Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Tom Moulton: Moulton's Magic

Tom Moulton
Tom Moulton Tom Moulton Tom Moulton and Bette Midler

“I’ve never taken drugs but I doubt if the club goers that do take them get half as high as I do when I’m listening to music” opens Tom Moulton, one of clubland’s greater ever remixers.

It was with his unquestionable passion, talent and status in mind that Harmless Records head boy Ian Dewhirst approached the 71-year-old veteran last year and invited him to remix classic moments from the Philly Groove label catalogue – subsequent compilation release Philly Re-Grooved: The Tom Moulton Remixes earned plaudits from critics and soulful dance fans alike; and now, this month, an intrepid sequel, Philly Re-grooved 2, with punchy sub-title The Master Returns.

Does Tom really feel like a master? “I don’t see it like that; I don’t see my success or popularity so much as I see the success and popularity of good music” he answers. “I remain shocked… scared even by the fact my remixes have become so big around the world but it’s great that people are now so accepting of this wonderful music and are probably feeling the same spine-tingles I did when I heard and then remixed it.”

Harmless, of course, took quite a punt in kick-starting the Philly Re-Grooved project. Volume one came at a time when clubland was heavily focussed on the electronic – on digital minimalism, on glacial house beats and sharp tech crunch. It still is. Did Tom have his reservations about getting involved?

“Not really” he laughs. “I was never worried about the first record’s appeal. It featured some of my favourite songs, all of which were hugely successful, so how could we go wrong? I basically needed to please myself. I’m my own worst critic and I knew the artists and songs so well, so I just needed to get the track selection right to feel comfortable with things.”

But even with tracks chosen there was still some restlessness: “There was a real melancholy going back to those songs, knowing that many of the people that worked on them – people I knew – are now gone. They were great times in the studio back then; there was a real buzz that we were creating something fresh. It was a nice challenge to revisit the songs, and attempt to put that buzz into my versions. I’m really happy with how both albums have turned out; they’ve made me feel totally alive.”

Philly Groove, founded by Stan Watson and Sam Bell in 1967 (and with revered produced Thom Bell handling A&R), enjoyed a number of smooth soul and R&B hits during the late sixties and early seventies. As its catalogue developed, it nodded increasingly so towards the emerging sound of disco.

Where Moulton selected major label cuts from the likes of First Choice (Armed And Extremely Dangerous) and The Delfonics (I Told You So) for his first Re-Grooved outing, he left himself fewer options – at least on first glance – for the new record.

“Boy, that was a real panic I can tell you” he confesses. “We’d not banked on getting the chance to do a second album. The first one had been planned over quite some time but the demand and rush for a second made me ask myself ‘how are we going to find the big songs?’ At first I thought it’d be too difficult, but then I realised I’d forgotten about Incompatible by Ultra High Frequency, a beautiful if more obscure Philly dance record, and then First Choice’s B-side Smarty Pants with that timeless shuffle. Everything came together after that.”

Philly Re-Grooved 2, also featuring gems from Terry Collins and Loose Change, will precede the Dutch release of a Philly International Records boxset which Tom has spent a considerable length of time helping package. There are other proposals – some retro, some new – on the table and under consideration but Mr Moulton will not be rushed.

“I always tell young remixers not to rush. How do you polish a diamond? You need to take time when working on something” he stresses. “I’ve disappointed a few people over the years when I’ve told them that if they want my name on the record then they have to follow my pace. The accusation that I do what I do for money would absolutely kill me; remix work has always been an emotional attachment… it’s like painting a masterpiece in audio.”

Tom Jerome Moulton’s career can be tracked back to high-profile Fire Island club The Sandpiper where, during the late sixties, he provided DIY tapes of disco tracks he’d extended and blended together. They promptly got him noticed by key figures within the music industry and hired to ‘mix’ some of their biggest artists – Gloria Gaynor, The Three Degrees and MFSB to name but a few.

“In the early days I was mixing rather than remixing. I was often asked to rescue records to make them work fully for the dancefloor… create ‘the mix’” he says. “In actual fact I was making a short and long mix for everything so people had a choice when buying records; personally I often felt some of these great songs were too short in their original format.”

Tom did fully produce other artists – notably Grace Jones and her first three albums, between 1977 and 1979 – and even write a handful of songs but remixing remained his key focus. Looking back does he have any regrets about his balance of work?

“Not really; I did write a handful of songs but it took up so much time, great as it was, and I had so much else to do in the studio that something had to give. You can’t do everything” he protests. “I found the production side of things difficult too. I felt I had to give it straight to artists and that sometimes caused friction; if they had an attitude I wasn’t prepared to accept it. I’d tell them we all had our jobs to do and that if they wanted to waste everyone’s time challenging everything then it’d hit their pocket, not ours.

“With production there was a lot of interference from people, full stop, and I didn’t like that. It was easier to remix their finished record and then add what needed to be added - easier but still very creative.”

Tom estimates that he’s mixed over 4000 songs during his career to date – a figure, remarkably, that doesn’t take into account the various mix versions he has edited per song. His is a career that also includes lofty titles as the inventor of the 12” single, disco ‘break’ and dance remix. His trademark studio credit ‘A Tom Moulton Mix’ really has become the stuff of legends.

Being so entwined in clubland’s earliest, most formative years and, today, with such depth of experience and wide-ranging knowledge of ‘dance’ music what does Tom make of the current dancefloor landscape. He must have fairly strong views?

“Today’s club music is largely based on three or four chords; the musicality is the least of it” he comments. “There’s too much onus on grooves and gimmicks, on putting a date-stamp or reference point on every record – ‘that sounds eighties, this sounds retro-seventies’ and so on – and looking for short-term novelties.

“A lot of today’s artists are afraid of believing in their music; they think people don’t want melodies and do want machine grooves. I tell artist friends of mine to believe in themselves and follow their own path; great songs are timeless and will never go out of fashion. I tell them that I was never influenced by anyone and that bandwagons are a bad thing but they often get really cross with me!”

Spreading ‘the word’ is clearly still on Tom’s mind; ploughing his own unique musical furrows because that is what “makes me live.” Are there any specific ambitions left he still wants to fulfil?

“I’ve had an amazing time; I still am” he starts. “People often live their whole lifetimes with regrets but I’m not one of them; they tell you they could have been the next Hendrix or Wonder but then they never did a thing about it. Music has been a passion all my life and I’ve never been away from it. I love my life.”

There is still, however, one tiny regret – ABBA’s Dancing Queen. “Oh God, you had to bring that up!” he sighs. “I turned that song down; I told Atlantic at the time that it didn’t need anything. Boy that decision kills me to this day; the song was perfect but, in hindsight, I’d have loved to have made a longer version of it. I have people out there who will let me know if an opportunity comes up to do something with Dancing Queen; I just have to hope and pray.”

Philly Re-Grooved 2: The Tom Moulton Remixes (The Master Returns) is out now on Harmless Records (UK)

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