Stevie Wonder and TONTO: The Synth Orchestra and Production Duo Behind His Pivotal Albums

Without question, Stevie Wonder is one of the most beloved and accomplished songwriters in the history of recorded music. And his idiosyncratic turn in the early '70s—after he successfully pressured Motown to allow him to focus on bold, ambitious albums—cemented his reputation.

Starting with 1972's Music of My Mind, the run of albums that would also include Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fulfillingness' First Finale is still lauded as one of the era's greatest artistic statements. However, the most undersold part of Stevie's legacy may be the collaboration with two producers, Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, and the pair's massive synthesizer, TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra).

Below, we're going to explore Stevie's use of this monstrously diverse and capable instrument, and how he—with Bob and Malcolm's expert engineering and programming—used the synthesizer to expand the boundaries of pop and R&B.

The Birth of TONTO

Intended to be the first orchestra of synthesizers, TONTO began in 1968 with Robert Margouleff's purchase of a Moog Series IIIc—one of the pioneering synth company's first complete systems. Soon, he'd meet Malcolm Cecil, a well-renowned bassist in London.

Malcolm was co-founder of the early British blues group Blues Incorporated—whose fluid membership included, at times, Jack Bruce, Charlie Watts, and Ginger Baker, and whose sets could feature sit-in performances by Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Page, or other young blues obsessives in the burgeoning London scene.

Malcolm Cecil and the TONTO synth

Malcolm had also been the principal bassist for the BBC's Radio Orchestra. But after being diagnosed with a lung illness, Malcolm decided to move to New York, where he found work at an advertising studio on 5th Avenue in Manhattan called Media Sound Studios.

Tonto's Expanding Head Band - Zero Time

Shortly after starting at Media Sound, Malcolm approached Bob to learn more about the mysterious Moog synthesizer. Bob agreed to teach Malcolm under the condition that Malcolm teach him how to use the recording console. Just weeks later, the two would set about building the largest synthesizer in the world.

Their intent was simple: to create a modern orchestra with synthesizers. Featuring modules from Oberheim, Moog, ARP, EMS, and proprietary modules designed by Serge Tcherepnin and Malcolm, TONTO rapidly grew into a behemoth room-sized module, connected by a central brain designed by Malcolm himself to allow these synthesizers to communicate with one another.

Within a few weeks, Malcolm and Bob formed a group called TONTO's Expanding Head Band, through which the pair explored the nearly unlimited capabilities of their machine. The release of their first record, Zero Time, caught the attention of the tastemakers at Rolling Stone. But their Rolling Stone review was just the beginning.

Stevie's Inflection Point

Over in Detroit, Stevie Wonder's Motown recording contract was set to expire on his 21st birthday. To the surprise of Berry Gordy and the other executives at Motown, Stevie took advantage of the lapse in his contract to secure the creative freedom that he craved. Feeling handcuffed by Motown, Stevie packed up and moved to New York, where he heard Zero Time and became enamoured.

"Stevie was apparently quite taken by the idea that this was a keyboard instrument that he could possibly play that made all of these sounds," Malcolm told the BBC in a 2010 interview. "He was tired of having to play his songs to an arranger who would then go away and write the arrangement, record the track with the band, call Stevie in after it was recorded, tell him where he had to sing, what he had to sing, and then send him away again while they did the mix. And Stevie said it sounded nothing like what the song sounded like in his head."

TONTO allowed Stevie the ability to arrange his own tracks and to be involved in every aspect of the recording process. Bob, Malcolm, and Stevie clicked immediately.

TONTO & Stevie Wonder, Documentary extract

Over that first three-day stretch (Memorial Day weekend) Bob, Malcolm, and Stevie recorded 17 songs, enough for their first release together: Music of My Mind. Stevie Wonder renegotiated his Motown contract on July 1, 1971, using the completed recordings as leverage. The modified pact included an advance in excess of $900,000 (plus annual guarantees) in addition to a then-unheard-of 14 percent royalty rate.

"The reason that I got involved with the synthesizer was because I had ideas in my head and I wanted those ideas to be heard, and I could have Bob and Malcolm and various programmers that I worked with kinda create [the sound that I wanted to hear]," Stevie Wonder said in a career-spanning interview with A&E's Biography.

Music of My Mind

1972's Music of My Mind marks Stevie's first adventure with synthesizers. Early on, Bob and Malcolm made the decision that, even though TONTO was designed to be played by multiple instrumentalists, Stevie would play all of the synth parts himself.

In fact, Bob and Malcolm had all of the instruments wired up and available for Stevie to play at all times to help stimulate his limitless creativity. Originally, the plan was to have Malcolm play upright bass on every song. Cecil recounted the story during a Red Bull Music Academy at a lecture in 2013 of how Moog bass entered Stevie's production.

Stevie Wonder - Music Of My Mind

"At first he wanted me to play upright bass on the first two. I tried, and it didn't sound right to me, and I said, 'It's the wrong sound, it's taking it to a jazz place. This music is not jazz. This sounds more like R&B to me than jazz. It's a different sort of bass sound.' So he said, 'Can you get it?' I said, 'Get on the synthesizer.' And so we got up a bass sound on the synthesizer, and he really loved it," Malcolm said.

In the end, Stevie played everything except for guitar and trombone on the trio's first effort. Though TONTO itself is only credited on four of Music of My Mind's nine tracks, every song on the record featured TONTO's Moog modules.

Using the console's core Moog Series IIIc synthesizers, Stevie, Bob, and Malcolm cued up at least three 901-series Moog sawtooth oscillators to create the massive synth bass sounds that redefined production for the genre. Key to the entire operation was a custom module, built by Malcolm himself, that repurposed a helicopter joystick as a pitch and filter modulator. Since these early modules were so difficult to keep in tune more than two octaves, this was crucial in fine-tuning the synthesizer sounds at the drop of a dime and keeping TONTO in tune.

TONTO served as ornamentation on Stevie's first adult album, sticking to the ethereal edges, and underscoring Stevie's delicate songwriting. "Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)" foreshadows the sonic palette of Moog bass and whirling ARP synthesizers that became Stevie's core ingredients throughout this cycle of albums. The song begins with a dialogue between a Rhodes and a round Moog bass sound. The synthesizer sounds remain tame until around the three-minute mark, when TONTO breaks through with a rich chorus of ARP synthesizers.

Stevie Wonder - "Superwoman"

This moment mirrors a revelation on the narrator's part, deciding to leave his significant other, "Mary", after the synthesizer epiphany. Throughout the rest of the song, bright, gliding yet subdued synth pads elevate Stevie's ostinato ad-lib, "Our love is at an end."

Music of My Mind peaked at #21 on Billboard's Pop Chart and #6 on the R&B Chart. Though it wasn't a huge commercial success, critics, like Rolling Stone's Vince Aletti, praised the record as the final stage in Stevie's artistic development. All in, Music of My Mind solidified that Stevie had staying power—that he was more than his prodigious youth.

Talking Book

1972's Talking Book marked the beginning of what music historians now refer to as Stevie Wonder's classic period. Without question, these songs showcased a more mature side of Stevie Wonder, and was, at the time, his most successful album to date.

Earning a career-first spot atop the Billboard R&B Album charts, Talking Book included two #1 singles—"Superstition" and "You Are The Sunshine of My Life"—and went on to win three Grammy Awards. The classic record moved 1.6 million copies.

Stevie Wonder - Talking Book

All of the songs on Talking Book were created collaboratively between Bob, Malcolm, and Stevie. Malcolm, again speaking to the BBC, explained:

"With an instrument like TONTO you can't write a line ahead of time, because until you get the sound up, you don't know how it's going to react with the other sounds. Everything was done sort of jazz fashion, it was all head arrangements… sometimes some of the lines would be suggested. That horn line [from "Superstition] I was singing it… and then Stevie started playing it. That was how we worked."

One of the two singles, "Superstition," marked the first time Stevie had topped the charts in a decade. Yet despite the widespread commercial success that Stevie was enjoying with Talking Book, the trio did not even take a moment to catch their breath.

As Bob later said, "There were no hours. We worked night and day, whenever Steve felt like he wanted to work. He'd come in around 7 o'clock in the evening, Malcolm and I would get there around 4:30, 5 o'clock, and we would keep lists of songs—we had, like, a library. Steve would start songs and we'd put them away and keep track of them. 'Oh this one needs drums,' 'Oh, this one could use a synthesizer part,' 'Steve, what do you think for the words for this song, or that song?'"

In Bob Margouleff's interview with The Atlantic, the producer discusses the process by which Talking Book was recorded. For the most part ("Superstition" is the exception), Stevie would track keyboards first, and the trio would layer in instruments around the core composition. Here are some of Margouleff's notes on those sessions (from The Atlantic):

"You and I (We Can Conquer The World)" was done with Stevie and his girlfriend sitting on the piano bench next to him. He played the piano first.

"Superstition" was originally written for Jeff Beck. He decided it was too good to give away so he kept it for himself. He started out playing the drums. The first track down was the drums.

"Blame It on the Sun" was Stevie's song about heartbreak. We recorded it in the same classical way. I don't remember how we pulled it all together. The lyrics were very heavy. He was saying you have to blame yourself and not others for loves lost. He had heavy things going on. Again, it was small instruments, not lots of layers. If you listen to any of those records, you will see there are only a small group of instruments. The Moog synthesizer was a monophonic instrument. You could play one sound or event at one time. We could do two or three because TONTO was a multiple of monophonic synthesizers with a common tuning bust, so we could tune them all and transpose them all simultaneously. But they were each individual instruments, so Steve could only play one or two lines at a time. We played with chamber-size music with a quartet basically. We were very, very spare."

Unquestionably, Stevie, Bob, and Malcolm had a very good thing going. Having grown more comfortable with each other, their next effort, 1973's Innervisions, marks the culmination of Stevie, Malcolm, and Bob's collective effort. Stevie's artistry pushed in a more conscious, political direction, railing on the incumbent Richard Nixon in "He's Miss-tra Know-It-All" and tackling systemic racism and incarceration in his masterpiece, "Living for the City."

Innervisions

"Higher Ground", "Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing", "Living for the City"—Innervisions is the crystallized culmination of the trio's output. Though not quite as commercially successful as Talking Book, Innervisions represented the continuation of a wavelength of funk-drenched, synth-driven soul.

Stevie Wonder - Innervisions

During recording, Bob and Malcolm resorted to some unorthodox methods to coax better performances out of Stevie. Malcolm recalls a situation during the recording of "Living for the City" in which they deliberately goaded Stevie into a coarser, hoarser performance:

"We had to find a way to get the vocal rougher and harder… So we decided the only thing was to try to get Stevie real angry and get his voice hoarse. So when we were recording that vocal for the last verse again, we kept on doing stuff that would get him angry. One of the things he hates is stopping in the middle… I kept on stopping the tape 'C'mon Stevie you can do better than that, this is [redacted]!' And I was really shitty with him and everything. And we got him hoarse, we didn't give him tea—because he likes this tea with no milk in it, with lemon to clear the throat—we wouldn't give him the tea. He was getting really upset with us… I think he's still upset with me about that, but we got a great track!"

Stevie Wonder - "Living For The City"

The synth sound in "Living For the City" is, perhaps, the most famous example of TONTO's power. These sounds combined multiple 901-series oscillators on both Moogs and a few ARP oscillators, an unheard of feat of synthesis and voltage control by Malcolm Cecil.

But just as Bob and Malcolm took the completed album into mastering, disaster struck.

Stevie's crashed car, 1973

On an overnight tour route to Durham, North Carolina, from South Carolina, a stray log dislodged from a lumber truck, striking Stevie in the head. Wonder was in a coma for five days, and spent a total of two weeks in the Winston-Salem hospital. Stevie made a full recovery, with a newly invigorated sense of spirituality. The jubilance, consciousness, and confidence that Innervisions exuded immediately gave way for a more sombre song cycle, 1974's Fulfillingness' First Finale.

A Lack of Recognition for Margouleff and Cecil

The 16th Annual Grammy Awards were held at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles on March 2, 1974. Stevie took home hardware for Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance (for "You are the Sunshine of My Life"), Best R&B Vocal Performance (for "Superstition"), and best R&B song (also for "Superstition"). Bob and Malcolm were awarded Best Engineered Recording, a non-televised award that they had given out during the afternoon ceremony.

Curiously, each time Stevie went up to accept an award, Bob and Malcolm were left out of his list of thank yous. What was more, Stevie took out a half-page ad in Billboard Magazine thanking his Motown team, yet the ad failed to give any praise to Bob and Malcolm, who had devoted years of their lives up to this point for the vague promise of recognition. With these tensions mounting, it became apparent to Wonderlove band members, like Mike Sembello, that Ira Tucker, Berry Gordy, and the rest of Stevie's entourage were actively disregarding and diminishing the contributions of these two engineers to give the public the omnipotent Stevie Wonder that the community craved.

Stevie Wonder's Motown ad

"What it is, is experimentation to the extreme under extreme violation of certainty. You had this… thing called TONTO from an alien station. It's extraterrestrial. ... And if you ask me, those two guys up there on the bridge of the mothership were really the ones who made it possible to go to the ends of the universe," Sembello said in Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder, Mark Ribowsky's biography of Wonder. However, Sembello says, Stevie's entourage encouraged him to keep credit away from Margouleff and Cecil.

From Motown's perspective, this urge made sense—Motown's pose to make Stevie seem more like a solitary, all-powerful, highly-capable genius and helped his public persona as an activist. To some, Stevie had become a champion of civil rights activism in the '70s, and to Motown (specifically to Motown publicist Ira Tucker) including Bob and Malcolm in the public perception of the album could interfere with that view.

Bob and Malcolm's credits on this album are rather misleading—"Moog Programmers," "Associate Producers", and "Engineers" don't quite hit the mark. Bob and Malcolm were, by all intents and purposes, producing this record alongside Stevie. In his fantastic biography, Ribowsky discusses the verbal contract shared between Bob, Malcolm, and Stevie that entitled Bob and Malcolm to one point on Stevie's future royalties, as per the industry standard at the time.

The TONTO synth

"On the very first day, and I'll never forget this," Cecil recalls [in Ribowsky's book], "Stevie told us, 'I want you to be directors of my company, oh, and I also want you to get a point on my records.'" This verbal contract never converted to pen and paper. Truthfully, Bob and Malcolm are responsible for a lot of the textures we associate with Stevie Wonder, though no one could ever deny Stevie's incomparable genius.

Partially broken in spirit and sitting quietly waiting for their just desserts (read: royalties), Bob and Malcolm readied their studio for the next spate of sessions, which would become Fulfillingness' First Finale. These sessions would prove to be their last with Stevie.

Fulfillingness' First Finale

Fulfillingness' First Finale marks the last album in the TONTO years. Appearing on songs like "Creepin'", "They Won't Go When I Go", and "You Haven't Done Nothin'," TONTO's swirling synth sounds amplified the gospel undertones, especially in "They Won't Go When I Go." As time had gone on, Bob and Malcolm chose to record the full Wonderlove band more, choosing to use TONTO more selectively.

It was Stevie's first album to top the Billboard Pop charts, due, by in large, to the massive commercial success of "Boogie On Reggae Woman." Though Stevie's trajectory was still climbing exponentially, both Bob and Malcolm felt a deepening distance between them and him.

Stevie Wonder - Fulfillingness' First Finale

"They Won't Go When I Go", though not a commercial success on the same scale of "Boogie On Reggae Woman" is an important song on the album. The piece's instrumentation is stripped-down, vulnerable, and moving. With just acoustic piano, vocals, background vocals, and TONTO to carry the song, the flute and organ-like ARP sounds floating from TONTO gives the song a feeling of fragility, a profound sense of death, and a deep loneliness.

In a way, this song is almost a eulogy for the TONTO years—just like the final synth notes ring and die out, so too did Stevie, Bob, and Malcolm's relationship, which was floundering further under the immense pressure of Stevie's hangers-on.

Recounting his final session with Stevie, Malcolm discusses how their relationship had changed during those sessions.

"I made the final decision to leave Stevie in the middle of Fulfillingness' First Finale when we were recording vocals. And there were probably 30 people in this very large control room making a racket. The noise was getting to me, so I just turned around to everybody and said, 'Excuse me, but do you think we could keep it down to a dull roar?' And Stevie of course, hearing this, turns around and says, 'Hey man, don't talk to my friends that way.' And I just thought to myself, the relationship has changed. It used to be just us in the studio doing music, now there are all these people partying with nothing to do with the music, distracting me, distracting Stevie, and they're more important? I just stood up from the console and I said, 'Then perhaps they can help you make your album,' and I just walked out."

Stevie Wonder - "They Won't Go When I Go"

Bob followed suit a few weeks later, citing business decisions as the reason for the split. "We really felt we should have been able to participate in the royalties on his records, and he did not feel the same way about it. The reality is that those four albums were produced by me, Malcolm, and Stevie, and that's the truth."

TONTO Rides Again

Bob and Malcolm would resume TONTO's Expanding Head Band with 1974's It's About Time, and the duo would go on to work with Quincy Jones, Billy Preston, Bobby Womack, Devo, and Gil Scott-Heron, among many, many others. Malcolm still performs ambient electronic music to this day, sometimes with his son DJ Moonpup.

TONTO on Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's
1980 album cover

Though the trio of Bob, Malcolm, and Stevie had split ways, Stevie's next two albums Songs in the Key of Life and The Secret Life of Plants would feature a few of the remaining 200 compositions that Bob, Malcolm, and Stevie recorded over those four years.

The story of Bob, Malcolm, and Stevie is best described by Bob himself.

"I like to say it was like three meteors in the sky, and they're all flying towards one other," Bob says. "And for one brief second there's this huge bright light when all three meteors cross paths at the same time and there's just this brilliant flash... and it just goes away. That's how it was with me, Steve, and Malcolm."

Until 2013, TONTO lived in Malcolm's home in Saugerties, New York. Today, TONTO remains in its entirely original form in the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Visitors to the NMC are encouraged to make their own compositions on the legendary machine.


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