Disco pioneer Tom Moulton: ‘People thought I was from another planet!’

In his heyday, disco DJ Tom Moulton was known as the Doctor: a cantankerous ex-model whose editing scalpel could turn near-misses into hits, and hits into classics. His extended mixes were the toast of New York DJs a decade his junior, nearly all of whom he has outlived. Today he surveys his years with old-Manhattan pizzazz, unruffled, half-yelling and aghast at talk of retirement. “People say: ‘We know you’re 80 and you’re going to stop,’” he says from his Upper West Side apartment. “No. When I stop, that means I died.’”

Moulton is video-calling from his music room, the nerve centre of the home he shares with two cats and a bounty of Eurodisco singles. He moved there in 1972, the decade that would lead him to create the dance mix, introduce a young Grace Jones to the world and – when his pressing plant ran out of smaller acetates – invent the 12in single by accident.

He has retained his big-city charm and his dash of venom (a compere once dared to fade out his track during a live interview. “You’d be a great serial killer the way you attack the best part of a song,” Moulton hissed). He has a retrospective compilation on the way but fusses over the framing. “They wanted to do something for my 80th year,” he scowls. “Oh, how wonderful. I said: ‘Look, we can always do it for the 90th …’”

Tom Moulton in 1972.
Moulton in 1972.

In the meantime, he is pumping out mixes on Bandcamp – five irresistible volumes since the pandemic began, made in his apartment while he avoids the coronavirus below. Their rapid release suggested these were rediscovered artefacts, but miraculously, it is all new, drawn from his towers of authorised multitrack tapes. “I’ve got to live to 120,” he says, “but I’ll get to them.”

Born upstate in 1940, Moulton dropped out of school and spent his 20s darting around the music business until, disillusioned by a payola scandal, he quit, holidayed in Denmark, broke some teeth on a meatball and subsequently lost 12kg, occasioning a switch to modelling. In 1971, a colleague introduced him to Fire Island, the Long Island party enclave. Having grown up among segregated music habits, Moulton marvelled at the mostly gay, white dancers letting loose to Al Green and hatched a plan to eliminate the awkward gap (and dancefloor exodus) between songs. Using a tape machine, he spent two weeks threading up-tempo soul and R&B into the first continuous mix.

Emboldened by its success, Moulton found more ways to adapt music for hefty sound systems and saucer-eyed dancers. Innovations such as the disco break, where elements like drums or melodies are removed before crashing back in, were designed to “hang you off a cliff with a bungee cable. You almost hit the bottom and then you bounce back up.” By contrast, music today “seems to flatline. And when I think of flatline” – he imitates a bleeping heart monitor – “I think: you die.”

In 1974, Moulton began to champion underground hits such as Gloria Gaynor’s Never Can Say Goodbye in a Billboard magazine column. It earned him an uncredited role in her debut album, mixing a 19-minute medley. In his telling, Gaynor complained that she didn’t sing much. “You have no idea how much that hurt me,” he says through wincing laughter. “It was horrible.”

DJs loved the track, though, and Gaynor, writing by email, says she now considers Moulton largely “responsible for the great response” to her early catalogue. “I thought Tom was very in tune with the disco audience and that he was a genius at remixing.”

Gloria Gaynor.
Gloria Gaynor. Photograph: Echoes/Redferns

On weekdays, Moulton worked at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, under the songwriting and production duo Gamble and Huff. He agreed to mix Doctor Love by First Choice, a new signing to house guitarist Norman Harris’s label. In the edit suite, outmanoeuvred by drummer Earl Young’s undulating tempo, Moulton “got so frustrated that I raised my arms and said: ‘Jesus Christ, this stuff’s gonna kill me!’” he recalls, re-enacting the scene on his swivel chair. “I felt shocks go down my arm and started to fall forward. I said [to the engineer]: Let’s just finish this, then can you drive me over to Hahnemann hospital?”

The emergency-room doctor said Moulton had had a heart attack. “They had to zap my heart back in rhythm,” he remembers. Questioning the two-hour delay before coming to hospital, the doctor asked what had been more important than his life. “I said: ‘Doctor Love. It’s a new song by First Choice.’”

Disco being what it was, I ask if anything improper might have triggered the episode. “Me? Drugs?” He spreads his arms like a besmirched saint. “In the studio, they used to say I would turn in my own mother if she was smoking grass. Most people thought I was from another planet anyway. I’d say: ‘Listen to that guitar! You don’t hear the notes he’s playing?’ Some people, I felt like their nerves aren’t connected to the brain.”

For this reason, Moulton ventured to discos rarely, mostly to watch DJ friends such as Jimmy Stuard. It was Stuard’s 12 West club where, in 1976, Moulton unveiled Grace Jones – she and Moulton had recently started working together after her managers took a shine to him, and Jones made a splash by vamping over an instrumental that Stuard had slipped into rotation months earlier. “Grace wasn’t that good when I met her,” Moulton says, “but she exuded an animal magnetism. She blew her movie career because of being late, but she could have been a super-superstar if she saw what time it was.”

Moulton would produce three albums for Jones and help to make her a Studio 54 sensation, though the nightclub’s patronage did not stop him staging a boycott over a botched invite by the co-owner Steve Rubell. At the door, “The guard said: ‘Tom Moulton. Is that name supposed to mean something to me? Get the fuck outta here.’ Oh, I was so embarrassed. I said: ‘You tell Steve, the next time he wants to see me he can come up and kiss my ass.’”

The late-70s disco boom triggered more headaches. “I knew the backlash was coming,” Moulton says, “and sure enough, ‘disco sucks’ happened.” Although racism and homophobia played their part, he believes the crux, amid Saturday Night Fever and a glut of pallid disco, was “radio wanting its power back” from the ascendant club circuit.

Asked whether white figureheads such as the Bee Gees and, latterly, Dua Lipa risk sanitising disco’s Black and gay origins, Moulton is defensive. “There’s no way in hell you can say that with me, because 99% of the stuff I [mix] is Black,” he says, protesting an imagined slight. He stresses his freedom to spotlight the “aggressive, nasty, funky and sleazy” in his Bandcamp mixes – qualities labels would want dampened down – but many former mixing jobs, he admits, involved “trying to eliminate the hard R&B side”.

As disco burned out, the 80s opened a grim chapter for Moulton: Stuard had died in a bathhouse fire; DJ David Rodriguez, a regular at Moulton’s listening salons, was among the first people lost to HIV; and Moulton, with no romantic life to speak of (“I look back on my life and I was in love with multitracks!”), had little to anchor him in the city. Meanwhile, a messy lawsuit against PolyGram once again soured Moulton’s view of the industry. After winning the case, he left the business and began wintering in Florida. He became a junior master at bridge, primarily to spite a discophobe opponent who said he would never make it.

Tom Moulton: ‘I’ve got to live to 120.’
Tom Moulton: ‘I’ve got to live to 120.’

When he re-emerged in 1992, it was into an irrevocably changed New York scene. Many discos had shuttered or gone rock. As for the DJs, “Most of those guys were dead,” he says. Had he felt responsible for them? “I was very careful not to get preachy. They knew I wasn’t into drugs. Most of these DJs were kids, and I was already on my way out.”

But decades later, Moulton is still here among the last great disco survivors. His home studio is now a time capsule for lost musicians. “I’ll work on a Philly track and hear them playing, so they are not gone to me. I hear Norman [Harris] talking before the music starts. It’s difficult to think of them not here.” During the pandemic, “People say: ‘Tom, you must feel bad having to stay home.’ But why would I? The world is still spinning outside my window. I look at it and say: ‘God, I wonder how fast the merry-go-round is going today.’”

When he gets his hands on multitrack recordings, “I’m still like, I can’t believe I finally got this.” He says he’ll be working on another mix right after our call, but seems reluctant to actually leave, watching the Manhattan daylight fade outside his window. Then he brightens at the memory of a new acquisition: “Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” he announces, beaming. “I just love that damn song.” Swivelling towards the tape machine, he says happy new year and returns to work.