Chris WilliamsChris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared…
By the beginning of the 1970s, Little Stevie Wonderhad grown up to become one of the most popular acts in music. After releasing 13 albums for Motown, he let his original contract expire on his 21st birthday on May 13th, 1971. While experimenting with music for his next album, Wonder was introduced to the electronic synthesizer sound by his bass player, Ronnie Blanco. He played Wonder Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s groundbreaking debut, Zero Time. The album got on Blanco’s radar due to a glowing spread in Rolling Stone magazine.
A couple of months later, Blanco introduced Wonder to the architects of the album: producers and engineers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. During that weekend, in late May 1971, they famously recorded 17 songs. As a result, Wonder relocated to New York City and began recording tirelessly, splitting time between Media Sound Studios and Electric Lady Studios in New York City and Crystal Industries in Los Angeles.
Despite not being signed to a recording contract, Wonder was determined to record an album to highlight his artistic growth and maturity. Through utilizing the technical and musical expertise of Cecil and Margouleff, Wonder’s creative genius was on full display. Cecil spent his formative years recording with Blues Incorporated, a London-based blues band led by British Blues legend 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 producing with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to his resume.
Margouleff brought an impressive knowledge of electronic synthesizers; he was 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. With all this innovative energy flowing through the studio, Wonder seized the opportunity to take advantage of the new musical technology, by experimenting with The Original New Timbral Orchestra (TONTO), the largest multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer in the world, built by Cecil. ( In Rolling Stone’s glowing review of Zero Time, journalist Timothy Crouse wrote of the TONTO: “Like taking acid and discovering that your mind has the power to stop your heart, the realization that this instrument can do all sorts of things to you, now that it has you, is unsettling.”)
On March 3, 1972, Music of My Mind was released. It became a modest commercial success on the Billboard charts. The album spawned two singles, “Keep on Running” and “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You).” But it was a critical triumph for Wonder, seen as a breakthrough album for the legendary artist. Rolling Stone called it “the best thing to come out of Motown since Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On.”
Stevie would go on to build off the success of Music of My Mind. He would release three more albums over the span of two years, collaborating closely with Cecil and Margouleff on all of them: Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), and Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974). In 1976 Wonder released Songs in the Key of Life — without Cecil and Margouleff — capping off the five-album run widely regarded as Wonder’s “classic period.”
In an effort to delve into Wonder’s music-making process on Music of My Mind, we spoke with one of his main collaborators, producer and engineer Malcolm Cecil, who provided crucial details and stories on how this timeless record was conceived and recorded. Check out the interview below.
Well, when we first started, we were not making albums. We never did set out to make albums. It all started when my good friend Ronnie Blanco, who was a bass player, was playing with Stevie up in Canada, in Stevie’s band. A couple of months after we released our album, Zero Time, he took our album to Stevie. We released it in March 1971. It was an all synthesizer album, which we had just released on Embryo Records, which was a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. It had six tracks on it, and it caused quite a stir. Some people hated it, but Rolling Stone gave us a great, glowing review. That’s when Ronnie Blanco played our album for Stevie. He told Stevie that this was a keyboard instrument and he should check it out. Stevie was just about to turn 21.
On Memorial Day weekend, the studios were closed. It was really hot that day in New York City. I was fixing [Mountain vocalist] Felix Pappalardi’s Mellotron which was in my apartment. My apartment was on the third floor of the studio building because everyone wanted me on tap 24/7. I’ve got nothing on. I was totally stark naked. I hear a ring on my doorbell. I’m on the third floor in front of the building. I opened the window, and I stuck my head out and looked down and there was Ronnie standing with this guy with a pistachio green jumpsuit, with an album under his arm. It looked a bit like the cover of Zero Time.
[Ronnie said] “Come on down, Malcolm. I’ve got somebody here who wants to see TONTO.” I put on a pair of shorts and a clean shirt. I went downstairs to the studio with the keys. The studio was on hiatus. There was nobody cutting songs on Memorial Day weekend. When I came downstairs, Ronnie said, “This is Stevie Wonder.” I didn’t know who the hell Stevie Wonder was at that time. I’d heard of Little Stevie. Stevie asked, “Is this is a keyboard instrument?” I replied, “Well, sort of. It has a keyboard, but there are some limitations.” He said, “I want to see it.”
He didn’t look like he could see anything. I was used to working with unsighted people. I traveled around England with a piano player named Eddie Thompson. He was my really good buddy. He was also unsighted. I knew how to deal with unsighted people. I knew they liked to hold your elbow when you walked in front of them. So, I just put his hand on my elbow and asked him to follow me down to the studio.
By now, we had moved TONTO down to the 16-track studio, Studio B, the one I built. I took him to it and placed his hands on it. He felt all the knobs, the patch chords, and the keyboard. He asked me, “Can we play it?” I said, “Well, I can get the sound up for you, but it’s not like the keyboards you’re used to.” He played one note and continued playing on. I pulled the sound up for him. He played for a little bit. Then he said, “you got a piano?” I said, “Yes. we got a really good Steinway in here.” He sat down and started playing. He asked, “Can we record?”
I started firing up the machines. He played one song, and he said, “I hear you’re a bass player…Put a bassline on that for me.” So, I did. Then he tried another song. He said, “Put a bassline on that.” I started to play. Then I said to him, “You know, this is going to take this song to a different place. The acoustic bass is going to take it to a jazz place and that’s not what this song sounds like to me. I tell you what, why don’t I get the sound up on TONTO, and we’ll play the sound on TONTO.” So that’s what we did, and since I didn’t know the changes and everything, I told him he should play the sounds. He got into it, and I explained to him some things about TONTO. He caught on very quickly and we put a bassline on it.
And then he asked, “OK. Can we do another one?” Now, I’m starting to get a bit worried because we’re getting to the point where I’m going to have to go get more tape because we were running out of time. I replied, “Yes. But if this is just a demo, somebody is going to have to start paying for this tape and the time editing.” He said, “I got money…You can bill my lawyer. Motown just cut me a whole bunch of money.”
I called the lawyer. He was in Detroit, and I said, “I have Stevie Wonder here with me.” He said that you have some money of his, and he wants to record. I will send you a purchase order. Give me an address where I can send the bill to.” He gave me all the details, and said, “Bill me and it’ll be paid.” I found out years later that Stevie had been owed $3.1 million when he became 21 on May 13th, which was two weeks prior. Motown ended up giving him $100,000.
He was only able to get $100,000 from it but he was free. When someone turned 21 in the state of Michigan, they were no longer a minor. All the contracts that he had prior to that, including his contract with Jobete for publishing and his contract with Motown for recording, were null and void. He was a free agent. He had learned that he didn’t own any of his publishing when he was 18. So, he hadn’t played any of his new songs to them. He kept them all in his head, and his head was bursting open. He needed to get those songs down. We worked all weekend.
The studio time and the tape came to quite a hefty bill. The result was 17 songs in the can by the end of the weekend, including the last song on Music of My Mind,“Evil.”
“Evil” was the first song recorded for the album?
That weekend was the beginning of us recording with Stevie. What we did was just record songs. He called out songs faster than we could record them almost. It always started with keyboard and voice. When it came to putting down the drums on any of those songs, the first thing that we tried to do was to get one of the best drummers in New York City to come in and put the drum track down. We were able to get the great Bernard Purdie. He came in, and we played him the track. He couldn’t play on the track. I kept saying, “Bernard, just follow the track.” He said, “But the tempo varies, man. Every time it gets to the chorus, the tempo changes.” Bernard was so used to being the rhythm kingpin and laying down the time and everybody would follow Bernard. He could not follow the tape.
After that disastrous experience with Bernard, Stevie had been telling me how he used to play around on the drums at gigs with his band. He used to like to sit on the drums and the drummer would show him how to play rhythms and time and stuff. I asked, “Can you time a real simple drum track because we have a drum set here in the studio?” He replied, “Yeah, man.” We spent a bit of time setting up the drums the way he wanted them, which was a little peculiar, not quite the same way as you would set it up for a normal drummer. But I basically said to him, “OK. Where’s the high hat?” He liked the high hat in front of his snare. He liked it a little bit more there because it wasn’t difficult to reach. The bass drum he wanted pointing to the right. Then I’d say to him, “Where’s the cymbal?” He’d flail around in the air, and I’d move the cymbals down to where he was flailing around. I asked him, “Where is the tom-tom?” He’d swing in the air, and I moved the tom-tom into that position. So, it looked a bit peculiar, but he knew where everything was. We started to put drum tracks down after the fact. He played the drums to the piano and the vocal basics and then we put down a lot of synthesizer and Moog stuff on there.
How did Stevie choose the title for the album?
Stevie kept on saying, “Man, this is how the music sounds in my mind.” He kept on saying that. When it came to putting an album out, that’s how the album got its title, Music of My Mind. It was not magic, it just tumbled out. When it came to putting the album together, it was basically, “OK. Well, what have we got in the can?” Let’s play all the songs we got. We went down the list and played song after song, and we came up with the songs that became Music of My Mind. We had probably 50 or 60 songs to pick from. The songs on the album are the ones that we picked. So, it wasn’t made as an album from the beginning. It wasn’t a concept album, where we decided what we were going to do ahead of time and go and laboriously write the songs. It was just Stevie pouring out all these songs out of his head, and we recorded them. We added synthesizers. We arranged the synthesizer cards on there. On the very first day, Stevie said to Bob [Margouleff] and I, “I want you to be creative directors of my company.”
We took that seriously. Normally, when you become producers for somebody like that, you get a letter from them, which is purely a letter with directions. “Please pay X percent of my royalties, to such and such. Give them the credit as producers on my album” or whatever it will say. It is just one page. It was called a deal memo. When you took that to the record company and presented it to them, then they were to deduct whatever the artist said you should get as points, from the artist’s share. But there was no record company to take it to because Stevie hadn’t signed with anybody. Also, with Stevie being unsighted, how are you going to get him to sign a letter of direction on this?
There ain’t no company to send it to. And he can’t read it.
We just went on a verbal handshake and trust. It felt good. Everything was going really well. We had a wonderful relationship. The thing is, there were three points of view in the studio. It’s a bit like geometry. You have the artist’s point of view, the creative force, which was Stevie. You need the producer’s point of view, which was the person who was overseeing it, making sure he gets it done and all the things were provided. You need the engineering point of view, which makes all technology disappear, so the artist was free to do his thing.
The producer took care of all the administration: The logging, figuring out how much money was this going to cost, what musicians we were going to work with, what studio we were going to be in, what time we were scheduled for recording and all that stuff. There was the engineer, who was responsible for getting the stuff down onto the tape without any hitches and distortion, making sure it sounded really good, and making sure that the technical side of things did not impede and impinge upon the creative side. We had three double lines of communication. The engineer and the producer would talk to each other backwards and forwards. The producer and artist would talk to each other backwards and forwards. The engineer and the artist also would talk to each other backwards and forwards, “This mic seems a little strange here, is that distortion I’m hearing? Let me fix it.” This was two-way communication, so this is where my analogy works very well.
Now, the fourth point of view cannot be down in that area of operation because it will screw it up. The fourth point of view needs to be as far away from that area of operation as possible. It was the record company. It created a tetrahedron and the top of that tetrahedron is the record company. Their job was to get it to the public. To publish it and get it out there to the people. That creates a tetrahedron which has volume, and that volume, is the volume of business. If you can keep the record company a mile out of the way from all the operations in the studio, so they have no effect on it at all, because they communicate with all three. They communicate with the artist, they communicate with the producer and they communicate with the engineer — again two-way communication. But now the further away they move from these areas of operations, the more pointed that tetrahedron becomes and that’s where the penetration comes. The more pointed it is, the more market penetration you have.
So, that was my model of how all the four entities put together: the record companies, the artist, the producer, and the engineer. Now, each facet of that, where the producers bill the record company, the studio bills the record company, the engineering side and the artist bills the record company. They all got separate billing. The artist had got a contract with the record company. Theoretically, so did the producer and the studio. That was how it worked. That was the model of how we were working back then.
CBS Records offered Stevie $8 million bucks to go with them. He didn’t want to leave Motown, but he wanted to have a proper deal, and he wanted to have his publishing. The first two albums, Music of My Mind and Talking Book, were put out with Stevie paying the bill out of the $100,000 he had in his account. We used about $64,000 for both of those albums because we were supposed to be creative directors of his company. We were trying to keep the cost down, and we weren’t charging much. We were charging $10 an hour each to Stevie for ongoing services, engineering, and because we were under the impression that we were going to get percentage points for being the creative directors of the company. We figured that we were participants and that we were in this together. That’s what we thought. Of course, that changed, but that was down the line.
What was the creative atmosphere between you, Bob Margouleff, and Stevie in the studio?
Music of My Mind was made with the best hearts in the world. Everything we did was done in that three-point of view aspect I mentioned before, and we were trading hats during the process of making this album. If you think of the points of views as hats, there was the artistic points of view, which was the artist hat. There was the producer’s point of view, which was the producer hat. There was the engineer’s point of view, that was the engineering hat, and we would switch hats. When Stevie left the studio and came into the control room to listen to something, he would take off his artist hat and put on a producer hat. Then, when he went back in the studio, somebody had to be doing the producing back in the control room. Somebody had to be doing the engineering. There were three of us. We could fill each of the spots, without any breaching, and we could switch hats instantaneously. There were many times when I was the creative artist in the studio. Not being the originator of the songs, but playing the lines on TONTO, focused on the arrangements and creating the sounds. If you listened to “Evil,” it has a fantastic opening, which is all TONTOand the sound of it was classical. There was an oboe sound. There was a horn sound and a foreboding bass. It was done from the heart from all three of us. We worked as a team and it was a winning team. When Stevie wanted something, he would explain what he heard in his head, and we would attempt to create it as closely as possible. He would say, “Hey, man. Give me that John Lennon’s slap echo thing.” I knew exactly what he meant because I heard it all The Beatles’ songs before. Plus, I had the technical skillset to do it.
Syreeta was Stevie’s ex-wife, and they still had a wonderful relationship. In fact, when he left her, part of the divorce settlement was that he would make an album with her. She was a real vegetarian, a sweet lady, but she just couldn’t handle Stevie on the level of being a husband. He was a bit of a womanizer, and she couldn’t handle that aspect of it. But they were great friends and she was very, very articulate. She wrote the words for “I Love Having You Around.” When you think about Stevie, there are four aspects to every artist who was anything like Stevie, who played and composed. The first one has two sides to it. There was the side which were the lyrics and the vocal, the portraying of the actual words. And then there was the music. That had two sides as well, one of them was playing it and the other side was composing it. So, you’ve got writing the lyrics, singing the lyrics, writing the music, and playing the music. Those are the four things. If I were to put Stevie in order of his abilities at that time, I would say his composing and playing of music were definitely upfront. His writing of lyrics was the least strength that he had. His singing of lyrics was probably the best strength that he had. You’ve got his singing as the primary, alongside the fact that he could deliver a lyric incredibly. That was his primary thing, that was his A+ side. Then his composing and performing of the music are still A+ and equally as good as his deliverance. The weakest part was his lyrics. You must remember he was just 21 when this all happened. He would have other people write the words whenever they offered.
Now, Yvonne Wright, Vonnie, was one of his girlfriends. She wrote the lyrics to a couple of the songs on this album, “Girl Blue” and “Evil.” Those were heavy lyrics. Yvonne would sit next to him at the piano and whisper words into his ear while he was singing. She would whisper a line to him as he was playing and singing when he was recording the basics. He was very tight with her and that was the case with “Evil” and “Girl Blue.” The thing about Stevie was that he had such an incredible range of emotion in his voice. He could go from a real whisper to a roaring shout and holler. It’s what we call, musically, melismatic singing. It’s where a singer takes one syllable and plays 300 notes to it and twists it around. Stevie did an incredible job of doing it, but I can’t do it. He was also capable of doing really, really simple things, and we explored a lot like in the lead on “Keep on Running,” where he was doing half-spoken, half-sung, almost like the church thing where members from the congregation sing or yell out a line while the pastor is preaching. It’s a common thing in the Black Baptist church. It’s a gospel thing and it’s spontaneous, fun, and done with a lot of energy.
The beautiful thing was, because Stevie was unsighted, he couldn’t write down his arrangements. With an analog synthesizer, the sound changed over time very subtly because it was not digital, so it became an urgent thing. Once we got the sound that we liked, we had to get the track down quick before the sound changed. There was a lot of excitement during this process, plus this was all new to Stevie. We were new to Stevie and Stevie was new to us. We didn’t know any of his background material. We had none of that Motown formula concept at all. We were there to make the technology disappear and let Stevie create, put the stuff down, and contribute our creative directing input. So, he created, and we directed it.
Did he write those songs right there in the studio?
He had ideas for the songs. If Bob and I were setting up something in the studio, like mics or drums…Stevie would get bored. So he’d sit down at the piano and start playing and singing. I always had a seven and a half IPS quarter-inch tape running which was recording whatever Stevie did. All in the same session, we would listen to a series of tapes. Everything he sang and played would be on those tapes. We would go back and catch fragments and say, “That’s a great song there.” This was a great part of what we considered to be our creative direction. We captured everything he did, and he got to rely upon that. Looking back, we put out four albums with Stevie, two with Syreeta [Wright], one with Minnie Riperton, three albums with The Isley Brothers, one with Dave Mason, one with Billy Preston, one with Stephen Stills, one with Joan Baez, one with The Doobie Brothers, and an album with Weather Report in the space of three years.
Unbelievable. How did you all bring in musicians like Art Baron and Buzzy Feiten to play on the album?
Well, Buzzy Feiten was a friend of mine. He was a really good jazz guitar player. I played with him a few times, and Stevie wanted to have live guitar played on his album. So, I called Buzzy and Stevie brought Art Baron in. I think he was part of Stevie’s band at the time. It wasn’t a planned thing. One day, he showed up at the studio with his trombone. We played the tracks, and he started playing. He was the only musician on all the albums we did together that I didn’t book.
What time did you all begin working in the studio?
Stevie never knew if it was morning or night. He would call us up and say, “I want to record.” It could have been 3:00 in the morning, and he would be ready to record. We had the keys to Media Sound Studios, so we could roll up the studio anytime we wanted and anytime Stevie was available.
Did the three of you, as a collective unit, feel like you had something special?
We were just making songs. We had lots of those songs ready for the next album and the next and the next. In fact, Stevie had 250 unreleased songs when we parted company. None of them have ever seen the light of day. Some of them were great. You know that saying, “Out of sight, out of mind?”
How old were you when you started working with Stevie?
I was 30 or 31, maybe. I was the oldest, Bob was in the middle, and Stevie was the youngest. I was the one with the experience as a musician. I already had a very successful career in England as a musician and composer. I had already got published compositions and recorded numerous albums, as a musician over there, and I had the BBC production experience behind me and the engineering. I was building equipment for consultants for 10 years before I left England. I had a tremendous amount of technical engineering experience, as well as audio engineering, musical, composition, and production experience. I was the elder statesman, and I also was trained by the BBC to shrink into the background and not to put myself forward because the idea was to get the best out of the artist. So, you tried to make the artist think he or she was doing it all.
I used to joke with Stevie that he was a prejudiced piano player because he used to play on the black keys all the time and not the white ones. [laughs] If you listen to his stuff, most of it is in E flat minor, D flat, or G flat. It’s all the keys which play predominantly black notes. That’s because of the way he played. He felt with his thumbs on the edges of the front of the keys. He played flat handed. His technique was very unorthodox. He had this way of patting on the keys and it sounded funky. He was brilliant in those ways. He had a lot of really good tricks up his sleeve, but then he really learned how to play well. He played harmonica sweetly. He was doing that long before I met him. He was a great harmonica player, but he loved the clavinet, and he made it sound like a guitar sometimes, like on “Happier Than the Morning Sun.” We did all sorts of stuff. He even talked about it on the song “Sweet Little Girl.” He was on the song telling his girl, “I love you more than my clavinet. “I’ll even put down my harmonica for you.” Then, you heard that clunk. [laughs] We used to have a lot of good fun in the studio.
What was that process like in terms of the intricacies of playing around with his voice and the textures and things of that nature on this album?
Basically, it was by the seats of our pants and stuff. We tried not to do the same thing twice. If you listen, you won’t hear the same effect on more than one song. So, everything was different. Everything was according to the song and the way we felt and what Stevie directed us towards in many cases. He would say, “I hear this. Let’s go with this here.” I was able to set it up for him. Just putting a tape machine on and making a take was not good enough. We had to make it in time with the music. We had to keep it in a certain relationship. It was not easy to do if we didn’t understand what was going on. But I knew enough about technical and musical aspects to make it work. Everything was a musical instrument to me. The entire studio was a musical instrument.
I want toask you about the making of two songs in particular, “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)” and “I Love Every Little Thing About You.”
“Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)” was what we considered to be the single. If you look at the charts and everything, you’ll see that was the one that sold the most as a single. But Motown didn’t think it was a single. Plus, Motown was motivated to stop Stevie from selling big. They gave him no promotion or anything. He wasn’t signed to them. He let them release the album without a contract. He didn’t have a contract with Motown when he put out Talking Book. It was only after Talking Book was releasedthat he got a contract. It was in their interest to try and suppress him. Because the higher he went up the charts, the more money he was going to demand. When we told [Ewart] Abner that “Superwoman” was the single. He said, “Oh that “Superwoman” shit. That ain’t no single.” So, that’s what we got from [Ewart] Abner, the president of Motown at the time. I called him little Abner. [laughs]
“I Love Every Little Thing About You” was a great song. It had a beautiful sentiment. He was still 21 and full of the joys of life. He had just broken free from the constraints of Motown. He was making the music he loved. I think that was his way of saying that, but he was putting it into a more personal way. It was symbolic more than “I Love Every Little Thing About You.” He talked about a girl and so on, but he was really just saying that he really liked what was going on in his life at that time.
How do you feel about the impact that your contributions have made, especially with this album?
I’m very proud of what we did. It may sound conceited, but I think we did a wonderful job. I think we introduced the world to electronic music as music. We did the first albums that had soul and unique sounds. We incorporated unusual things electronically that weren’t done before or since in music. We tried to use new technology as an instrument. In fact, we used the whole studio as an instrument. It wasn’t just the synthesizer, it was the whole studio. Everything that we could lay our hands on, we turned into a musical instrument. The tape machines became musical instruments. How did we record Stevie with so many different sounding voices? We changed the speed of the tape machines while we were recording him. What came out of our relationship was some wonderful music that has stood the test of time. Recently, I played the CD of the album in the car. It’s not the same as the tape version. I heard all the songs and everything we did on the album. I’m very happy with it. I wouldn’t change any of it. As a team, we caught the magic and it preserved what Stevie was trying to do. It really was the music of his mind. It was an important step in his evolution as a composer, musician, singer, and lyricist.
ChrisWilliams 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.