In celebration of Stevie Wonder’s 70th birthday, we spoke with two of Fulfillingness’ First Finale’s most important collaborators, producer Robert Margouleff and assistant engineer Peter Chaikin, who provided granular details on how this timeless record was recorded.
Three days after the release of Innervisions in the summer of 1973, Stevie Wonder’s life and career would be altered by a serious car accident in North Carolina. He was a sleeping passenger in a rented Mercury Cruiser — driven by his cousin John Wesley Harris — on his way to Durham, where he was planning to headline a concert to benefit WAFR-FM, a local Black radio station. The car was behind a truck carrying logs; the driver of the truck hit the brakes, causing both vehicles to collide.
The accident resulted in Stevie, who was 23 at the time, being in a coma for four days and temporarily losing his sense of taste and smell. (He also left the accident with a large scar on his head.) He was able to endure a few weeks of rehabilitation and regain and his senses, and a few months later, he emerged with a renewed sense of purpose.
Despite being setback by his accident, Stevie starting recording. And by early 1974 he was performing again, playing gigs in Europe. While he was crafting his next album, he split time between the Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles and Electric Lady Studios in New York City. And again he was working alongside producers and engineers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. The three revolutionized the sound of popular music through their usage of The Original New Timbral Orchestra (TONTO), the largest multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer in the world, built by Cecil. The TONTO was the backbone of Music of My Mind and Talking Book in 1972 and Innervisions in 1973.
Through utilizing the insightful, cutting-edge recording techniques of Cecil and Margouleff, Wonder’s otherworldly talents were given the opportunity to shine on wax once again. Because of his prolific output, Wonder toyed with the idea of releasing his latest piece of work as a double album. His idea was met with resistance by the Motown Records’ brass. He relented to the label’s wishes and selected 10 songs for the album. The subject matter of the songs showcased his poignant lyricism on topics ranging from deep introspection about the meaning of life, relationships, and political corruption.
Throughout the recording process, Margouleff brought his impressive knowledge of electronic synthesizers by being the Moogist in residence at Media Sound Studios. He was friends with the music instrument pioneer and creator of the Moog synthesizer, Robert Moog, and contributed early insight into the construction of the instrument. In addition, Cecil spent his formative years recording with Blues Incorporated, a London-based blues band led by Alexis Korner. By the time he was an adult, he expanded his skillset while being a member of the Royal Airforce as a technical engineer, later adding audio engineering and music production with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to his resume. Margouleff and Cecil were accompanied on this album by assistant engineers, Gary Olazabal and Peter Chaikin. Chaikin worked at the Record Plant as a carpentry team member. One day, he was randomly handpicked by Margouleff to join the recording process of this album. It would be the first album where Chaikin received a credit.
On July 22, 1974, Fulfillingness’ First Finale was released. It became Wonder’s first album to top the Billboard charts. The album spawned two chart-topping singles, the politically charged “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” and “Boogie on Reggae Woman.”
This would be the last album he collaborated closely with Cecil and Margouleff on. In 1976, Wonder released the double album Songs in the Key of Life, with Wonder ousting Cecil and Margouleff and promoting Olazabal to engineer instead. The album would cap off the five-album run widely regarded as Wonder’s “classic period,” largely considered to be one of the most impressive artistic feats ever.
In celebration of Stevie’s 70th birthday, Wednesday, May 13th, we spoke with two of Fulfillingness’ First Finale’s most important collaborators, producer and engineer Robert Margouleff and assistant engineer Peter Chaikin, who provided granular details on how this timeless record was conceived and recorded.
After a string of groundbreaking albums, what was the collective mindset going into the making of Fulfillingness’ First Finale?
It was an interesting journey that we were on back then. Some of it we did without any sort of overview or consciousness of the social effects that our music would have on the world. When Bing Crosby discovered that he could sing three inches from a microphone in a confessional style and be as loud as his entire band behind him and that he could create a personal conversation with one other person by being close to the microphone, everything changed from then on. We simply used the microphone to report reality. Stevie was three inches from the mic because we were making the right kind of music. We lived in a new and different space. Stevie was making confessional music close to the mic and it was very personal. Artists and producers always set themselves up to write music based on where it was going to be performed. With Stevie, we didn’t really think about a location. He figured out how to play the music live after it was conceived in the studio, not the other way around. TONTO always functioned in non-real time. The records that we made with Stevie, especially starting with Music of My Mind, was always about them unfolding in the loudspeakers first in the studio. We never thought about creating or imitating a live effect at all.
Peter, What is the story behind you becoming involved with this album?
I hitched cross-country to get into the recording studios. [Recording engineer] Phil Ramone was a mentor to me when I was a kid. When I got out of college and I wanted to be in a studio, I just stuck out my thumb, and I started looking for jobs in Atlanta, in LA, and he told me who to see. I wound up at Record Plant in the fall of 1973. I started at the lowest rung. There were a lot of people around there, and they were building new studios and new rooms. There were a lot of people that were running coffee or working on the construction crew that really weren’t going to have a future in the control room. I’d been in the studio before. I had done some recording, and everybody there knew I wanted to make a career out of it. So, I think Bob [Margouleff] knew something about me. I was certainly enthusiastic and I was musical. It turned out we were also from the same hometown, although he was 10 years ahead of me.
How would you describe the sound of the music you created with Stevie for this album?
The music that we did with Stevie was a fusion of electronica and live instruments. We created a new instrument with a synthesizer every time we played it. With analog, we could never keep the same instrument. Every time we touched one knob the sound changed. It was a question of stability and active repeatability which was a part of the magic of early electronica. Now, of course, people can reproduce any sound and save it and do these things very serially and move one fader at a time. But when we were mixing those records, we had to move all the faders at the same time, and we had to be very careful with what the queues were. We had it all memorized. We were the memory not the computer. In those days, it was all about feel. It was all about having a very expressive connection to the music, and we moved more than one fader at a time.
A lot of music we did for Fulfillingness’ First Finale, we did in the control room. As a matter of fact, I was very happy to use the quad monitors that we built in that studio. We thought carefully during the ‘70s, maybe two years before Fulfillingness’, that we were going to have quadraphonic vinyl, and the API console in Studio B had a quad-bus for that reason. John Storyk, Tom Hidley, Malcolm Cecil, and I put together a quad monitoring system in Studio B which was very unique at that time. The speakers were all basically at ear level. Although getting quad on the vinyl failed miserably, it gave me the opportunity to get Stevie to occupy the same space as his music. We couldn’t get it on the vinyl, but what we did do, was focus a lot on the monitoring. We were able to put the Fender Rhodes in the front, the background vocals behind Stevie, and Reggie [McBride] over on one side and Michael [Sembello] over on the other side, and all the different instruments, so that when Steve came in to perform in the control room, he occupied the same space as the music.
Part of the reason those records have been very interesting, confrontational — or as I call it, confessional audio like Bing Crosby — was that I was able to create a space without having to resort to echo or reverb. Because I was able to place the music around Steve live, we were able to really define the directionality and to bring a different kind of awareness to it. Echo and reverb were really basic programs to emulate the concept of space and distance. I think that Fulfillingness’ was the first crack in the wall of Stevie moving back toward live playing.
I landed on the construction crew with the Record Plant in the fall of 1973, and I was trying to get onto some sessions. I actually got kicked off of some sessions with The Eagles and Dan Fogelberg because I decided to put in my two cents. [laughs] So, Bob came out to the construction crew and looked around, and he said, “Stop. You’re short. You’ll do”, and he took me into Studio B, which was a small, little, control room, and I was thinking, “Oh my gosh. I’m going to be part of this new project,” when I was still living and listening to Innervisions. Here I was at the Record Plant, helping to build a new studio because that was how you got in on the ground floor. You did something. You ran for coffee, but in my case, I was the carpenter’s assistant.
It was an exciting time and the place was crawling with people. There were only two rooms there, Studio A and Studio B. Bob, Malcolm, and Stevie had Studio B tied up at night. Gary O left out the door to do other projects, and I wound up as Bob and Malcolm’s assistant. I knew Talking Book, Innervisions, and Music of My Mind, because I grew up on those albums. When listening to “They Won’t Go When I Go” or any of the tunes, I could hear how rich and quick the backgrounds were, and that was all fixed in-track, and choices were made. Bob would monitor and lock into balancing. We didn’t have the option to go back and fix things. We didn’t have the option to go back and overdub. We only had 16 tracks.
Malcolm [Cecil] was largely responsible for a lot of that, too. He was very astute about making sure we recorded everything. We also had our own work order system, which was outside of the studio’s work order, and I could look at those work orders and know we spent one hour and 20 minutes doing a vocal on “They Won’t Go When I Go” on July 25th. At the end of every session, we always logged everything very carefully.
What was your and Malcolm Cecil’s recording process with Stevie for this album?
The recording process during those records was very impulsive. We had to know where to push off the tom-toms to feature them because they were on the same track as the cymbals. There was a pair of overhead stereos that also encompassed the tom-toms. When he played the tom-toms, he was not playing the cymbals. He was playing the tom-toms and the hi-hats. When we were tracking, I had to make sure that all of those pieces sat together and they were mixed in real-time. It was a different kind of creativity. One thing that really went to the authenticity of that was jazz. Malcolm was and still is probably one of the greatest acoustic bass players that ever walked into a room. His musicality is all over this record. He really connected to Steve at that level. As a matter of fact, if you listen carefully on some of the cuts — because Steve could never remember all the words to every song — some of the stuff that he wrote in the studio, Malcolm and I would sit there and write this stuff down. I can remember sitting in the barber chair at Electric Lady Studios. We had a lounge and a barber chair which Steve used to love to sit in and make his pronouncements. [laughs]
We had to modify his headphones. It was really funny looking. We gave Steve a set of headphones that were open-back headphones. They were normal headphones that we used in the studio. The interesting thing was that we had to take two Styrofoam coffee cups and stuff them with foam, and we put them over the backs of the earphones. It looked like Stevie had these big white coffee cups sticking out of his head on either side of the headphones. If you really listen carefully to some of these recordings, you can hear the shadow of Malcolm’s British accent saying the words ahead of Stevie singing, especially if you play the stem stack. On several songs, you can actually hear a clipped British accent saying the words that Stevie sung a few bars ahead of where he was. It was a remarkable ability, and I’ve never seen anyone do that ever since.
Malcolm would sit in the control room and say, “Crack in the looking glass.” Then, Steve would repeat, “Crack in the looking glass.” Malcolm would say the next line of the song into his earphones with an open mic in the control room. We always had an open mic in the control room. There was no glass in our studio. We had acoustic pianos and drums and stuff. Basically, Steve, me, and Malcolm were always live when we were working. Malcolm would read the song aligned with the time ahead of Stevie singing it. The song “Bird of Beauty” is when he sung in Portuguese. I remember the night that we did that. It was mind-bending. Stevie was singing almost right on top of hearing the words in Portuguese in his headphones.
We adapted the technology to fit Stevie, just like creating a shoe for him to put his foot in. It was Stevie with his mind-bending ability and just God’s blessing. God came down and touched him on the head. That’s all I can tell you. These experiences just can’t be repeated. Like I said years ago, Stevie, me and Malcolm were three very bright lights in the universe. For one second, we all hit the same spot at the same time and there was this brilliant flash. Then, we went our separate ways.
What was the typical studio routine?
We were on Stevie time! We had the same routine at the Record Plant and Electric Lady Studios. We had lighting, murals on the wall, and funny rooms to hang out in. It was a magical time. We would come into the studio around 4 PM. We would do business at our office and keep track of getting stuff for Stevie. We were managing the mechanical parts of succession support, the tape that we were processing, and doing our billing and library stuff. We had other clients to deal with and so forth. I had a little book that I would keep track of all the songs we were working on. “This song and that song need background vocals.” “This song needs something else.” We never really mixed music for an album. We mixed music into an archive, and we would pull from the archives of the songs we thought would fit for a particular album that was coming up.
Stevie would show up around 6:30 PM, and we would work through the night. And that’s the way it was for years. When Malcolm or I left, the other would stay and work. We did that a lot when we were doing vocals and stuff. It didn’t really require both of us. I was more of the [equalization] guy and Malcolm was more of the mix instigator. I would just go through and do all the EQing while we were mixing and listening to the drums. But basically, I wanted to know what the record was going to sound like. I heard it in my head. To me, music is like architecture. I moved around inside the space, from room to room, with the music in my head. That’s how I heard stuff. Malcolm was more operational. He would say, “Oh, it’s got to come up two dBs here or down over there. Bob, push the vocal up in the second chorus.” There would be a liveness to the mixing which I find missing in a lot of the stuff today, because they just mix by machine now. Everything is predictable and serial.
Can you tell me exactly where everyone was positioned during the recording process?
There was nothing magical about standing in front of a microphone. A lot of the band stuff was not done live. Everything was done serially and then recorded to tape. James Jamerson would come in and do a guitar part, or Michael Sembello would come in and he’d sit in the studio with Stevie and [bassist] Reggie McBride and they’d sit out there. Stevie would say, “Yes,” “No,” “Maybe,” “Play this here. Play that there,” and then we’d do it with no music. It would just come out of their heads. There wasn’t anything written down. Stevie wasn’t into writing because he’s unsighted. Everything was done orally and through very stereotypical micing. I had certain microphones I liked to use. I liked using a dynamic mic like an Electro Voice RE20 on Stevie’s vocals because it was close, and Stevie could put his hands on it while he was singing, so he could keep his mouth aligned with the diaphragm. He was able to use his hands to guide his position. If I did that with a condenser mic, you would have heard all the hand noise and all the stuff around it. It didn’t have that kind of focused energy that a dynamic mic had. A lot of those close personal things come with a dynamic microphone. The RE20 was a good microphone for Steve.
Did Stevie come up with the lyrics there in the studio?
Yes. He came up with parts. Malcolm inspired him in certain ways, too. Malcolm played acoustic bass and would say, “Stevie, try this line. Try that line.” Malcolm influenced him musically more than I did. I influenced him sonically more than musically. My real presence was, not only the engineering, but getting him to perform to the limits of his potential because that was what a producer did. But also, my whole world was really involved with the sonics. What does the bass sound like? How can I make it fatter, smaller, bigger? I really knew how to massage the Moog. When Malcolm and I first got together, I knew very little about audio engineering, but I knew a lot about the synthesizer. Back in the day, Malcolm said to me at Media Sound Studios, just before we met Steve, “Listen, Robert, if you teach me how to play the Moog synthesizer, I will teach you to become a first-class recording engineer.” When we left five years later, he was playing the synthesizer and I was massaging the console.
What was the studio atmosphere like during these recording sessions?
Everybody was there coming in. I sat in on a John Lennon session where he was producing Nilsson. I knew people who were on the sessions longer and more significantly than I was. Being in a place like that was like a collaborative Petri dish with the kind of interactivity that was going on there, but it didn’t happen again for a long time.
Stevie would play harmonica on other people’s records. Other people would come in and contribute to his records. It was amazing. The thing that stayed with me most was understanding the environment that an artist needs to create and that the technology should never get in their way. When they’re ready, you’ve got to be ready.
Walk me through how Studio B was set up back then at the Record Plant?
Studio B was small. It was a little control room. The room had a compression ceiling, which was the ceiling that dropped down in the center of the room. It started at the control room wall and hung down just behind the engineer’s head in a V shape, and then rose back up in the back of the room, but the room was small and that made it feel smaller. In that same control room, Dan Fogelberg and Joe Walsh were cutting records with a full rhythm section with as many as nine people. The one-at-a-time process of recording musicians was Stevie’s process, but you could certainly record full bands in the room and drums in the drum booth. It was very dead in there. As multi-track became more important, it gave us the ability to isolate instruments and be able to treat them individually in a multi-track process.
Then, the rooms became more dead. The feeling was, if we cut down on leakage or sound from one instrument in the air leaking into a microphone across the room, we’d have more control in the mix. But as a result, everything was very dry and in your face and we had to manufacture ambiance and reverb. Studio B was a very dead room. It had big bass traps in it to control low-frequency roominess, but there was a drum booth with sliding glass doors. There was a piano with the lid up and heavily draped with sound blankets and a furniture pad. You could get a Hammond B3 in there. You could get some congas in there. You could certainly get a guitar amp or two in there. Bass usually went direct — direct meaning no amp plugged directly into the console and played back through headphones. It was small as far as rooms went, but the control room was a great control room to listen in. It was very hard to go from one control room to another and hear the same thing in those days because of room acoustics.
Can you describe the experience of watching Stevie Wonder create music in the studio?
One of my first experiences was watching him play drums with no music but he had headphones on. He could hear himself in the headphones. I was wondering what he was hearing and where the tune was going, as he would play every beat of what would become “Creepin’” from top to bottom with no bass, no keyboards, no vocals, no nothing. Today, it would be somebody out there laying down twos and fours or with hi-hats going on eights and an occasional fill. If you listen to “Creepin’,” it’s a painting. There is a two and a four, and a one and a three in there, but it was all of this ornamentation and builds and things that you almost sometimes lose one and three, and two and four. You almost can’t hear them and you have to count through a fill to know where the downbeat’s going to be. When he went out and put the keyboards on top of that, I realized how brilliant that was because, if he had been a drummer playing with a keyboard player, a bass player, and a guitar player, that performance on drums would have been amazing. But to do it, without anything to play against and to hear it all in his head, it was astounding. He already heard the whole song in his head. He knew where it was going.
He was just so musical. Watching him play piano was just as incredible. There was a Steinway B in the studio. He would sit down and play. I paid attention to his vocals, his chords, and his ability to play beautifully. But when he’d drop a vocal, even if he was just humming a melody or mouthing a melody, instead of having all the lyrics, the harmonic structure of where that melody fell within the chords he was playing would be so rich. Just listening to the vocals on some of the tunes was beautiful like the beginning of “Too Shy to Say” with all those chords.
The fun always was watching him do a vocal in front of the mic or playing the harmonica. When he was standing in front of the controller’s glass, the mic would be up on an Atlas boom, either a Neumann U 87 or an Electro Voice RE20. If he was playing the Fender Rhodes and doing a vocal simultaneously, it would be hanging over the piano. He could sing into the RE20. It was just so much fun. There’d be some rolling back and punching in, but the soul and the performance of what he did was just amazing. Bob and Malcolm wouldn’t blend vocals together, although they would bounce down the backgrounds because there were more backgrounds than there were tracks for it. They bounced them down into stereo or mono to free up room for other things like horns or synth solos, or things like that. I don’t remember ever doing more than a track of lead vocals. Bob would punch in, but I don’t remember doing multiple takes. He’d go back and do it again or he’d do it and he’d say, “I want to fix this,” or “Hey, let’s grab this.”
Sometimes Bob would mic the drums with Neumann U 87s. They were pretty pricey at the time. They were condenser mics. Other people would use Dynamics. We put a RE20 on the kick drum and cymbals and not just the Sennheiser 421. On the tom-toms, we had our choice of things. We would put on U 87s. When Stevie would play the drums, he couldn’t see the mics, and sometimes he hit them, and the capsule on the U 87 would become disconnected. It was held on there with clips. The capsule would go flying across the room. When we were in the control room, we didn’t hear a bang, we heard a clip. Because from the time the stick hit the capsule until the time it became disconnected from the mic, it was just a few milliseconds and we could hear that mic stopped working. We had to be really careful about where we put the mics if they were U 87s, but we’d use Shure mics on the tom-toms. Mostly, Bob would do whatever he had to do to catch the instrument the way he thought it should be heard.
Do you all recall the day when Jackson Five were in the studio providing background vocals?
It was only one or two sessions, as I recollect, for “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” Michael came in. He was a very gentle and sweet guy. As a matter of fact, I met him in the men’s room. We were both in different stalls facing the wall. I said, “I’m Robert, we’re working with Stevie.” He said, “Yes, I know. Hello.” We both zipped up and headed for the studio. He was a wonderfully warm, purely innocent, and incredibly talented human being.
Are there any interesting behind the scenes stories that happened during the making of this album?
I’ll never forget how “Creepin’” came together. Bob and Malcolm were being pressed to deliver an album by Motown, and they had something like 30 songs in the can that just needed to be mixed. Bob called me one day and said, “OK, set up for mixes.” It was three o’clock and he was on his way. I figured they’d be in around five. And just after that, I get a call and they said, “Stevie wants to talk to you,” and Stevie said, “Set up for tracks.” I replied, “Stevie, Bob said, ‘Set up for mixes.’” Stevie responded, “Peter, set up for tracks.” [laughs]
So, the drums were in the small booth. I got the vocal mic up on an Atlas Stand and Bob would always admonish me and say, “Peter? Peter? Peter? Make sure that Stevie doesn’t bump his head.” So, he taught me to raise up the mic stand all the way to the top of its range and bring the boom down, rather than moving the simple part of it down closer to the bass and angling it up, and that way it would clear most of his head. Anyway, Stevie came in. I remember actually cutting the track. Stevie went out and played 130 something bars of drums. I think he did it part of the way through and then went back and did it from the top.
And I could not figure out what was going on. If you listen to “Creepin’” and just imagine that there was nothing there but drums, you would understand how amazing it was. He then moved over and played another one of those parts. It gave definition to all of those accents that he had played on drums that were either in front of the beat, behind the beat, and out of the beat. And all of the fills that he played solo without any other instrument.
He then came into the control room to put down an ARP bass. I remember Stevie actually getting his hands on the machine, the filters, and getting the sound of the bass the way he wanted it, with Bob’s help. It was pretty amazing because he was unsighted. He could not read the labels on all those controls, but he knew where they were. By the time we left in the morning, the sun was coming up, and the track for “Creepin’” with his vocal was done. All that was left to add were background vocals and the legato lines Bob and Malcolm had to put on the front. That happened in one night, all from Stevie, and happened in a way as if we had reassembled something that was already perfectly assembled, and laid the parts out one by one. I remember walking home and the sun was coming up. I didn’t have a car. I was living within walking distance from the Record Plant. While I was walking, I was saying to myself, “What was that? How did that happen?”
It was just this rhythm of everything that happened around every molecule of creativity coming from Stevie and the whole rhythm of the session, as well as Bob’s attentiveness to that. You don’t hear a recording without the people that got the signals from the mic to the tape and off to the record. In other words, the last thing the artist does is touch a key or sing a lyric. But what we hear in Stevie’s songs are the interpretation and the assembly and the values that Bob and Malcolm brought to this record. When Bob said, “The control room is an instrument,” I never thought of it that way. We were just all living inside that instrument.
One song that makes me think of what’s happening in today’s climate off the heels of President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal is “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.”
Yes, it was about Nixon. I just often hope that maybe one of these days Stevie will write something about Donald Trump. I really do.
Do you remember how some of the other songs on the album were completed?
The other song that sticks out is “Bird of Beauty.” I didn’t work on the track for that. Gary Olazabal, who was the previous assistant, he must’ve been on that “Bird of Beauty” track. I actually worked with Sergio Mendes with another engineer at the Record Plant. On this particular night, the second verse was in Portuguese. I’m trying to remember the name of the lady who Sergio Mendes brought in. She came in, and she taught Stevie the lyrics in Portuguese through the mic. Now, we had to keep the audio in the control room down low, because we didn’t want a huge amount of speaker audio in the control room coming back through that mic and going into his cans because he was getting the track directly off the machine.
So, it’d be quiet in the control room, and she was sitting there at the board, saying the words into a Shure SM57. It was a Dynamic mic. She’d read the words to him, and as she was reading them, he was singing right on top of her, not listening to a line, but singing as she was feeding this into him. It was almost like he was this auto-translator. It was coming in one ear and coming out of his mouth a second later. I just remember the last word that he sung was the word “carnival.” We punched that in a bunch of times. He wanted that a certain way. I remember that and how uplifting the tune was.
I also remember there was a song called “Contusion.” I don’t know whether it made another album, but they would play it. They did take after take on various nights. Mike Sembello played on it. It was a jazz tune and there was no vocal on it. It was an amazing tune. I remember weeks would go by and every once in a while, they’d come in and they’d play it again. All of those takes were amazing. I wonder if the word contusion was a reference to his bad accident. He was in a car accident and there was a big scar on his forehead from the surgery. It was such a great piece of music that somehow never made it onto this record that I was working on.
I was there when he laid the vocals down on “They Won’t Go When I Go.” I remember getting very depressed. It was a dark tune. The music was wonderful, but it was almost like a classical piece about a severing country. I can’t sing, but the part that goes down at the end that descends at the end of each verse? It was just like, “Oh my God, we’re getting pulled down into a dark place.”
Why was this the last album you and Malcolm Cecil worked on?
There were all these hangers on in the studio. They were all voicing their opinions and stuff. There were all these guys smoking weed, and they would always enable us and bring weed into the control room and say, “Oh here, have a joint. Can I sit in the back?” It finally got to a place where it got so noisy in the control room that one day Malcolm turned around and asked, “Guys, would you mind quieting down? I’m having difficulty working with Stevie.” Stevie said into the microphone, “Don’t you speak to my friends like that.” Malcolm replied, “Well, maybe they should make your record.” He turned around and walked out of the studio. That was the end of it. That’s how it ended. I hung out for two weeks to put things in order, but the magic was over.
As you look back more than 40 years later, what are your feelings about being involved in the making of such a classic recording?
What we did was special. There’s no two ways about that, and it will not be repeated. Something like that only happens once in your life. You don’t know it’s happening when you’re there. You only feel happy about it after it’s over, if you look back on it. Like I say, music is a memory and it lives in our memories.
For me, it was amazing. But when you’re in it, you don’t have the same perspective as when you’re looking back on it or thinking about doing it. Fulfillingness’ was my first credit. It was the first time my name ever appeared on a record. Just to hear the musicianship, it was so funky. Some of the artists that played on this album became clients later. I worked on Michael Sembello’s solo albums with Phil Ramone as I became an engineer and worked a lot with Reggie McBride. To be able to learn recording with those guys night after night, I felt so lucky. How fortunate could I be? The Record Plant days were boot camp for me. It was my first time at a commercial studio for any length of time other than recording when I was a kid in a band. What else can I say? It was amazing.
Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Music Academy, EBONY, and Wax Poetics. Follow the latest and greatest from him on Twitter @iamchriswms.