media Sound [Studios, in New York] for the record company — and one was for me, and one was to give to a DJ friend or something, because in those days remember there were only about seven or eight DJs.
I went downstairs and the mastering engineer was leaving. I asked the kid that worked there, "Do you know how to operate the equipment?" He said sure. I gave him the tape and he goes, "I don't think I can — we don't have any blank [7-inch discs]." I said, "Why can't we use those [12-inch blanks]? I want the [executives I'm playing it for] to hear it from an actual disc." First impression is the lasting impression in the music business. They've already made up their mind whether they like it or not from what they hear first.
We cut it in spec, where it looks like a 45 — you have this little section of grooves and all this blank [run-out groove]. It looks ridiculous. I say, "Can we start it here and spread it [out]?" He said, "It looks like we're going to have to raise the levels." I said, "Then do it, I don't care."
I didn't think the record was going to sound like that. But I got it [and it] just knocked me out. The dynamics and the levels — just spectacular. I thought, "Hmmm — there's an advantage here." And of course they loved the record instantly and put it out when they heard what it sounded like.
NPR: How did you begin working with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff? Was it with the Philadelphia Classics album in 1977?
TM: It was before that. The GM of Sigma [Sound in Philadelphia, Gamble & Huff's preferred recording studio, had] mentioned, "Why don't you do something here with Gamble and Huff?" I said, "They don't need me. They've got plenty of hits without me." They said, "Well, we want to keep it in the family." I did feel like I was a member of that organization. I was there four times a week for 12 years — if I ever missed a night, it was rare. I felt like I was a member of [Sigma Sound] rather than a client.
He gave me a couple of acetates of some albums they had in the can. They said, "Listen to them and see if anything hits you." Sure enough, I heard one song: People's Choice, "Do It Any Way You Wanna." I did for nothing, just to show Gamble what I could do. He listened to it, and he didn't like what I did to the intro. He said, "Mix it again." So I tried to mix it again, and it just didn't have that magic. The whole thing about that song and what I did to it is that it was a very aggressive song. The reason I wanted to do it also was people were always saying, "Philadelphia is ruining soul, they're whiting up all the music with all the strings and horns." Everybody thought strings and horns meant "white" music. "Well, Philadelphia doesn't do any raw music." I said, "I'm going to surprise a lot of people when they hear People's Choice."
Kenny says, "Tom, I don't understand that beginning — it sounds like it's cut." I said, "Kenny, when you slap somebody across the face, you better have something to back it up." So when it went — Whack! [sings lick] — every black person in the world was calling me to mix their record: "Can you make it sound like that bass in 'Do It Anyway You Wanna'?" I knew that was going to happen, but I sped it up just a little bit to give it that [bite]. If you were in somebody's way, you'd better move, or there's going to be a fight. Just by that aggressiveness in the song, I was waiting for one person to say I whited up that record. No way was that going to happen.
[Impressed, Philadelphia International hired Moulton to remix an album's worth of its hits. His playlist included the album track, "Love Is the Message," by the label's house band, MFSB.]
Gamble said, "Why do you want to use that? It wasn't a hit."
I said, "I have to use that song. I really feel like I could do something to that song —it was one of my favorite songs."
"Yeah, but it wasn't a hit; I'd rather you not use it."
I said, "Well then, I really don't want to do the project if I don't do that song."
I already had in mind to do "Slow Motion" by Johnny Williams, so I ended up not using that. Instead, I wanted to do "Love Is the Message." I think of all the songs we've ever done, that's sort of way up on the pedestal, because everybody thinks that that's one of the greatest records of all time. And it wasn't a hit. It wasn't a single. It's just one of those great, great songs, and I don't think you could tell it all in three minutes. That's why it's 11 minutes— because I think it's classical, symphonic. It has everything that you want in a song.
[In 1977, Moulton was dispatched to Jamaica to remix producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's legendary Studio One sessions for the American market, including early tracks from Bob Marley and the Wailers and the Heptones.]
They said, "Take your time. Don't worry. Take all the time you want in the studio, it doesn't matter." Well, it turned out to be successful, and [Dodd] was angry with me that it was so successful.
I was smuggling the tapes out of there. [Michael] Manley was the governor then, and at that time, being white wasn't a big aid down there. Anything Jamaican had to stay in Jamaica. So if you take things out that they consider a treasure, like Bob Marley tapes, they would get you. I was so afraid to go through customs. [But] this man, Clement Dodd — everybody feared this man. I would walk out of my hotel and they would say, "Oh, you're Mr. Dodd's friend? Where do you want to go?" I'd say, "I want to go here." I'd go to pay. They'd say, "No, no, it's OK."
Going through customs, I had all these tapes in my bag. The guy before me, [they] opened [his] bag: "Oh, [did] you buy this new? You have a receipt?" All I thought was, "I'm going to be arrested and dragged out of there." It was my turn next: "Open the bag." And then the cab driver came up to him, whispered something in his ear, and he said, "Close it up — next!" It scared the hell out of me.
NPR: Did it surprise you when your work started to be collected as your work? First there was the Soul Jazz Records compilation, "A Tom Moulton Mix," in 2006, and now there's the Philadelphia International Classics box.
TM: It makes me feel good — it's the artist, the music, and then me. I've always been lucky because I pick songs that I want to do and that I felt like I could add something to. I think that's helped a great deal — to me, it's still an honor to be able to work on this stuff. I get tongue-tied sometimes. It's exciting, some of the music. I can't believe I've gotten my hands on it.
Philadelphia International Classics [is] the album I did 37 years ago, combined with new mixes that I've done. The pressure alone: "Does he still have it? Can he go somewhere else?" I didn't think of that while I was doing it. I just said, "Well, let me do the best I can with it." Then, when it was all done, that sunk in: "Oh my God, what are people going to think? Like, 'He should've left it alone, he should've done this, he should've done that'?" People expect you constantly to grow all the time.
NPR: Where do you do your edits these days?
TM: [Points to closed-off corner of the living room] Right over there.
NPR: Everything is software for you now?
TM: Since the mid-'90s. That wasn't my intention — I kind of got out of the business. And someone said, "You know what they're doing with computers now?" Back in the '70s, I was the first one to really use the Allison computer to do a mix on — that was the first computer that people started using. And I stuck with it. Back in the '70s, if we wanted to shift something around, we'd have to bounce it off onto a tape and then fly it back in on a multi-track — there was just no other way to do it. And now you can take things and move it here, move it there, correct the pitch — so I took advantage of that technology.
There was one song in particular that I always liked: "The Devil Made Me Do It," by Robert Upchurch. I wanted to make this middle part work, because the tape naturally slows down. It's a mid-tempo song, but I wanted to speed it up to keep the energy up, that level where I could go somewhere with it. It took me a week and half to mix it, but I said, "I'm going to do this if it kills me. I've got to make this work," and I did. That's the one I'm really the proudest of. And it just sounds like it happened. I put Vince [Montana's] vibes from another take and flew them in there. If someone said ten or 20 years ago that I could get up and just be in my underwear, get a cup of coffee and just start to work, I would've said, "You're on drugs."