The fortieth anniversary of a Stevie Wonder classic
By the start of the 1970s, Stevie Wonder hit his groove as one of the most gifted entertainers on the planet. After releasing gems Music of My Mind and Talking Book in 1972, he was on the verge of producing the most epic album in his catalog to date. On August 3, 1973, Innervisions was released by Motown Records and it became his third consecutive successful album within a two year span. The record would spawn three singles, including the hits “Living for the City,” “Higher Ground,” and “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing.”
Behind the boards during recording were the legendary production and engineering tandem Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, who created the massive TONTO synthesizer, on display in their recordings as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. They played an integral role in the success of Wonder’s previous two albums. Innervisions once again showcased Wonder’s masterful artistry. The subject matter on this album explored the depths of his social consciousness. As a result, it became the first R&B album to be named Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 1974 along with receiving more accolades that same year.
For the album’s fortieth anniversary, I spoke with Cecil about recording one of most important albums ever.
How did you first meet Stevie Wonder?
Malcolm Cecil: Three months after we released our album Zero Time in March 1971, my friend Ronnie Blanco, who was incidentally the first friend I had in New York, was standing at the counter of Record Plant Studios. When I went up to the counter, he was talking to the receptionist and I told them I was the new night maintenance man. I asked them, “Where do I go?” She told Ronnie to show me to the basement where the maintenance shop was and show me around the studio. This was during my six-week stint at Record Plant Studios. From that night on, Ronnie would hang out with me and run downstairs to go get me a screwdriver or anything that I would need. I thought he worked for Record Plant,but come to find out, the receptionist was his wife and she was cheating on him with Phil Spector. He was only helping me to try and catch them in the act. As it turns out, Ronnie and I became fast friends. And when the album came out, he came over and picked up some copies. Bob Cranshaw was working with Stevie Wonder on the show on Fire Island. This was around May 20, and Stevie had just turned twenty-one on May 13. This is very important, because at the age of twenty-one, you’re no longer a minor and any contracts you made before the age of twenty-one are null and void. So he was no longer under contract with Motown, and, more importantly, he was no longer under contract with Motown’s publishing company, which had one hundred percent of his publishing. When he turned twenty-one, he came to New York to work on Fire Island and, as luck would have it, Bob Cranshaw brought my friend Ronnie in as a sub for him because he had a conflicting engagement.
Ronnie went down there and took our Tonto’s Expanding Head Band album, Zero Time, to Stevie. He told Stevie to listen to the album and that it was one instrument played by a keyboard. On Memorial Day weekend of that year—and the reason why I remember it is because it was so hot that year—I was working at Media Sound Studios trying to fix Felix Pappalardi’sMellotron. I lived on the third floor, and it was over top the studio. I was on call 24/7 back then. I heard a ring at the door, and as usual, I stuck my head out of the window to see who it was, and it was Ronnie standing there with this Black guy in a pistachio jump suit, who seemed to be holding our album underneath his arm. Ronnie says, “Hey, come on down, Malcolm! Bring the keys to the studio. I’ve got someone here that wants to see TONTO.” I told him, “Okay! Let me throw something on.” I put on a T-shirt and a pair of shorts and grabbed the studio keys. I walked down the three-flight walkup and I opened the door. And Ronnie said, “Hey, man. This is Stevie Wonder. He wants to see the synthesizer.” Stevie asked me, “Hey, man. Did you make this album?” I said, “Yes, I did. It was me and my partner Bob.” And he said, “Hey, man. Is this a keyboard instrument?” I told him, “Yes, it has a keyboard and knobs and lots of patchchords.” He said, “Show me.”
So he takes my elbow and I escort him to the studio. We went down to the studio and I showed him the instrument. I put his hands over it and he realized that it wasn’t something that he could easily play. He tried to play it, but he couldn’t get it to sound like a normal keyboard, because in those days you could only get one note at a time. He asked me, “What is wrong with this keyboard?” I told him, “That’s how it works. It only plays one note at a time.” And then he got it. He asked me if we could record. I went upstairs and got my test tape and we put it on the two-inch machine. At this time, the Moog had been moved to Studio B in the basement. We ended up recording the entire weekend. I had to break into the tape store, and I had no authority to do it, but I did it anyway. I told Stevie, “Someone is going to have to pay for this tape at least.” He said, “Oh, don’t worry. I just got money put into my trust fund from Motown because I just turned twenty-one. I don’t have any contracts.” He explained the whole thing. He told Bob and me that he wanted us to be musical directors for his company and to help him get his music out there. He liked working with us, and we liked working with him. We got seventeen songs done that first weekend. And that’s how it all started.
It seems the three of you had an instant creative connection. Do you believe it was one of the reasons why Innervisions became incredibly successful and historic?
We just started making songs that day. Stevie told us much later that he had $3.1 million owed to him by Motown, and he actually got $100,000 in his account. That $100,000 is what he lived on and what we made Music of My Mind and Talking Book with. He lived on that through that time frame. Stevie, Bob, and I all believed that there was a spiritual realm to music. But each of us had a different view of it. To Stevie, it was Jesus. It was how he was brought up in the church through playing gospel music. He talks about Transcendental Meditation in Innervisions. He doesn’t knock it or say it’s a bad thing. Just listen to “Jesus Children in America.” It was all about belief. It was all about spirituality. We all had that spiritual thing in common. In addition to the social consciousness, you bring spirituality into it, you bring the love into it, then you bring the musicality into it, then the art into it, then the engineering perfection, then the constant attention to detail, and that’s when you get an album like Innervisions.
For Talking Book, Robert Margouleff discussed the set studio routine you all had with Stevie. What was the studio routine for Innervisions?
We were on Stevie time. Stevie came in when he felt like it. If he wasn’t there, we would do what we would call “library work.” We would go back and organize tunes. We would figure out what needed to be done and write down ideas. We would create test tracks of ideas we had. We would make suggestions and make lists of things. There was always plenty to do. By this time, we were working full time at Record Plant Studios in L.A. I used to read Stevie his lines a half a line ahead of time. I don’t know how he did it, but he would still keep singing his line and listen to me because he couldn’t read the lyrics. The problem we would have was headphone leakage. You could hear me say the line through the microphone so what we would do is put styrofoam cups packed with sponge rubber around his headphones to drown out the sound of my voice. But you can actually hear my voice in a couple of places on this record. We tried to mix it out, but we couldn’t. Stevie would be the one to control his own vocal, and then we would control all the instruments behind him. The Moog doesn’t have dynamics. We had to put all that in with part of the mixing and part of the recording. It was very artfully done. It was difficult to do. Other people couldn’t do it. I came up with a joystick controller, which solved the tuning problem on Moog synthesizers that everybody else had. It solved it in a cheap way. We were ahead of our time. We did what we had to do. The ends justified the means in terms of getting the right sounds and getting the music out there. With Stevie, every song was different in a good way. The way Bob and I would resolve issues is that he would take one point of view and I’d take the other, and we’d give each other the wink. He would hold fast to his argument, and I’d hold fast to my argument. Then we would turn to Stevie and we’d ask him, “What do you think, Stevie?” And that’s how we got stuff done. We were a team.
During the three-year period you worked with Stevie, it is regarded as his classic period. Going from Talking Book to Innervisions, what type of direction were you trying to go in with the album’s message and its sound?
Well, what I was trying to do was to get Stevie to write more socially conscious songs. That was always my creative push. I would read him excerpts from George Orwell books. I would discuss principles of money and the Federal Reserve and how it came to be. We would discuss war and peace. We would discuss things such as Transcendental Meditation, Tai-Chi, which I was just getting into at that time, and Eastern philosophy. We would have these far-ranging discussions.There were words involved with everything, and it just wasn’t about music. In Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, we only had music, and we experimented with different musical sounds. I came from an arranging and orchestral background. My technical background is vast and so is my musical background. With Stevie, we had this added dimension of words and lyrics that could be about anything you wanted. Most of the things people related to were love songs. The tough songs to get across were socially conscious songs such as “Living for the City” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All.” Stevie ran the gamut in terms of lyrics and that’s what made this record so important. We didn’t have a specific theme in mind. It just all came together. We had a friendly challenge going on in the studio. We pushed each other to be better. It was a healthy competition. We were building something together.
Can you take me through the process of making each song from the album?
“Too High” was recorded on April 17, 1972. The original title for this song was “Too High to Touch the Sky.” We recorded the vocal alongside the Fender Rhodes. On the next day, we added the drums to the track, and we decided to not use the original. We had Stevie doing the harmonies. We had the phase tracks going. We had the girls singing backgrounds. We had Stevie playing the harmonica. Stevie was doing all his lead vocals. We had the lead vocals combined. We had one track free out of sixteen tracks. We had two tracks of backgrounds. We had one track for the harmonica and the combined vocals. The final mix for this song happened on April 24. I was talking to Stevie, telling him about the different ways he could build chords. We were talking about building chords in fours and fifths. It was really jazzy. I was doing chromatic movements, and he just took it to a whole other place. He got it right away, and then he gave it to the girls to sing as a vocal, which is something I would’ve never thought of. See, that’s how we would do things. I would suggest something, and he would take it to another level. And I loved it. We had a great working relationship. We never disagreed about anything artistic ever.
“Visions” was originally done for his wife Syreeta. That was a live track. It was the only track I played upright bass on. I played bass on a couple other tracks, but they’ve never been released. This was an acoustic track done live in one pass with Dean Parks, David T. Walker, Stevie, and myself on January 17, 1973. We put vocals down on April 5, 1973. We mixed it at 1:30 a.m. on April 6, 1973. Stevie played me the bass line, which was quite complex in a difficult key. At that time, we hadn’t move to L.A. yet. I didn’t have my bass with me, so we rented a bass from Studio Instrument Rentals, and I bought a new set of Thomastik strings and put them on there. And that’s the bass I used in the session.
“Living for the City” was cut on December 5, 1972. We put the last track on there on April 20, 1973. The first thing we put down on it was the electric piano and Stevie’s vocal. Then we put the Moog bass on the next day. We put the drums, five harps, first overdub, and vocals on it on December 8. We left it alone until April 20. We added background vocals and varied the speed of the tape so it didn’t sound like Stevie. We had three background vocals, which we sped up to make it sound like someone else. He would record the vocal, and we would slow the machine down and he would sing it in that key. Then, we would turn the machine back up and his voice would sound much higher. And we did the reverse to make his voice sound lower. Everything on there is done by Stevie. That’s the amazing thing about the record. He’s the only one on there. It was just him and TONTO. I really love the vignette we put on there. It reminded me of my days at the BBC.
This song was a milestone not only in life, but in the relationship between Stevie and me. I believe that it was the turning point for our relationship. It came about because I was seeking too much perfection, and I overstepped the bounds as Stevie saw them. It set off some friction, and I don’t think it has ever completely gone away. For what it’s worth, I still think it was worth it when we were making the song. I wish he hadn’t taken it so personally though. Up until then, we had been producing everything as a team. I started to get pushy, much like one of his old Motown producers had done to him in the past. I realized after the fact that it wasn’t smart, because that’s what he was getting away from. I understood why he took umbrage with me when I did that instead of nursing him along as usual. When I started stopping the tape during the middle of takes, which I never did, it made him angry. I did that because he wasn’t sounding angry enough at the end of the fourth verse. Plus, the beginning of the bad business thing was happening. There was a lot of lawyering going on in the background, and there were a lot of outside forces that were trying to force us apart. Motown was a part of it. The newfound friends Stevie acquired due to his success were another part of it. It took me six weeks to edit the album.
“Golden Lady” was started on August 24, 1972, and the final mix was done on April 8, 1973. We had one track of Clarence Bell on organ. And we overdubbed Stevie’s lead vocal on the other track. Ralph Hammer was on guitar and Stevie played the piano. We had five tracks of drums and that was a lot of drums, but it was needed for this song. Normally, we only had three tracks of drums. We had Larry “Nastyee” Latimer on congas. He was a Nigerian friend of ours and he came in to play congas on the record live. He was pushing the track like crazy. I think that was part of the reason it was speeding up besides the key change.
“Higher Ground” was originally titled “Until I Reach My Highest Ground.” That was all put down in one shot, pretty much. There were some overdubs, but it was recorded in record time. This was done on May 12, 1973. It was a funky track. I loved that one. We had three clavinets on there. Kids today have to love the whole chorus we made for that song. The backing track alone is a gift to sound. [laughs] It’s just so funky. Stevie played the clavinet by patting on the keyboard to get that sound. I loved it.
“Jesus Children of America” was recorded on March 28, 1973. We put that down all in one session. Stevie played all the instruments on this song as well. We laid down the Moog bass first then the drums, bass, tambourine, two clavinets, and the Fender Rhodes. We did the vocals on April 3. As you can see, I’ve taken meticulous records with the work we did with Stevie. See, this is the difference when we left; Stevie lost all that. No one did that for him anymore. His record keeping is all over the place. I’ve got three binders full of songs we did with Stevie. I haven’t counted them, but I’m sure there were fifty songs released and another two hundred that were unreleased that I knew about.
“All in Love Is Fair” was something else. Wow. It was such a beautiful song. We started this song on November 10, 1972 at 2:30 a.m. We had Stevie on piano and Scott Edwards on guitar. We recorded a reference vocal of him and Scott. On April 3, 1973, we added the electric piano, more vocals, and some more drums. We did the electric piano over again on the next day because we didn’t like how it sounded before. We made his four-vocal track into one final composite vocal track. We mixed it on April 8. I love the piano on that song.
“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”—we started on this on August 22, 1972. It was originally a piano and a vocal, then we added the Moog bass on there. We had some shakers, cow bells, bongos, and Latin stuff. We put down lead vocals on April 24, 1973, and more vocals on May 25, 1973. I have a note here that they filled out W-4 sheets and contracts. See, Dennis was in the office all day long taking care of business stuff. My wife, Poli, was taking care of the library. We had a full-time tech named Ulysses S. Grant who was a great guy. He was building panels and modules for TONTO to my specifications while I was in the studio with Stevie and Bob. We had Jan, who was a wiring lady who did all the big cables that connected all the various elements of TONTO together. It took her a year in a half to do it. We had a full set of people. Charles Terrell built the small cases for the keyboards, Harry Sanger built the three big cabinets, and John Storyk was the architect. So we were paying out a lot of money to a lot of people. There was a huge support staff behind Stevie. We were only with Stevie for three years, and we had an incredible output of material.
“He’s Misstra Know It All”—what a title for this record. We started this one on April 5, 1973. We put down a stereo piano, and Stevie did some vocals. He put down drums, as well as an overdub that day. On April 6, we put down the harp and background vocals. We combined a bunch of background vocals together to make a little more space for more tracks. We put down three overdubs for Moog horns, and we mixed it on April 8. This whole track came together in three days. This song was another socially conscious song. It was about people that will rip you off in life.
As you look forty years later, you can see how much influence this album has made on popular culture. What are your feelings about the success you achieved with it and its lasting legacy as one of the top albums ever recorded?
I feel very good about making this album. I feel the impact it has made on popular culture was very positive. I think it influenced a lot of people. I know it brought electronic instruments into the popular realm because of Stevie. I’m almost certain of it. For someone who is unsighted, he could paint a vivid picture with his words. He had remarkable vision and insight. He was a very talented guy. He was a genius arranger of music. Making this album was one of the best periods of my life. I feel fortunate and grateful to have been a part of it all. I’m so pleased with the results of the album. People are still talking about it forty years later. What else can you ask for? We’ve touched so many lives with this album. Aside from Stevie, Bob and I are the only people who were awarded individual Grammys for anything to do with Stevie’s records ever. I think that speaks for itself. Stevie has always been the focus and rightly so. It’s about his genius and creativity. But it was fun working with him. And when the three of us were together, it was real fun. We really felt like we were changing the world. Stevie was very much into John Lennon. He believed through music we could change things for the better.