Engineer Malcolm Cecil speaks on the Isley Brothers’ classic 1973 album 3 + 3
Almost twenty years before they would release their first platinum selling album, the Isley Brothers formed as a quartet in Cincinnati, Ohio in the mid-1950s, consisting of O’Kelly, Rudy, Ronald, and Vernon Isley. Before achieving any success as a group, Vernon Isley died under tragic circumstances making the group a trio. Despite this setback, through the late 1950s to the late 1960s, the group signed recording contracts with then RCA Victor Records (now RCA Records), Wand Records, and United Artists Records (now Universal Records), discovered guitar maestro Jimi Hendrix, launched and folded their own record label T-Neck Records, and accepted an offer to record albums for Tamla Records. During this time, they recorded a couple hit records such as: “Shout” and “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You),” but as the 1960s came to a close, the collective left Tamla Records and expanded their trio into a legitimate R&B band, with the incorporation of the three youngest family members, including siblings: Ernie and Marvin Isley and brother-in-law, Chris Jasper.
In 1969, they decided to resurrect their T-Neck Records imprint and released five albums: It’s Our Thing and The Brothers: Isley (1969), Get into Something (1970), Givin’ It Back (1971), and Brother, Brother, Brother (1972). On the last two albums, the youngest members of the group began to experiment with their overall sound, thus asserting their musical influence. Due the success of the aforementioned albums, the group signed a new record distribution deal with Epic Records in 1973. Shortly thereafter, they sought out the services of legendary engineering and producing tandem, Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, in effort to take their sound to another level. As a result, they collaborated and created an aptly titled album, 3 + 3, reflecting the newly formed six man ensemble. On August 7, 1973, 3 +3 would be released by T-Neck/Epic Records. The album would spawn three hit singles: “That Lady,” “What It Comes Down To,” and the remake of Jim Seals and Dash Crofts’s record “Summer Breeze.” In observance of Black Music Month, we spoke with legendary engineer Malcolm Cecil about his role in constructing this timeless recording.
When did you and Robert Margouleff first start working with the group on this album?
Malcolm Cecil: They called us looking to find out if we could do for them what we’d done for Stevie Wonder. We discussed a few things, and they came into the studio and worked with us for six weeks on this project. They were rehearsed when they came in. They weren’t writing in the studio like Stevie was doing, and they didn’t need any of the type of special treatment that Stevie was receiving. They weren’t interested in giving us any percentages or production deals. They said to us, “We just want to pay you to do the engineering and synthesizer programming. How much will it cost us?” So we quoted them the same price as Stevie, which was really low money for the time. In retrospect, it was a stupid thing we did because we didn’t know the material would still be getting played forty or fifty years later. At the time, I didn’t care, and I was trying my best to help them get their message out. The experience of working with them was much different than working with Stevie. Many of their songs dealt with personal things such as breakups and cover versions of songs, quite nice versions. It afforded us the opportunity to use the synthesizer on a couple things, but we weren’t looking at it like it was going to be this earth shattering thing because they were one of many dozens of people we recorded during that period.
Were they splitting recording time with Stevie Wonder in the same studio or were they recording at a separate studio?
We did everything in Studio B at the Record Plant. I think Stevie might have been on tour for most of this recording process, but it is possible that he was around for a session or two. There were a lot of interactions. We may have worked with a Stevie for a day or two between working with the Isley Brothers. It is highly possible that the group walked in when Stevie was recording “Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing.” We worked every day with them for six weeks. There were other people we were recording around the same time: Joan Baez, James Taylor, Stephen Stills, Dave Mason from Traffic, George Harrison, and Minnie Riperton. We were flying high at that time. We had the only playable musical synthesizer.
You mentioned earlier that the group came into the studio well-rehearsed. This was the first album where all the brothers were members of the group and integral pieces in constructing it. When they were working in the studio together, who usually took the lead in directing the group?
Well, the older brothers in the group were the vocalists. Ronnie was the prime vocalist and Rudy was the secondary vocalist. Ronnie Isley was the vocal star. Ernie, Chris, and Marvin were the rhythm section. We hired a drummer named George Moreland to come in and play on the songs. They worked everything out beforehand. This is the reason why they didn’t want to give us any production credit because they had spent months rehearsing the songs in their small rehearsal space. They just needed the songs recorded properly and produced professionally. Their story is very different from the stuff we did with Stevie. They just wanted to use the synthesizer and our expertise and to treat us as work for hire. That’s how it was. I did my best to make them sound as good as possible.
Ernie’s guitar sounded terrible when he first came to the studio, so I took him to Roger Mayer who was a very old friend of mine. He was the guy I used to hang out with in London at radio surplus stores when we were in our teens. We had to be thirteen or fourteen years old at the time. He had become Jimi Hendrix’s guitar tech, but not only did he tweak his Stratocaster, he also built a little box called the Octavia, which made the instrument sound notches higher than normal. It could go to a screaming sound in addition to the feedback Hendrix used. Well, Ernie wasn’t so much into the feedback, but he was very much into the screaming high notes. So I took him to Roger Mayer and Roger built him an Octavia and taught him how to use it. He took his Stratocaster and completely rebuilt the action, so that it was the same as Jimi’s. The first day he got his guitar back, he played that solo on “That Lady.” The guitar was sounding better than it ever did in his experience of using it. Plus, we were recording it beautifully. He was on cloud nine. He kept going and going and going. [laughs] They put the song out as two halves, as I recall. “That Lady (Pt. 1)” has the vocal on it and part two has that tremendously long, famous guitar solo on it. Ernie was the youngest, most impressionable, and serious. He kept calling me sir and stuff like that. He was totally enamored with what we were doing. He was into all the studio stuff. He wanted to find out everything that was going on.
Marvin was like a big bear. He played really good bass notes. Chris was very clinical. He played the keyboards very well but clinically. He didn’t have a jazzy feel like Stevie did. If you listen to the synthesizer packages on the record, everything is worked out. He knew exactly what he wanted to play. He worked on it for ages. He wasn’t coming up with those lines on the spot. O’Kelly was the eldest brother. He kept everyone in check. He was the boss. He signed the work orders and gave us instructions on what we were going to be working on the next day. He sang backgrounds with Rudy. Sometimes the younger guys would get in to do backgrounds when they needed more voices. Ronnie did most of the lead vocals with Rudy doing a couple of them. “Listen to the Music” was a good song, but I don’t think it was theirs. They were doing cover versions of songs, and I liked them. I really liked their remake of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.” Ronnie Isley was an exceptional singer. I have to say that. Rudy had his place, too. They were three entirely different characters. O’Kelly was very business-like. He had long, curved nails. He would sit there and mess with his fingers. Rudy was always trying to prove himself. At their gigs, he’d be the one to carry their money, so he had a license to carry a Magnum 357. The only place where he could shoot it off was at a FBI shooting range. When we were in the studio, he’d tell me countless stories of how he bumped into these FBI agents and all these convoluted spy type of things, but I didn’t believe a word of it. [laughs]
What was the regular studio routine during the recording process of this album?
Their process was very professional. They would show up and they knew exactly what they were going to do. The rhythm section would show up, and we’d cut the rhythm track. Maybe do two or three. One by one people would come in and lay down their parts. We went from nothing being on the tape to everything being mixed within the course of six weeks. There were nine songs on the album, and we would work on one or two songs and go through them and do all the lines that were needed. We went track by track and put down vocals. Everything we pre-rehearsed. There was no spontaneity in the studio. The only spontaneity was Ernie’s solos. Chris knew exactly what he had to play. He’d play it the same every time. He had everything worked out before coming to the studio. They always conducted themselves in a professional manner. They were all about getting the music done in the least amount of time because they were paying for studio time. They never argued with us if we wanted to change something. Their focus was on getting it done.
O’Kelly was laid back, soft spoken, and all the brothers listened to him. There were no questions, arguments, or theatrics in the studio with them, but there was excitement, mainly from the younger guys. Ernie was the real excitement in the room. He was bubbling over with energy and joyfulness. He finally had a guitar that sounded like Jimi [Hendrix]. He told us when he was nine years old, Jimi used to play with his brothers’ band. Jimi would come off stage and give him his guitar and say, “Okay. This is how you play because one of these days you’re going to be up there playing with your brothers.” For Ernie, it was like the fulfillment of a prophecy that Jimi Hendrix had given him. He happened to run into me, and I happened to know Roger Mayer who was Jimi Hendrix’s tech and I was able to put them together. It was huge for him. It changed his life. Marvin was a big ole bear. I loved Marvin. He was a real journeyman bass player. He played all the right notes and played them right on time. He had a good sound, and he was steady. Chris was the only one in the group that was clinical. I wish he would’ve loosened up more. He was very quiet and didn’t have a lot to say. It all worked out, though.
As engineers, what equipment did you and Robert Margouleff use to capture the overall sound quality for this album?
At Record Plant in Studio B, we used a standard API console with monitors. I can’t remember if it had a 48- or 56-channel input board. We already had the studio revved up for Stevie’s work. We knew the control room inside and out. The whole studio was ours. TONTO was in the back of the isolation booth at the back of Studio B. We owned Studio B for two long years during 1972 to 1974. They completely rebuilt the studio for us. They put a complete top on the control room. They extended the control room exactly eight feet higher in the air. It went from 8 feet to 16 feet. The only thing up there were bass traps. It was full of bass traps. There were four speakers that we had specially put in. The back two stuck out into the corridor. We had to put sponge rubber corners on them because people kept banging their heads on them. [laughs] That was our quad playback. We used playback at a tremendously high level. Each monitor had two fifteen inch speakers in it angled at each other. So we had a total of eight 15-inch speakers pumping out the bass into that tiny room. That’s why we had to have the bass traps. The whole ceiling was a bass trap. This was the control room. The studio itself was about twelve or thirteen feet high, and we had some special ceiling treatment put in there by John Storyk. At the backend of the studio, there were some glass doors. Behind the glass doors, there was TONTO and two more speakers! And that was it. This is where Bob and I lived for that entire period. We did the same for everybody. We would record them to the best of our abilities.
Take me into the collaboration process that existed between you, Robert Margouleff, and the group inside the studio.
We would spell each other at the board once things were set up. Usually, I did most of the setups, and I did most of the engineering. Bob provided mostly support. I was responsible more for the recording when there was more than one musician. Bob was more skilled on the production end of things. He would listen to the music intently and make comments on what could be improved. I was doing the motor and microphone work. Bob did most of the vocal recordings because he was a vocals guy. He really understood vocals. He got some really good vocals out of Ronnie and Rudy. We pulled our weight in different ways. When it came to mixing, we did what we could. It was done in the days before automation, when the automation was called Armstrong automation. In other words, you used your hands and your arms. [laughs] We had a technique where we would leave the two track running and we would run the 24-track to a mix, as we were on the seat our pants, until we got to a point where we screwed up, then we’d back up and leave the two track running and back up the multitrack and go before where we made the mistake just to see if we could go a little bit further to keep on doing that (leaving the two track running) and then edit all the bits of the two track that were good together to make the mix. That’s how we used to do it. The doubling of the bass line with the synthesizer is where Chris’s clinical precision came in handy. You can’t tell in a lot of places that it was both Marvin and TONTO’s bass playing at the same time. This was the intent. The idea was to make it like a bass sound. It didn’t care who played what instrument.
Was their desire of using TONTO one of the main reasons why the group reached out to you and Robert Margouleff to begin working with you all?
Well, they listened to Stevie’s records and heard TONTO. Apparently, the younger brothers told the older brothers that this was the new sound, and they had to find these guys which were Bob and I. The three youngest brothers were the motivators in getting O’Kelly to get in touch with us. They heard our records and the power and sound of TONTO. They told us, “We want to sound like Stevie, but we have our own music.” They weren’t just after the synthesizer, they were after the whole TONTO production principle. It included the way we went from song to song. If you listen to the album or even the CD, they kept the order of the songs and the pacing between the songs the exact way we did it. That was done very purposefully. We didn’t stop until the whole album was finished. The order of the songs were important because of the technical aspects.
What we were trying to do was exactly what we were trying to do with Stevie—in many ways—which was to make the technology disappear but still be available to them. That was the trick we used with everybody. They didn’t know how or why we did it. They weren’t interested in the how or why. They didn’t care about how long it took for us to get something together. They were patient enough to let us do our thing. Sometimes, there was coaching involved. I had to coach Chris Jasper on how to play the synthesizer. He had never encountered a Moog synthesizer where you had to lift your finger off before you could put it down again. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make a sound. He was a much disciplined piano player, so he had no problem playing that way. He learned really quickly. What we were looking for was the hope that people wouldn’t press the eject button or lift the needle off the record until it came to the end. This is how we approached doing the music for this album.
Can you discuss your process of pacing and sequencing this album?
Well, I didn’t have a formula per se. I looked at the keys, sentiments, tempos, and the energy of the song. When you’re cutting for vinyl, you wanted to have a ballad at the end of each side because you lose high end toward the center of the vinyl disc. It’s just a physical fact we had to deal with, so trying to put on a really heavy duty rocking track at the end of a side was not going to work. Technology has been affecting music since the beginning of the recording process. It was nothing new to us.
As you look back on the impact this album made on popular culture, what are your feelings about the vital role you had in shaping the classic songs on it?
Well, I’m very pleased to see and hear that these songs are still being played. Does it really matter if people know or don’t know if I was involved in making this music? The answer is not a chance. It doesn’t make a difference to my bank account balance. It doesn’t do anything for me. It doesn’t help me buy a loaf of bread or pay my electric bill. [laughs] I’m just happy to have been a part of it. It was a joy and pleasure to work with the Isley Brothers.
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