A Tom Moulton Mix
om Moulton is both a legend and an anomaly in the dance music scene. Arguably the inventor of both the remix and the 12" single, it'd be hard to pick a figure more important in breaking ground with regards to the way dance records are actually made. However, his lack of direct involvement in the discotheque scene that he helped provide a musical foundation for has kept him from the Legend status bestowed upon Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy, Walter Gibbons, et al. Never a DJ, not even much of a dancer, Moulton actually had an intense dislike for clubs. What he loved (and loves) is music, with a purity and a passion rarely seen even amongst those for whom it is their life's work.
What Moulton did that was so basic and so revolutionary was this: Working from the master recordings, he broke down the traditional radio-oriented three-minute single and created drawn-out, epic processions of rhythm and emotion. By focusing on single, potent lines, percussive breakdowns and instrumental interludes, he inadvertently mid-wifed the basic blueprint of dance music. His technique was based on a desire to give space and fullness to songs that he loved, as well as an acknowledgment of the reactions of dancers in the early, pre-disco nightspots. Dubbing each version "A Tom Moulton Mix," the results drew the attention of the nascent DJ scene, many of whom were delighted at not only the effect on their audiences, but also no doubt relieved at not having to change the records quite so often. A further revolution happened when, finding themselves fresh out of 7" vinyl blanks one evening, Moulton and engineer Jose Rodriguez discovered that you could spread a Mix onto a 12" record, allowing for both longer songs and louder, beefier grooves.
With well over 4,000 songs under his belt, the idea of whittling down Moulton's "classic" mixes to 16 cuts seems a bit absurd, but what else to do? Disco devotees will already know his name well, and indeed have most of these tracks committed to memory. His ubiquity in the circle of 12" collectors would seem to make collating two discs of it a rather thankless task. At its core, this collection should be seen as an overview and primer for those who are just beginning their explorations into the world of dance music's history. It's especially essential for those who haven't spent much time trolling around the used disco bin, as well as those outside of the traditional epicenters of US dance music.
So, with so much to choose from, and given those basic parameters, how well do Soul Jazz craft a credible release? Pretty damn well, actually. There's not a weak cut on here, and most of the complaints I could potentially make are highly personal disco-geek ones. What is here, of course, is stellar. Eddie Kendricks, the greatest falsetto of the proto-disco period, gets us off on the good foot with "Keep on Truckin'," a monster eleven-minute groove that rolls along on rapid waves of percussion, vibes and cascading horn charts. "Peace Pipe," the b-side to Moulton's first Mix, #2 pop single "Do It 'Til You're Satisfied," is typical B.T. Express—fast-stepping, jazzy, and bringing the party atmosphere with female lead and both male and female backing vocals. "Dreamworld" by the little known Don Downing is a huge personal favorite of mine—mining the quintessential Philly combo of creamy tenor lead and swooping falsetto backing vox, perfectly timed against the glorious strings—and that piano break, ohhh! Disc one continues the string of great jams with Patti Jo's breakbeat-laden and beautifully sung "Make Me Believe In You," in which she "don't sing much" (to quote Gloria Gaynor's reaction to the Moulton Mix of her first LP), but still manages to convince the listener to show her "your love can be true." South Shore Commission's "Free Man" was a classic in both straight and gay discos, and it's easy to see why—the pungent, rousing backbeat and dual lead making a pretty incontrovertible argument in favor of single manhood. When the boisterous main section drops down to an airy, nearly-ambient jam, you have to hold your breath until those horns come romping back in.
And that's only disc one! The second, slightly longer, disc kicks off with Andrea True Connection's "More More More," a song even the most novice disco fan will know. Classic that it is, some lesser known cuts here are equally worthy of mention—the Orlando Riva Sound (or simply "ORS" as it appears on the 12") weigh in with "Moonboots," a great bit of funky space disco that's almost entirely instrumental, save for some vocalese and the occasional mention of those titular boots. It reminds me a bit of the P&P Records sound of Patrick Adams & Co., with squiggly little synthesizer noodlings and a liquified bassline, but the progressions are trademark Moulton. Of course, I wouldn't let MFSB's "Love Is the Message" go by without a nod, for this is the definitive version of this canonical song—claimed by the Loft, Gallery, and Paradise Garage at various points as the anthem which was "theirs." Pshaw, it's everybody's. Grace Jones take on the Piaf nugget "La Vie En Rose" has always been underwhelming for me, but it's an excellent opportunity to see what Moulton does to flesh out a song when the tempo drops. The final track on our whirlwind tour—"Lip Service," by the Lover, is a great place to end up—released in '82, it shows how Moulton managed to adjust to the rapidly-changing technology while still keeping all the musical components of his style intact.
The only complaint that really needs to be aired is one against the liner notes—Soul Jazz always put a lovely little booklet in each of their compilations, but once in a while the text will wind up sounding like it was translated through three different languages before it made it onto the page. This is one of those cases—I found the liners diffuse and sadly uninformative, especially given the wealth of information on Tom Moulton easily available online or in books such as Last Night A DJ Saved My Life or Tim Lawrence's definitive disco-era primer Love Saves the Day. However, the sound quality is excellent across the board—nice for those used to sometimes very scratchy 12"s, and I'm willing to forgive the omission of such choice songs as the Salsoul Orchestra's funk workout "212 North 12th St." (which Moulton also wrote and arranged) and "That's Where the Happy People Go," or any one of a number of worthies by the Trammps, who were Tom's favorite group to mix for.
It's been a long time coming, baby, but the gloriously-mustachioed main man of the mix is finally starting to get his due. Let's hope that this is just the beginning of a critical re-releasing and re-evaluation of a studio trailblazer without whom disco might never have happened, and certainly without whom the character of what we now call "dance music" would have taken a much different shape.