1971 represented an inflection point in Stevie Wonder’s career. The prodigious singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist had already put out more than a dozen albums and scored nearly as many Top 10 hits. But he had been part of the famously regimented Motown system for the entirety of his career. Now that he turned 21, his contract with Berry Gordy had expired, granting Wonder new freedoms.
So when he heard Zero Time, an album full of swirling, keening electronics and smeared, warped effects recorded by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, he decided to seek out the men behind the record in New York City. The resulting partnership led to four LPs released between 1972 and 1974 — Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale — that are widely viewed as Wonder’s greatest work. In addition to spawning modern standards like “Superstition” and “Don’t You Worry About a Thing,” Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale both won the Grammy for Album of the Year in quick succession. (These LPs came out on Motown — Wonder re-upped his contract with Gordy but on much improved terms, gaining ownership of his own publishing and a high royalty rate.)
Wonder couldn’t have achieved this remarkable run without the men in Tonto’s Expanding Head Band: Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, the latter a former radar operator in the Royal Air Force turned jazz bassist turned electronics wizard who died March 28th. After moving to the U.S. in 1967, Cecil began working as a studio engineer. He later met Margouleff, a producer in New York who had a Moog synthesizer; together, the two men built out the Original New Timbral Orchestra, dubbed TONTO, a massive — it could stretch to 25 feet in diameter — and versatile electronic instrument that incorporated synthesizers from Moog and ARP and could be programmed to create new, strange sounds on a moment’s notice.
Cecil lived above the studio, keeping close watch over his creation, when Wonder showed up in a pistachio-colored suit in 1971. “I get a ring on the bell,” Cecil recalled in 2014. “I look out; there’s my friend Ronnie and a guy who turns out to be Stevie Wonder… Ronnie says, ‘Hey, Malcolm, got somebody here who wants to see TONTO.’”
The two men quickly found common ground in the studio, writing dozens of songs within weeks of meeting. And as that music trickled into the world, a slew of other singers made the pilgrimage to record with TONTO, from the Isley Brothers to Quincy Jones, Joan Baez to James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers to Randy Newman.
Following Cecil’s death, Wonder spoke about their work together. “One of the African proverbs is basically, for as long as you talk on someone, speak on them in a great way, they’re living, you keep them alive,” he says. “My talking about Malcom and the contributions he made in my life is part of that. Through meeting Malcolm, I’ve been truly blessed.”
Do you remember your first encounter with Malcolm?
I met Malcolm in 1971, just after I turned 21. Someone had told me about the Tonto’s Expanding Head Band group — they’d put some music out, and they worked with a synthesizer. I was curious about that because I was very impressed with what I’d heard at the time from [electronic music pioneer Wendy] Carlos. I was on a journey, because I’d just ended all my contracts with everyone. I made a decision that the money I’d accumulated in my trust fund, I would use that to create the kind of music that I wanted to.
Had you encountered synthesizers before?
I was seeing the Moog synth for probably the third time. I once saw it in the engineering shop they had in Motown. It was something unique, something different; we didn’t know how or what, but it felt new.
What did it allow you to accomplish that you felt like you couldn’t achieve before?
When I met Bob and Malcolm, I was excited. You could create a bass sound, a horn sound, sounds you’re imagining in your head. They were trying to take it beyond the typical level. It was really an instrument of expression. I wanted something where you could bend sounds, do more with them, be more creative, not just have them be sterile sounds.
What was your process working with Malcolm in the studio?
At that point, I would tell Malcolm or Bob the kind of sound I would want; they would work with the Moog to create it. When I got with them, there were so many things I wanted to do. There were songs I did back then; some might have appeared on Talking Book, some on Fulfillingness’ First Finale, some on Innervisions, some on Music of My Mind. Within the first month of meeting them, I must have done about 40 or 50 songs. They had a click sound, and from that I said, “give me a bass sound,” and I did a demo version of “Boogie on Reggae Woman” [which came out in 1974 and hit Number Three]. Ultimately I added more stuff to it. From having the bass and melody I put drums on it, the acoustic piano, then the electric piano, then we put the clavinet through a filter so it made a very quick dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah kind of thing.
Probably one of the first songs that I did with Malcolm and Bob appeared on Fulfillingness’ First Finale — “They Won’t Go When I Go” was one of the first songs I came up with. It was unique because you can hear on that song the way we used the synthesizer for the bass sound and the horn-like sounds. That’s at the beginnings of me working with them.
Another song I did early on was the song “Girl Blue.” Malcolm created the sounds that I then used. What was then known as a Bag, we put the sounds through that. The Bag is now what they call the Talkbox; it was a similar kind of thing, you play the instrument and mouth the words and sounds come out. All the metallic sounds were things Malcolm created.
He also played the acoustic bass on “Visions.” We did a couple songs — there’s another song I’ve never released called “Crazy Letters,” sort of a jazz thing; he played bass on that as well. At some point that should come out.
In one old interview, Malcolm and Bob spoke about running you through lots of vocal takes to get a different texture out of your voice. Did they provide other feedback in the studio?
[Malcolm and Bob] would say how the music made them feel. And Malcolm said, “Oh, I think you should call this album Talking Book.” Talking Book was how blind people would read; listen to recordings that had a reading of the book.
That was a great thing we had: We always gave our opinions. Fortunately for me, I was overly critical. I could be inside hearing it, but also as someone saying, “How do I feel about the way that sounds outside of being an artist?”
We worked all night sometimes, 24 hours, depending on what we were trying to get to. We had various people in our close circle come and sit down in the studio on the couch. After a while, it’s going on and on, they fall asleep. Then they’d wake up and say, “When are we gonna get through with our song?” “It’s done already, what are you talking about?”
Not long after you started working with TONTO, a lot of other artists followed suit. Did you notice the influence your work was having?
I didn’t really pay attention to that. I was more focused on what to do next. I never was like, “They’re trying to get my sound!” At a point we were working in Innervisions and Malcolm and Bob were working with the Isley Brothers. We were in L.A. and they came in as well to work. I was working on the vocal to “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” Malcolm and Bob were like, “Come on, they’re here, we gotta get this vocal.” I’m doing the various parts. That was ok, I’m cool with it. “But I’m gonna finish my shit first!” No, it wasn’t like that.
Do you have a favorite moment from your sessions with Malcolm?
There were so many wonderful things that happened then, it’s almost like if you asked, “What’s my favorite song?” Recently I was talking with my brother Calvin; he was asking about an electric drum machine that I bought my other brother Timothy who passed away last year. He said, “Can I maybe use those drums with this group I’m working with?” I really broke down — I knew that Timmy had gone, but then it hit me.
When I talk about things with Malcolm, there are so many things I remember. As real as you know his death is, you go through those unforgettable moments; even those moments when we agreed to disagree, there’s an endless love and respect for Malcolm’s genius, for Bob’s genius, for us being able to come together. We were able to create some wonderful music, do things I was not able to do — play the bass, play a trumpet sound as I imagined, a saxophone sound, whatever it was, the string sound in the middle of “Super Woman (Where Were You When I Needed You).” There are so many things to remember [and] to say “wow” about.
What was it like to win your first Album of the Year Grammy for your work with Malcolm and Bob?
The day of the Grammys in 1974, this particular time, Innervisions was nominated. I was at the hotel and I had said, “I’m not gonna go.” I told everybody that: “I’m probably not gonna get it. We’ve been up before, so whatever happens, I’m not gonna go.” Malcolm calls and said, “You better get down here quick!” I say, “Why?” He says, “We got a Grammy for best engineered album for Innervisions.”
Somebody said, “M.Y.A.” — that means, “move your ass!” So I went down, M.Y.A.; I was there. And when I got my first Grammy, I gave it to my mother. Malcolm and Bob were able to receive a Grammy for some incredible engineering. I’m so happy that in this lifetime, I was able to be part of the vehicle through which it happened.