Dancefloor music

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.

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.

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 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.

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.”