Young kids across the country sat glued to their TV sets or record players when The Beatles made their United States debut in 1964. The band’s mop-topped heads and fresh sound inspired countless children to channel their inner John, Paul, George or Ringo and pick up an instrument for the first time.
For Las Vegas-based producer, songwriter and musician Tom Marolda, that was exactly the case. He remembers rocking to “Twist and Shout” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in his Trenton home as a child.
“I think I was 10 or 11 years old, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is unbelievable,’” he said. “It just struck me. The whole British invasion from The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks. But The Beatles had something special that really reached me. When other kids were going out on Friday night, maybe getting in trouble or going to a dance, I was home getting callouses on my fingers playing the guitar.”
And that dedication paid off—Marolda has worked with artists like Cher, Richie Sambora, Imagine Dragons and The Killers, and his original songs have appeared in everything from Bones and America’s Next Top Model to Rocky Balboa and Stayin’ Alive. His one-man-band records under the moniker The Toms were popular in the ’80s and have become underground hits.
Before all that, though, Marolda ran a recording studio out of his Mercerville basement.
Marolda grew up in Trenton with his father, James, an attorney in Chambersburg, and his mother, Elizabeth, a teacher and nurse. He has two siblings, Joanne and Richard. Marolda graduated from Trenton High School just as the local music scene started picking up.
“There were a lot of interesting things going on in that period of time in the 1960’s with The Beatles coming in, all the British invasion, Motown, a lot of bands popping up in the area,” he said in a recent interview. “It was conducive for me to get into the music business at that time as a writer, performer. We would play a lot of local places that were very open floor live music and take it from there.”
He played with a number of local bands, like horn outfit Cut Glass, at venues like the Olden Lounge, the Satellite Lounge, the Liberty Tavern and Chuck Wagon.
“You couldn’t go into a club and play your original material,” Marolda said. “They wanted to hear cover songs. They wanted to hear Hendrix, Cream, The Beatles. I wanted to write my own songs like The Beatles. I would sit there and learn how to play the piano, learn how to play the drums, learn how to play the bass and the guitar and try to record the songs myself.”
But he soon developed stage fright—performing gave him panic attacks. He decided to focus solely on writing, recording and producing his own music, which led him to open a recording studio in his basement when he moved to Hamilton in 1979.
The home studio was located on Lansing Avenue off of Nottingham Way. It was far enough from other houses, Marolda said, that loud music didn’t disturb his neighbors, though the space was still soundproofed. He even had a room filled with gym equipment so musicians could lift weights and relax between recording sets.
It saw a lot of action over its 10 years in business. He worked with members of Earth, Wind and Fire and Bon Jovi, as well as Frank Stallone and E Street Band Garry Tallent. Marolda remembers even former Hamilton mayor Jack Rafferty stopping by, asking him to compose a theme song for the township’s mascot at the time.
“There was a lot of great talent coming from the area,” he said. “A few bands from Princeton. There was a studio in Princeton. I think the bands and artists enjoyed coming into the Mercerville area because it was unpretentious. You go into this guy’s basement. My two twin girls were upstairs jumping on the floor.”
‘I think that the Hamilton/Trenton area afforded me the ingredients to do what I’ve done to never give up, having that little bit of edge in me that a lot of people in California don’t have.’
Marolda recorded and produced music in his studio until 1989, when he moved out to California. Marolda’s first self-titled album as The Toms (entirely recorded and produced by Marolda) was getting a good amount of college radio play, and his manager at the time, Steve Lee, pitched him to a number of record companies. Many balked, though, because of his one-man-band arrangement. Marolda said there were only a handful of artists doing that at the time—Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Emitt Rhodes—and some labels weren’t ready to take him on.
So Lee found him another gig—working as a staff writer for Paramount Pictures. Lee introduced Marolda to Jerry Love, who worked at Famous Music Publishing Company, an arm of Paramount. Love signed him on the strength of The Toms alone.
Marolda was at Paramount for 14 years, writing original songs for television shows, films, commercials—anything the studio felt needed a tune. He’s been doing similar work since the ’90s.
“Most of the time for television shows, if there was a scene, we would actually screen the scene,” he said. “It was better than reading. When I did Rocky stuff, the script would be, ‘Sly’s running here, and he’s jumping here, and he’s going to hit the Russian in the head, and here is where music comes in.’ That’s what we had to write on. Ace Ventura, we watched the whole movie, and my creative director would say, ‘Okay, they need a piece of music here.’ That’s how that would work. I would just go back to my studio after the screening and start working on material for it.”
No matter the scene, Marolda is able to come up with something, says colleague Marty Wereski. Wereski, born and raised in Trenton, actually met Marolda in the while playing in a band called The Heartbreakers. His trumpet player recommended they visit his studio to record, and the two hit it off. They reconnected years later after both moved to the west coast, and Marolda is one of Wereski’s main writers for his MarTune Music Publishing and Supervision Catalog.
“A lot of staff writers excel at one thing,” Wereski said. “Some just do country, others might do salsa. But Tommy can do all types. What separates him is his knowledge of being behind the keyboard, that console, nonstop. He does everything. I tell him he’s like a mirror. He can look at something and say, ‘Okay, I can dissect this.’”
Marolda says that helps when a studio asks him to replicate the sound of a specific artist, often someone current.
“I try to stay completely up to date,” he said. “In fact, I have to. A show will call and say, ‘We need a song like this’ because they can’t pay the licensing fee for a major song. They call me and say, ‘Do you have anything like this in your catalogue? Can you write something like this?’ So I have to constantly stay on top of all the new stuff.”
Current artists that inspire Marolda include Temples, Tame Impala, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars and Coldplay. He still writes and produces today at Songgram, his studio in Las Vegas. He lives in Summerlin, Nevada, a residential community in Las Vegas, and has four children—Catherine, Jennifer, Amy and Tom Jr.—and six grandchildren.
He says the music business has changed significantly since his Hamilton days. Labels, he says, are like banks.
“They put up money if they believe in you, but they want it back,” he said. “They take money from your music, your publishing, your performances, your mugs and shirts and caps and everything else.”
In addition to writing and producing, he’s currently working on a video master class series called “The Birth and Journey of a Song.” He interviewed musicians, publishers and record company representatives to get different perspectives on how to write, record, promote and make money off of music—exactly what Marolda has spent a lifetime doing.
And it all ties back to Mercer County, he said.
“I think that the Hamilton/Trenton area afforded me the ingredients to do what I’ve done to never give up, having that little bit of edge in me that a lot of people in California don’t have,” he said. “They call it the plastic, ‘Yeah, we’ll do lunch’ kind of thing. It’s a different atmosphere. I think where I came from taught me that when you say you’re going to do something, you do it, you do it on time, you do it to the best of your ability. I think the people and friends and the community I came from are always supportive of their own.”