Any dis­co fan knows the name “Tom Moulton.”  He’s the patron saint of the gen­re because he invent­ed so many of the inno­va­tions that formed its bedrock.  He cre­at­ed the extend­ed dance mix, the side-length med­ley, the 12-inch record… so many key ele­ments that made dis­co a music indus­try lead­er in the mid-to-late 1970’s bear the sig­na­ture touch of Tom Moulton.  Anyone doing a 12-inch mix today owes him a mas­sive debt of grat­i­tude.

And the end of dis­co was not the end of the sto­ry for Tom Moulton.  He remains an in-demand mix spe­cial­ist for many musi­cians, hav­ing recent­ly done crit­i­cal­ly-acclaimed work for the Brand New Heavies and Cool Million, and is often called in to remas­ter clas­sic music from the dis­co era and curate com­pi­la­tions.  In fact, he’s got an album com­ing out soon — Philly Regrooved, a col­lec­tion of new remix­es that Moulton did for vin­tage tunes from the Philly Groove record label (you can read more about that here).

The fol­low­ing is the first install­ment of an exclu­sive two-part inter­view that Your Humble Interview recent­ly con­duct­ed with Moulton.  Special thanks to Donald Cleveland, reis­sue pro­duc­er extra­or­di­naire with the Funky Town Grooves label, for putting it all togeth­er.  Cue up your favorite dis­co mix­es and let’s dive in…

You’ve said music has always been an impor­tant part your life.  What were the key records or groups that you lis­tened to as a kid or teenager that inspired that life­long com­mit­ment to music?

The sound of the Mills Brothers, Les Paul & Mary Ford and lis­ten­ing to the Hound on WKBW in Buffalo start­ed me on my music adven­ture.

I’ve heard you’ve always been a big James Brown fan from his ear­li­est days.  Any inter­est­ing sto­ries you care to tell us about your youth­ful J.B. fan­dom?

I worked for King Records in the late 50’s in San Francisco and got to meet the Godfather him­self.  I was so ner­vous and when we start­ed to shake hands he passed the back of his hand with mine and said “Give me some skin on the dark side.”  I nev­er for­got that and I wore a glove for a week to keep his touch on me.

Like most dis­co fans, I’ve read about the pre­mixed tapes you pre­pared for the Sandpiper club on Fire Island when you were get­ting start­ed.  What was on the­se career-mak­ing tapes?  Please tell us about the songs/groups used on the­se leg­endary tapes (and any oth­er aspects you con­sid­er worth men­tion­ing).

The idea behind mak­ing those tapes was to cre­ate a  musi­cal trip start­ing at one tem­po and build­ing it to anoth­er lev­el. I would vari-speed the songs slow­ly so the inten­si­ty would be build­ing all the time. I tried to use songs that no one knew and have a famil­iar one every now and then.

(Interviewer’s Addition: accord­ing to Peter Shapiro’s Turn The Beat Around, artists fea­tured on the­se tapes includ­ed Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson and the Detroit Emeralds)

You have said that you’ve mixed a whop­ping 4000 songs dur­ing your career as a mix­ing pro.  What was the break­down of a typ­i­cal work-week when you were churn­ing out mix after mix dur­ing disco’s peak era?  And what did you do to main­tain such a Herculean work­load?

Well I am still mix­ing all the time (in fact much more then I did back then).  I would rough­ly try to do 7 songs a week, some­times more and some­times less.

You’re famous for devel­op­ing the “break­down” tech­nique in dis­co mix­ing (for those not famil­iar with it, this refers to strip­ping an arrange­ment down to its barest beat and then grad­u­al­ly rebuild­ing its ele­ments).  Were there any record­ings or pro­duc­ers who inspired you to devel­op this tech­nique?

The break was an acci­dent. One of the first songs I mixed was “Dream World” by Don Downing and the song mod­u­lat­ed up to anoth­er key.  I couldn’t go back to the begin­ning of the song because it would mod­u­late down a step so I took out every­thing except the rhythm per­cus­sion and built the record back up musi­cal­ly. Everyone seemed to like it so I start­ed doing it on most records.

Donald Cleveland told me that you used an Asian per­cus­sion­ist named Moto on a lot of remix­es and that there’s a spe­cial “leg­end of Moto” sto­ry to be told.  Would you care to elab­o­rate on this?

I am sure Donald men­tioned that to see if I would tell you the truth about Moto.  Well, Moto was this frus­trat­ed per­cus­sion­ist who liked to play on records and I used him a lot.  In fact, any­time I need­ed some per­cus­sion he was always around.  He got his name from using the first two let­ters of his last name and first name and put them togeth­er.

Here’s a ques­tion about a speci­fic mix — your extend­ed ver­sion of Ashford & Simpson’s “Found A Cure”: how did you become involved with doing that mix? 

I was asked by Johnny D. (D’Mairo) from Atlantic Records about mix­ing a track for Ashford & Simpson and which one would I like to do. I picked “Found A Cure.”  I always find some­thing to inspire myself on a song I like because there is always some­thing that wasn’t used or isn’t up in the mix that gets me excit­ed.  In fact, my friend Paul Simpson said why don’t you sur­prise every­one and put two breaks in it?  It was a good idea and I did exact­ly that.

You’ve remixed some elec­tron­ic projects, like the Kebekelektrik album.  Is there a dif­fer­ence in how you approach mix­ing a pure­ly (or most­ly) elec­tron­ic record as opposed to how you mix things with a greater vari­ety of instru­men­ta­tion?

Well, I try to put the soul into the elec­tron­ic sound and some­times you have to get very cre­ative to cre­ate that illu­sion. With “War Dance,” I had the left and right synths be phased and they were mov­ing in tem­po with the beat and con­stant­ly criss­cross­ing each oth­er.  You hear the effect more with ear­phones — and of course when you’re under the influ­ence of…

When look­ing back at your mixog­ra­phy, were there any songs that you thought would be big hits that nev­er climbed the charts?  And were there any mix­es that shocked you by being big­ger hits than you imag­ined?

I can’t think of any one specif­i­cal­ly.  I always went into the stu­dio to come out with the best mix I could do.  PROMOTION is always the way you get a hit record.

It’s no secret that some artists, writ­ers and pro­duc­ers object­ed to hav­ing their work remixed.  Did you ever get flak from some­one about a mix you did for their work?  What was the most mem­o­rable incident(s) like this and how did you deal with it?

It was like that in the begin­ning.  Some pro­duc­ers felt threat­ened by it and oth­ers were thank­ful for the hit.  I didn’t want to be a pro­duc­er — all I want­ed to be was the objec­tive side of the pro­duc­er.

You’ve done the occa­sion­al pro­duc­tion, though you’ve said it’s not your pref­er­ence.  One cred­it that inter­ests me is Robert Palmer’s Double Fun album on the Island label, which lists you as pro­duc­ing three tracks (includ­ing a great mel­low-funk ver­sion of “You Really Got Me”).  Any sto­ries to tell from this gig?

I was more involved with the project then I was cred­it­ed for. I did do a lot of over­dubs on the album.  I am a per­fec­tion­ist and wouldn’t let Robert do any phone-ins.  I want­ed all or noth­ing — and I got it.

Continuing with the top­ic of Island Records, it is inter­est­ing to note that you mixed reg­gae records for Island and oth­er labels in addi­tion to the dis­co fare you’re known for.  I’ve heard this was a tricky process due to cul­tur­al laws in Jamaica dur­ing that time.  Could you please tell us about this? 

I was doing some mix­ing for Clem Dodds in Jamaica and I had to take the tapes out of there because they weren’t let­ting any­thing Jamaican leave the island.  I was so scared going through cus­toms.  The cab dri­ver went over and talked to the cus­toms agent and I just walked through.

Be sure to check in for the oth­er half of this inter­view on Friday.  Part 2 will fea­ture Moulton dis­cussing Philly Regrooved as well as his views on mod­ern music and the clas­sic era of Pro Wrestling (!!!).  Don’t miss it…