TONTO: The 50-Year Saga of the Synth Heard on Stevie Wonder Classics - Rolling Stone
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TONTO: The 50-Year Saga of the Synth Heard on Stevie Wonder Classics

The Original New Timbral Orchestra fueled Stevie Wonder’s most legendary albums and a slew of Seventies hits. Inside the remarkable half-century saga of the world’s largest synth


Decades after it powered Stevie Wonder's Seventies hits, the room-filling synth known as TONTO is back in the spotlight.

Brandon Wallis

Stevie Wonder wanted to meet TONTO. He had just turned 21, was flush with cash and had all these songs and sounds in his head that he couldn’t get onto tape. A friend had loaned him a copy of an album called Zero Time that had been recorded using the world’s largest, most advanced music synthesizer: TONTO, an acronym for “The Original New Timbral Orchestra.”

The mastermind behind TONTO was an Afro’d, English bassist-turned–studio tech named Malcolm Cecil who lived above a midtown-Manhattan advertising recording studio. ““I heard a ring at the door and …. stuck my head out of the window to see who it was,” Cecil recalled in 2013. Bounding down three flights of stairs, he encountered “this black guy in a pistachio jumpsuit who seemed to be holding our album underneath his arm.” It was Stevie Wonder.

Over the next three-and-a-half years Wonder’s collaboration with producer/programmers Cecil and his partner Bob Margouleff became known as his “classic period,” which resulted in Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale. After recording 17 songs during one weekend with TONTO, Wonder became captivated with having a rich palette of orchestral sounds at his fingertips. TONTO combined the cavernous Moog bass with undulating ARP synthesizers that became Stevie’s signature sound on hits like “Superstition,” “Living for the City,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Boogie on Reggae Woman” and over 200 more songs, many still unreleased.

“The reason that I got into [TONTO] was that I had ideas in my head and I wanted those ideas to be heard,” Wonder explained in an A&E documentary. Over a 10-year period, from the late Sixties through the late Seventies, TONTO also created a bed of revolutionary sounds for hits by the Isley Brothers, Minnie Riperton, Joan Baez, the Doobie Brothers, Quincy Jones, Randy Newman, Bobby Womack, Weather Report, Gil Scott-Heron, Dave Mason, Steven Stills, Little Feat, James Taylor, Diana Ross and Harry Nilsson.

Fifty years after it was first conceived, TONTO rides again. The instrument underwent four years of repairs for an upcoming week-long tribute starting Wednesday at its new home, Studio Bell at the National Music Centre (NMC) in Calgary, Alberta. TONTO is the crown jewel of the Centre’s music collection that includes 2000-plus artifacts, instruments and pieces of music technology.

First named by co-founder Bob Margouleff while on a peyote trip, the album TONTO’s Expanding Head Band was a breakthrough for electronica when it was first released in 1971. “Like taking acid and discovering that your mind has the power to stop your heart …“ Timothy Crouse wrote in the August 5th, 1971, issue of Rolling Stone.

With TONTO, Cecil was the first to combine synths from Moog and ARP with an eclectic mix of custom modules from a Russian composer and Jimi Hendrix’s guitar tech, creating a virtual analog orchestra. It was the world’s most advanced synthesizer, and also the biggest: a six-foot-tall circular machine that could extend to 25 feet in diameter and weighed one ton. “It has been my life’s work,” Cecil says.

A former radar technician for the Royal Air Force, Cecil was a principal bassist with BBC Radio and had regularly played bass guitar with an early U.K. blues band that included the likes of Ginger Baker, Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, Long John Baldry and Charlie Watts. His first encounter with synthesizers came in the United States in 1968 when he met Margouleff, who had just purchased one of the first Moog Series IIIc models to finish the soundtrack of Ciao! Manhattan, his movie starring Warhol-starlet Edie Sedgwick. Cecil wanted to learn how to play the Moog; Margouleff wanted to learn how to record. So the pair became partners.

At the time, the Moog was an esoteric piece of musical gear. The first customers were either experimental composers or advertising-jingle writers. A full set of modules cost upwards of $35,000. The Moog was so primitive that it had a car’s ignition key as its “on” button. The partners bought a second Moog and a few experimental modules and Cecil jury-rigged a toy-helicopter joystick to keep the oscillators in tune and bend the sounds, turning it into a touch-sensitive instrument.

TONTO at that time looked nothing like the orb it would become when Stevie Wonder took up residence in Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village. Hendrix had just died and the management was desperate for someone to block book the studio to keep it going. The studio’s designer, John Storyk, envisioned the instrument as a psychedelic extension of the fluid-shaped studios he had just built for Hendrix, creating what he now calls a “giant eggshell housing.” Storyk also studied Margouleff and Cecil as they performed; he measured their arms and designed the instrument so that the programmers wouldn’t have to move more than two steps to make the necessary musical connections.

Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, who would later employ the instrument, describes TONTO: “With two monophonic keyboards, they could play a four-note chord, which nobody had ever done on a synth before. That was a big deal back in the early Seventies. All those curved cases were carefully crafted so that they curled up around you. When you were standing there playing TONTO, it was like being inside an eyeball.”

“Superstition” happened in Electric Lady. It was originally written for Cecil’s friend Jeff Beck who was visiting New York, though Stevie ultimately reneged on his offer. The core keyboard sound of “Superstition” was Wonder’s electric keyboard being fed through TONTO. The famous bass line was all TONTO. The song demonstrated for the first time the potential of the synthesizer being something mainstream, a keyboard-controlled instrument that could add an entirely new sonic palette to popular music. Wonder was playing most (sometimes all) of the instruments in the studio himself anyway, and TONTO now allowed him to also control the final arrangement. Wonder sat at the keyboard, while to his back Cecil and Margouleff were in perpetual motion, patching together sounds in real-time like musical switchboard operators.

However, finding a space for an instrument of TONTO’s size became a problem; Electric Lady was getting busy and needed the space. Fortunately, when Stevie, Bob and Malcolm finally decided to pack their bags and leave Electric Lady for Los Angeles, they found a new home for the next three years, Record Plant Studio B.

The L.A. Record Plant was built by Chris Stone and Gary Kellgren, the founders of the original Record Plant in NYC, which itself had been built in spring of 1968 for a single artist, Jimi Hendrix. In exchange for a one-year booking, the studio owners agreed to build a new room to Stevie’s specifications; they brought in John Storyk from New York to design the room, which featured the first Quadraphonic monitoring system, an early 24-track tape machine, and an isolation booth to house TONTO. They filled the room with instruments and, importantly, the studio owners built a special tape library for Stevie where he could stock and store his priceless master tapes.

“That room forever changed our lives. We could not do anything wrong in that studio; everything we recorded in that studio went straight to Number One,” Margouleff recalls. “We never went into the studio with the concept of doing an album. We went into the studio with the concept of just making music and building a library of songs.”

The Record Plant defined sex, drugs and rock & roll in Seventies L.A., with midsession trysts in its famous Jacuzzi, fresh razor blades and mirrors on every studio console, and the back-of-the-studio hotel rooms rumored to be the inspiration for the Eagles’ Hotel California. Stevie was a permanent fixture in the studio during those years. He mastered air hockey in the Record Plant canteen (making some employees question if he was really blind). His crew wore T-shirts apologizing for their boss’s odd behavior with the message: “Act Like Nothing is Wrong.” And as Margouleff remembers, they worked insane hours, all hours of the night: “We were on Stevie time.”

For a while the Record Plant became Motown and the R&B community’s L.A. home, and TONTO was always a creative draw. Quincy Jones was working on Body Heat nearby in Studio C. Stevie worked there on Minnie Riperton’s album Perfect Angel, which contained the hit “Lovin’ You,” and on albums for his then-wife Syreeta Wright. He wrote songs for Rufus and Chaka Khan, including “Tell Me Something Good”, and added TONTO’s unearthly textures to recordings by Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick. If anyone during that period other than Stevie pushed the limits of how TONTO could sound, it was the Isley Brothers, who worked with Margouleff and Cecil on their hit “That Lady” at the same time the pair were working on Innervisions. “God had his hand on our shoulders. We lived a good life,” Margouleff recalls.

It was during that same period that TONTO had its Hollywood close-up.TONTO and Record Plant Studio B are featured in several key scenes in Brian De Palma’s 1974 cult movie Phantom of the Paradise, in which a Phil Spector–like producer (Paul Williams), imprisons and drugs a tormented Phantom (of the Rock Opera) composer until he completes his rock cantata. For fans like Rod Warkentin, organizer of Winnipeg, Canada’s annual Phantompalooza festival and Facebook page, “TONTO is like another character in the movie.” Following the film’s storyline in which the Phantom’s composition is purloined by its producer, Cecil was never paid for the use of TONTO, based on an unfulfilled promise that he could contribute to the movie’s score.

Broken promises presaged the inevitable breakup of TONTO and Stevie Wonder that year too, following their greatest creative achievement, Innervisions, which won the Grammy for Album of the Year in ’74. With an armful of golden Gramophones during the Grammy telecast, Stevie never thanked Malcolm, Bob or TONTO for their contributions. In the middle of production on his next album, Margouleff and Cecil finally asked Stevie for royalties on their past work, which resulted in a year-long legal battle that ended their collaboration and resulted in zero payments to the producers. There had never been anything in writing between Stevie, Bob and Malcolm. “No paperwork, no royalties,” is how Cecil puts it. The legal argument became moot once Stevie’s crew secretly cleaned out the Record Plant vaults of all his tapes.

Fulfillingness’ First Finale was the last album in the TONTO years and reflected the musical split that was already underway behind the scenes; Stevie was working with his band (Wonderlove) more than the synths anyway, though TONTO does appear on several songs, including “Boogie on Reggae Woman.”

Margouleff and Cecil’s own breakup took place after TONTO’s only live performance, a Midnight Special TV show hosted by Billy Preston. The pair had spent a 24-hour marathon getting it ready to be played live for the cameras. Then the audience came in, the lights turned on, and with the room temperature rising, TONTO went badly out of tune. Tempers flared at the end of the broadcast, precipitating the ultimate dissolution of their partnership, with Cecil buying out Margouleff’s share of TONTO.

For a time, TONTO was housed at Cecil’s Point Dume, California-coast studio, where it was used by Joe Zawinul and Weather Report, and also by Gil Scott Heron and his partner Brian Jackson in a long-term stint. It was later stored in Mothersbaugh’s lime-green Mutato Muzika studio on Sunset Boulevard, being used on the Rugrats soundtrack and serving as an occasional musical curiosity for the likes of Nine Inch Nails.

“People would come over to my studio, and they would spend all day getting one really cool sound. And they’d get it and go, ‘That’s what it was like in the old days? I like the new days,’” Mothersbaugh recalls, admitting that the first time he worked with TONTO he used it as stand for a more contemporary synth.

“Why would anyone want to use TONTO, or why would you want to use an analog synthesizer from the 1970s? Don’t you have a laptop that makes those sounds? Don’t you have an iPhone that does that?” Jason Tawkin, NMC Audio Manager, rhetorically asks. “And the answer is, yes, you can get applications on any digital device that will, more or less, do what this instrument does. But those early analog instruments are alive. We’re talking about components that have been in a circuit for 45 years; they’ve weathered, they’ve changed. And part of that really contributes to the sound. Because it’s unstable and somewhat organic, the sound translates into a fidelity that’s not possible with digital emulations.”

Malcolm Cecil never gave up hope of finding a permanent home for TONTO. The Smithsonian expressed interest in acquiring it for its collection, but they wouldn’t guarantee that it would ever be exhibited or used again by contemporary musicians, which were two of Cecil’s conditions. There were private collectors who also wanted it, though Cecil was concerned that it would undergo the same fate as the 19th-century Telharmonium, the first electronic musical instrument, which was sold off for parts by the heirs of its creator and, as a result, no longer exists.

Then in 2013, Calgary’s National Music Centre discovered that TONTO was up for sale. NMC features a “living collection” of instruments and sound recording equipment (e.g., the Rolling Stones’ Mobile Studio) that are fully operational so that future generations of artists can work with the technology and incorporate it into their music. The museum’s famed synth restorer John Leimseider spent the past four years rebuilding TONTO, replacing nearly 1,000 jacks and sourcing rare modules from all over the world. In a sad side note to TONTO’s half-century musical odyssey, Leimseider died in mid-September at the age of 66 just after completing the restoration, and only two months before the TONTO Week opening.

During this week’s proceedings, NMC artist-in-residence, Canadian Indigenous duo A Tribe Called Red, will be working with Cecil and the instrument on new music. Nervous about how TONTO will behave without Leimseider by his side, band co-founder Tim “2oolman” Hill says, “That’s the thing about TONTO, it is unpredictable; it has a human sense. It has a presence.”

The authors are producing a multimedia history of the Record Plant studios in New York, L.A. and Sausalito. More stories can be found here.

In This Article: Stevie Wonder


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