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In Conversation with Disco Don Tom Moulton

"I would have never said 'no, I don't wanna mix 'Dancing Queen''. I regret that every single day of my life."

by Jeremy Allen
29 April 2015, 12:00pm

Anyone who thinks Grace Jones' singing career began with Warm Leatherette can think again. "I Need A Man" — her first single — arrived in '75, and then came three life-affirming disco LPs — Portfolio, Fame and Muse — recorded between '77 and '79 with legendary remix maestro Tom Moulton as producer. The last two faltered commercially, partly because of an oversaturated market and the rise of the "Disco Sucks" backlash of the late 70s, though all have now been lovingly-restored at Abbey Road Studios in the form of the Disco Years boxset. Critical re-evaluation and an outpouring of love are all but guaranteed.

And while Grace Jones has subsequently become a household name, her lesser-known producer has had a hand in shaping dance and music culture as we know it, earning the sobriquet "the undisputed king of the disco mix" along the way. His story is endlessly fascinating, and it could be argued that Moulton has had a greater influence on the way we listen to music than Larry Levan, Patrick Cowley, and even hip hop progenitor Kool Herc (ergo, he's had more influence than almost anyone).

On the line from Manhattan, the straight-talking, ever-humble remix pioneer is keen to play down his role in inventing the disco megamix, the 12" and the "disco break", claiming such discoveries were inadvertent. Take the disco mix; Tom was the first person to ever commit a "disco medley" to vinyl, merging three tracks on the first side of Gloria Gaynor's 1975 Never Can Say Goodbye album. It's odd to think one of the great musical innovations of our times had more to do with the call of mother nature than anything else.

"I put all those songs together so the DJ could go for a break to the bathroom," says Tom, "because it was 19 minutes long. I wasn't doing it because I was trying to create a mix of three songs together, it was only really for the DJ."

Moulton's initial idea to marry songs into an extended mix in order to keep momentum going on the dancefloor came to him whilst visiting a hip gay bar on Fire Island during the early 70's. His epiphany came as he watched what was known as a 'tea dance', with white folk mid-afternoon sashaying to Al Green after a trip to the beach.

"I was just fascinated by all these white people dancing to black music," he says, "because I've always been a fan of black music. You know, growing up in the 40's, you really couldn't say you liked that kind of music because people looked at you funny.

"But the DJ wasn't that good. If he wasn't quite on the beat then people would walk off, and I could tell by the way people were dancing that they were just getting into it; then this other record would disturb the way they were feeling, and I thought, 'there's got to be a way to make it go longer.'"

Moulton set about compiling a 45 minute mixtape on an old Revox machine that took him the best part of 80 hours to compile ("It's much easier these days," he jokes). Later he unwittingly stumbled upon the 12" format when Scepter Records - where he worked as A&R - ran out of 7" acetates for Big Al Downing's "I'll Keep Holding On".

"It was an accident you know," laughs Moulton. "I'm not trying to compare this to the polio vaccine, but didn't Luis Pasteur do the same thing when he left something in a petri dish over the weekend? So I kind of get embarrassed when people say, 'oh you invented the 12". No I didn't invent it, they just ran out of 7" blanks."

If necessity is the mother of invention, then contingency is its father in Moulton's world. As well as working as a fashion model, the Tom Selleck-alike's eventful career also saw him drop what is widely regarded as the first 'disco break' on Don Downing's 1974 hit "Dream World", after he faded out the instrumentation at the point of modulation and reintroduced it later, and he made excellent whoopie with unfinished Arthur Baker tracks to fulfil contractual obligations with his own disco project, TJM in '79. Two years earlier, Tom even had a minor myocardial infarction as he remixed First Choice's "Doctor Love".

"I had shocks run through my body," he says. "I loved that track so much that I wasn't prepared to stop until I got it right. It wasn't until I got to hospital that I realised I'd had a heart attack."

If all that isn't enough, Tom also wrote a weekly disco column for Billboard magazine in the mid-70's, and it was indirectly because of this visibility that he was persuaded to take a production job.

"I used to get these letters periodically from [promoters] Sy and Eileen Berlin and they always used to say 'oh, we love your mix on this song' and 'please keep up the good work'. It was almost like a fan letter and I didn't have many people send me notes like that."

Tom stated he didn't produce, but flattery eventually paid off, and he soon found himself working with "one of the most unique people I ever worked with," in the shape of Grace Jones.

"She has tremendous drive," he says of Grace, "I mean you can tell just the way she looks and the way she takes care of her body. I think that whatever she sets her mind to do she can achieve. She always said [purrs] 'whatever it takes' and she meant it. I never heard anyone say that with such meaning, believe me!"

Tom remembers seeing Grace perform at the Roxy, and it was there he realised her pugnacity could work as a commodity.

"She started singing and the microphone didn't work," he says, "so she threw it into the audience complaining that 'the damned thing doesn't work', and somebody got smashed in the head. And the kid starts screaming, 'Oh my God! Grace Jones hit me! I gotta keep this mic!" Management are running around saying 'we're gonna get sued!' but she didn't care. That's when I realised that aggressive, strong side of her was what people liked".

After the showtunes of Portfolio, Moulton went on the prowl for more tracks that attacked for the followups. "I love "Do or Die"," he enthuses, "there's just something about that song that I've always loved. And of course she's a Taurus, so when she sings, 'Tauruses are more determined/Nothing's gonna stand in their way', she can relate to that because she believes that. "On Your Knees" is another. I wanted songs that were really aggressive where she's the boss, because people loved that side of her."

So did he and Grace get on?

"Well, like I tell everybody I work with, I'm not trying to build a friendship, I'm trying to make the best record I can as producer," he says, choosing his words diplomatically, "so sometimes I'm a little hard on people but only because I want the record to be successful. We had our moments in the studio, but overall when you look back, we were all happy with what came out."

So in an incredibly illustrious career, what is Tom most proud of?

"Lasting this long," he offers.

And what would he have done differently?

"I would have never said 'no, I don't wanna mix 'Dancing Queen''. I regret that every single day of my life."

The Grace Jones 3CD/4LP box set is available from 4th May on Island Records.

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