A few years back Keep On magazine asked me to interview Tom Moulton. So I did. I'm not very good at it though. The results at the bottom of the page.
To make ammends for it not being very good, here's a more interesting interview from Black Music from 1976, and some other bits...
Tom Moulton is the behind-the-scenes figure of disco music. His name has appeared on the credits of discs by Gloria Gaynor, B.T. Express, Bobby Moore, Al Downing, Peoples Choice, South Shore Commission and many others. Yet Moulton's vital contributions to the hits of a dozen soul acts is in a manner new to an industry increasingly immersed in the complexities of a technological age. For Tom Moulton, a white New York based engineer, is the father of the "disco mix".
Mixing a record is a complex process. Modem recording uses sixteen or
twenty-four track machines, which means that every instrument is recorded
and controlled separately, and can be balanced against the others. Tapes
can be edited in a variety of ways, and played at any speed. Effects,
like echo, repeat and phasing, can be placed on instruments, and stereo
separation is exploited to give breadth to a recording. Compression, expansion
and limiting are techniques which can firm up a sound by making quiet
parts louder and loud parts quieter, or emphasize the dynamic range, or
completely remove certain frequencies. Equalizers (which are found on
home stereos in the form of bass and treble knobs) can be used on each
instrument separately to change its characteristic sound. Most studios
have bass, lower middle, upper middle, treble and top frequency controls
which provide endless permutations of tone for each track. Tom Moulton
has specialised in mastering these facilities, an assignment usually left
to the producer. Tom's services are called for whenever a company wants
to perform a magical transformation: changing an uptempo soul disc into
a 'disco record'. Black Music spoke at length to this charming articulate
man in his luxurious New York apartment to unravel the mysteries behind
the oft quoted but seldom understood complexities of the 'disco mix'.
When I was fifteen years old I had a part time job in a record store,
and I liked it so much that I left school to try to get into the music
business as a salesman. I worked for Seeburg's (the jukebox company),
and King Records. Then I went up to Boston and worked for a retail chain.
I got a salesman's job with RCA, left there, and went into United Artists
as a promotion man. By that time I was so fed up that I left the business
for about a year.
Is there such a thing as a slow disco track?
It's hard to say; I feel there's gonna be a trend towards that, what it is I don't know, but right now, I would say no, there isn't. In New York, the gay discos still influence the sound. You'll find the gay discos are much more into things they're not familiar with, whereas in the straight discos, people still feel they have to hear something they're familiar with, and only occasionally can you slip in that new record that's foreign to them. But now it's getting to the point where gay discos aren't gay anymore, they're mixed. Because a lot of people are getting hip and saying, "Oh, we don't want the same old music. We want to be able to go where it's new and fresh", and that's what a lot of people do now. But I think you'll find that in your big cities rather than your smaller towns. They're not really into that sort of thing yet, and they watch what New York does.
Are there any older records which are natural disco tracks?
Yeah, there's quite a few of them; "Think" by Aretha Franklin, "Just One Look" by Doris Troy, "Who's Makin' Love" by Johnny Taylor. Things like that are really kind of disco records.
When did disco begin in America?
It began in the early sixties; but it really took off around 1971. I feel disco started happening more because radio got very tight with their piaylist, and there was a lot of music which just wasn't heing exposed. And of course, the economy doesn't help either. People want to be able to go out and have a good time. If you believe that history repeats itself, I think we're going through the dance era of the forties again.
Like the old tune "Brazil" being recorded again?
There's quite a number of them now; there's "How High The Moon", on Gloria's new album.
What do you feel catalllsed the new boom?
Everything has an effect, when you put it all together, but I don't think just one thing does; it tskes everybody to get on a good thing, or it's not gonna work. That's what I tried to get the disc jockeys here to do; a couple of years ago I said, "Hey, the only way you guys are ever gonna get anywhere Is if you all stick together, and then you can become something". One will help the other this Way, rather than each one trying to become a star themselves.
Is that how the record pool came about?
The record pool was really formed because of "The Chicago Theme" by Hubert Laws; let's say that was the basis of forming it. There was a man who was working for the company, CTI, who was giving out test pressings, and a couple of other disc jockeys tried to get it. The guy said, ''I'm sorry, you're not big enough". So they called me and said, ''I can't believe anybody would say we're not big enough". And I said, "Well, I don't have a solution to it". I tried to call him, and he was very nasty about it. So the next thing I know is, "Well look, we're all gonna get together then, and if we all don't get it, then none of us are gonna play it". And I said "That's the smartest thing I've ever heard you say". That's the reason they all got together, and of course I tried to help them.
Are there any other disco mixers you admire?
I don't really know anyone else who does what I do: see, I call myself the objective side of a producer. I'll go in there being totally objective, and take out everything that doesn't work, and put in stronger things that are the key to it. And the reason I've come to that conclusion is, I've tried to produce some things myself, and I found it very difficult in the mixing to be objective, to say it's not really mine, it's somebody else's, and I'm out to get everything that's good in the record.
Have you ever overdubbed anything onto a record?
Sure, background voices. In "Reach Out, I'll Be There" by Gloria Gaynor, the drums in the beginning. See, that was only once in the record, so we went in and overdubbed it, put it in again, kept repeating it.
Did you change anything in "Call Me Your Anything Man", by Bobby Moore?
No, but we had to triple the strings. We did it technically, cause there were only three violins, and rather than .. I don't like to add things to a producer's record, I don't think that's right: if I can do it without that sort of thing I would rather. 'Cause I enjoy what I do, but I'm not trying to take it away from the producer either.
"Anything Man" had a lovely summer quality.
I loved that record. Everybody always says the same thing, they always say "summer quality". I was just fascinated with it. It's the melody which I think attracted me to that record, and the girls' voices. It's like a lovers' record, I can't explain it. Like, to me that was a ballad. It wasn't really disco. The original had a sideman (a rhythm box simulating sixteenths on a closed high hat) up londer, but the whole mix was much harder. And there's that thin line where you've got to compromise, where you still want to retain the feel of the record, but you also want the beauty, and the minute that was up too loud, it clashed with what he was doing, it ruined the intimacy of what he was trying to say. You've got to consider the vocalist too.
Has disco affected dance itself?
It has; I don't think the hustle would have come up without the disco. They call it the hustle, I don't actually know how it got its name, but I know that a promotion man at RCA was the guy who gave Van (McCoy) the idea to record it. The rhythm is really a Philadelphia sound, what I call pretty soul.
Is the bump surviving?
I don't think it was ever that big in New York. It was big with the blacks, but not so much with the whites. On a national basis, I'd say the bump is probably still popular.
Has disco transcended ethnic lines?
I find black music on the whole more effective than white records when it comes to generating excitement. I've grown up with black music, and maybe I'm prejudiced, but I prefer black music, only because there's an excitement there. It's like the way a black group performs versus a white group. It seems like a black group needs less to make it exciting, I don't know why that is. Even vocally, they sing between the notes. I guess you'd call it soul. And why should that kind of music be just for the blacks, that's not fair. I appreciate anything that's real and exciting. That's what I try to do in a mix.
Aren't discos expensive?
No, they're not. It'd probably cost you around five dollars to get in, then you'd probably spend maybe two or three dollars for a drink or whatever. That's not a lot of money here.
Are drugs prevalent on the scene?
I think you're gonna find them anywhere. I don't think there's as much as there used to be, but there's still a lot of drugs around, let's say grass, or they might be on amyl nitrate, what they call poppers here. But I don't think there's as much as before.
Do you think that disco has hurt struggling live acts?
No, because if you look at the charts, there's still a great percentage of ballads. I just think that disco music has opened a whole new area and created some new record stars. Those small clubs still exist. There's still a lot of people who like that kind of music. Maybe it's hurt them a little bit, but there are still people who want to hear the small trio, the piano lounge. A lot of restaurants have opened discos where before they had nothing. If you're gonna go the music route, discos are hot right now. Rather than someone saying "I wanna really increase my business so I'm gonna throw out the small group and start getting discos". There are still a lot of places that have the small lounge acts.
Do you see any signs of disco fading?
No, because I don't think it's peaked yet.
A lot of people have jumped onto the disco bandwagon; has James Brown?
What James Brown used to do really wasn't disco music. James Brown generates a raw excitement, and that's a prime reason why a number of his records were played in the discos, because it had that raw excitement to make you wanna move. There's a certain line there where it becomes listening music, and music where you've got to tap your foot or something; and that's what you try to get out of a mix, to get people, like, to slap them in the face and say, "Hey, come on, let's move".
What do you think of James Brown's two latest disco albums?
I wouldn't want to comment on those.
What do you think of "Bad Luck" by Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes?
It's got to be one of my favourite all-time records. That of course was a million seller here. That'll probably be the biggest record of '75 in terms of popularity, because people just don't get sick of it.
And The O'Jays?
Believe it or not, The O'Jays are the biggest sellers on Philadelphia International. They're probably one of the strongest black acts around; they do have some white appeal, but it's primarily the black appeal for The O'Jays. "Love Train" was probably their biggest seller to the white audience, and "For The Love Of Money" was an incredible disco record.
And The Temptations?
It's funny about Motown. I think the most exciting thing they've come out with is "Forever Came Today", by The Jackson Five. That became a number one disco record here in New York; but as for some of their other products, it seems like there's no excitement anymore. It's like they don't take it far enough, they confine it.
Does that hold for The Commodores?
Oh, I wish you didn't say that. There's one song I love right now, it's my favourite song. It's called "This Is your Life", it's a ballad. That to me is one of the greatest Motown records I've ever heard. But I didn't care for "Slippery When Wet". If they applied the same approach to The Commodores' up records as they did to ''ThIs Is Your Life", they would really dominate the disco world.
What about some other groups?
I love Kool & The Gang, always have. I like The Ohio Players, they're interesting. I'm surprised they're as commercial as they are, because when you listen to them they're really not that commercial. I love The Isley Brothers.
Is side one of 'The Heat is On' disco?
Yes and no. That's a group disco-wise that's predominant in the straight clubs. It's too repetitious for the gays. And it's bigger in black clubs.
And Barry White?
He's sort of over now. His last big record was "You're The First, The Last, My Everything".
Are you involved in any work other than disco?
I've been doing a lot of ballads lately. I think ballads are much easier to do. You can get more emotion out of a ballad, where, with a disco record, there's a lot of things that you've got to keep going. 'Cause if I get bored with it, then I know other people are. 'You've 'got to keep the excitement level up, whereas on a ballad you depend more on the lyrics and the melody.
How do you see the future of disco?
As long as people can go out and have a good time for five dollars, and feel uninhibited, because maybe it's dark, and let's say, escape, and just come out of your shell and dance, I think discos are gonna be around. Because it's really a cheap way of having a great time.
Life is full of happy accidents: In 1879, Constantine Fahlberg accidentally
spilled a substance on his hand, found it sweet and called it saccharin.
In the late 1950s, Wilson Greatbatch was working on a way to record heart
sounds, pulled the wrong resistor out of a box and invented the pacemaker.
And in the early 1970s, Tom Moulton couldn't lay his hands on any 7" blanks
to cut a record, and invented the 12" single...
In the early 1970s Tom was taken to Fire Island, a legendary place, only accessable by boat, where New York's gay clubbing community spent their summers, by another model from his agency who owned The Botel there. One afternoon Tom noticed something. As much as he loved music, (but hated clubbing!), he could see that every time the DJ switched to a new record the energy on the dancefloor would be lost. People would sit down. Tom had already been experimenting with reel to reel tape for a few years, extending parts of favourite songs, seeing what would happen. So he decided to try
something out... Legend has it that he spent 80 hours that week splicing
tape (according to Tom, it was "probably longer"!), putting together one
of the first megamixes, where each song flowed naturally from the one
before, meaning no loss of energy. The following week, Tom took his tape
back to Fire Island, where he played it to John, the Botel owner, who
rather cruelly said "don't give up your day job!" Gutted, Tom headed for
home. But a chance conversation with Bob Smith, the owner of the Sandpiper,
led to him taking the tape to Don Finley, the Sandpiper DJ at the time,
to try it out. This time the tape was much better received. Tom got a
call at 2.30 one morning, from an excited Bob telling him "The people
are getting wild for this tape!". He wanted Tom to produce a weekly tape,
but obviously at 80 hours a time, it just wasn't possible. Instead he
gave them around twelve tapes over the next four years. The first tape
was made up of 3 minute 45s, so Tom began looking for instrumentals of
some of his records so he could create longer versions for the following
One of the tapes mentioned above that Tom put together in 1974
And another from 1974