In 1968, the Moog Synthesizer was little more than a curiosity. It was considered an interesting toy, capable of making robot noises and other sound effects, at best an instrument for making weird, electronic music for sci-fi movies. But it was not, and would never be, a serious musical instrument.
The conventional wisdom failed to recognize the potential of this new technology, until Wendy Carlos transformed the music industry with her album Switched on Bach. The album won three Grammy awards, including Best Classic Album, and reached number 10 on the Billboard chart. By June of 1974, the album had sold in excess of one million copies, only the second classical album in history to achieve that feat. Switched on Bach was eventually certified Platinum in November 1986.
But music was not the only transformational event happening in Wendy Carlos’ life at that time. In early 1968, months before Switched on Bach was release, Carlos started her transition from male to female. Uncertain how her record company would react, Carlos and her producer Rachel Elkind reluctantly decided to keep this information from Columbia Masterworks, who released the album under her birth name Walter Carlos.
In order to promote the hit album, the label scheduled several appearances on popular television programs like The Today show, The Dick Cavett Show, and The Mike Douglas Show. Wendy, who had already started taking female hormones, resorted to wearing fake, mutton-chop sideburns in an effort to appear more masculine, and using an eyebrow pencil to simulate facial hair growth. But as hard as she tried to appear male, Wendy could hear the staff of the Today show wonder aloud about her true gender.
After the release of her second album, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer in 1969, Wendy was invited to perform with the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra. It was an enormous honor to be accepted as a serious musician, but she was afraid that she wouldn’t be accepted as herself. She sat in her hotel room in her male disguise, crying hysterically, unable to go on. With the encouragement of her friend Rachel, Wendy summoned up the necessary strength, and gave a virtuoso performance that would prove to be her last, live appearance in a concert setting.
In 1972, Wendy took the final step in her transition, and used the earnings from Switched on Bach and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer to pay for her Sex Reassignment Surgery, and although Walter Carlos no longer existed, she continued to release her new albums under his name.
Her success should have opened up a whole, new world for her, but fear of discovery kept her captive in the New York City home she shared with her friend and producer. When George Harrison decided to visit Carlos at her home to discuss the use of synthesizers in his music, Rachel told the ex-Beatle that Carlos was out of town while Wendy painfully listened from her upstairs room. Similar incidents occurred when Stevie Wonder and keyboard player Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer attempted to pay a visit to the reclusive musician.
One of Wendy’s greatest musical achievements was her work on Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in 1971. For her meetings with the equally reclusive director, Wendy donned her male disguise. Although she could tell that Kubrick sensed that there was something not quite right with “Walter,” genius recognizes genius, and her brilliant soundtrack went gold with over 200,000 sales. In 1980, they collaborated once again for Kubrick’s The Shining.
Tired of the secrecy, Wendy granted Playboy Magazine an interview in 1979 to discuss her transition and reassignment. Six years later, she observed that, “The public turned out to be amazingly tolerant or, if you wish, indifferent… There had never been any need of this charade to have taken place. It had proven a monstrous waste of years of my life.”