Malcolm Cecil, synthesizer pioneer and Stevie Wonder collaborator, dies at 84
Though he was hardly a household name, the musician, producer and analog synthesizer expert Malcolm Cecil’s inventive currents helped charge the electronics revolution in popular music.
Cecil, whose death at 84 was announced by the Bob Moog Foundation, collaborated with hundreds of artists including Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Randy Newman, the Isley Brothers, Van Dyke Parks and Joan Baez. He died Sunday after what the foundation described as “a long illness.”
Though known for his work with other humans, Cecil’s most frequent collaborator was the Original New Timbral Orchestra (TONTO), a cockpit-looking analog synthesizer workstation that he and musical partner Robert Margouleff started building in 1968. Fueled by an agreement to share gear and knowledge, the communion powered a buffet’s worth of gear and generated the sounds on “Zero Time,” the influential 1971 debut synthesizer album by the pair’s Tonto’s Expanding Head Band.
Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Cybernaut
“Our talents complemented each other because we came from opposite sides of the spectrum,” Cecil said in a 2017 interview. “I’d be focusing on a bass line and he would go to the other end of the instrument to start with white noise. As for who came up with what, we don’t know. We just found a method that made sense.”
Combined, the pair advanced the argument that early synthesizers, which at that point were mostly utilized by furrow-browed academics or producers of novelty records, could generate musical forms that drew on popular song structures while harnessing the machines’ repetitive metronomic strengths. Margouleff understood: He had produced the debut album by Lothar and the Hand People (1968), a tripped-out group whose namesake, Lothar, wasn’t a lead singer but an early tone generator called the Theremin.
Famously, after Motown Records superstar Wonder first heard TONTO on “Zero Time,” he located its creators at Margouleff’s studio, Media Sound. Cecil was an engineer there at the time, he told the Red Bull Music Academy in 2014, when he heard the doorbell ring.
He looked out and saw “my friend Ronnie and a guy that turns out to be Stevie Wonder in a green-pistachio jumpsuit and what looks like my album under his arm. Ronnie says, ‘Hey, Malcolm, got somebody here who wants to see TONTO.’”
Wonder got a demonstration, was inspired and suggested a session. Across one weekend they set to tape 17 songs. At first Wonder asked Cecil to play upright bass. After a few takes, Cecil recalled in the 2014 Red Bull interview, he pitched Wonder on the idea that the music “wanted a different bass sound. He said, ‘Can you get it?’ I said, ‘I can get it on the synthesizer.’”
Stevie Wonder, “Evil”
By the time Wonder stepped into TONTO, Cecil had gathered enough musical and circuit-generated ideas to impress the best.
Born Jan. 9, 1937 in pre-World War II London, Cecil was a ham radio enthusiast by 9 and served as an engineer in the Royal Air Force while becoming an expert jazz player. In his 20s he joined saxophonist and radio personality Ronnie Scott’s band before shifting styles and co-founding the electrified proto-rock band Blues Incorporated. A born explorer, Cecil jumped from England to South Africa before landing in San Francisco in the mid-1960s and, after a period in Los Angeles working at crooner-entrepreneur Pat Boone’s recording studio, moved to New York and started modulating.
A 1971 review in Record World magazine captured the sense of wonder that TONTO could inspire during rare live performances. Calling it “one of the weirder combinations of talent and concert hall in recent memory,” writer Mike Sigman described an instrument that “seemed capable of making virtually any sound at any speed,” including “crashing, never-before-heard electronic sounds.”
The original TONTO had a kind of ignition switch, and that first weekend with Wonder accelerated TONTO’s use in contemporary music.
As Wonder told A&E’s “Biography” in 2008, “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” help manifest those ideas.
Those who have rocked at full volume to Wonder’s “Superstition” have heard the three-man collaboration at work. Though it’s tough to hear the synthetics behind all that funk, it’s driven by a Moog bass-line and other synths add color to some measures, most notably as the song is fading to a close. As with the entirety of “Talking Book,” the song was produced by Wonder with Cecil and Margouleff. A more evident example of that collaboration can be found on Wonder’s song “Evil,” which closes out his classic 1972 album “Music of My Mind.”
Wonder’s 1973 album “Innervisions” found him and his co-producers exploding TONTO’s funk potential, the evidence being “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City.” Cecil’s work with Margouleff and Wonder on the album earned them a Grammy Award in the engineered recording, non-classical category.
The collaboration came to an end in 1974. Cecil left after an in-session disagreement about having too many people in the studio and his partner followed a few weeks later, but the frustrations had been building.
Despite their collaborations with Wonder, Margouleff said in a 2018 interview with Reverb that, financially, the arrangement didn’t favor Wonder’s collaborators. “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.”
A scene from Brian De Palma’s film “Phantom of the Paradise,” featuring the electronic workstation called TONTO.
By then TONTO had become a circuitous beast that included machines made by Moog, ARP, Oberheim, Roland and Yamaha; drum controllers, sequencers and, later, MIDI converters; and thick gauge wire procured from surplus supplies made for the Apollo mission and Boeing 747 manufacturing.
Those familiar with Brian De Palma’s cult classic film “Phantom of the Paradise” have seen TONTO in action. It provides the setting for a wild scene in which protagonist Winslow Leach, donning a silver owl’s mask, performs a surreally ridiculous song on the contraption. (Cecil was said to be furious at TONTO’s unauthorized appearance in the film.)
Though Wonder’s work marked TONTO’s most prominent recorded appearance, Cecil earned synthesizer or production credits on albums by artists as varied as James Taylor, Mandrill, the Isley Brothers, Gil Scott-Heron and Minnie Riperton. Most notably to many in the Wonder-loving community, Cecil and Margouleff co-produced, with Wonder, “Syreeta,” the essential soul-funk album by Syreeta Wright. The singer was married to Wonder when TONTO was inspiring his creativity, and Wright, her husband and TONTO used the album as an experimental playground.
“Syreeta” is far from Cecil and Margouleff’s most popular work with Wonder, but it typifies their collective creativity. In the Reverb interview, Margouleff compared the trio of kindred creators to “three meteors in the sky and they’re all flying towards one other. 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.”
The complete guide to home viewing
Get Screen Gab for weekly recommendations, analysis, interviews and irreverent discussion of the TV and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.