TIR 63: Robert Margouleff Lifts Curtain on Wizards Behind Stevie Wonder’s Masterworks

Robert Margouleff (left) with Malcolm Cecil and the TONTO super synthesizer used on Stevie Wonder’s early 1970s albums.

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Brought to you by FUNKNSTUFF.NET and hosted by Scott Goldfine — musicologist and author of “Everything Is on THE ONE: The First Guide of Funk” ― “TRUTH IN RHYTHM” is the interview show that gets DEEP into the pocket with contemporary music’s foremost masters of the groove.

Featured in TIR Episode 63 (two segments): Innovative music producer and engineer Robert Margouleff, who along with collaborator Malcolm Cecil spent the first half of the 1970s helping Stevie Wonder record some of the most treasured soul, funk and pop creations of all time. That period includes Wonder’s masterpieces Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness: First Finale, which included classic songs such as “Superwoman,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition,” “Maybe Your Baby,” “Living for the City,” “Higher Ground,” “Jesus Children of America,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” “You Haven’t Done Nothing,” “Creepin’” and “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away.” Drop the needle, laser or click anywhere on those four astounding albums and you’ll find a classic composition and heart-stopping performance.

Never has a recording artist been more at the top of his or her game than Wonder during this stretch. But as mentioned, even though they toiled in relative anonymity for much of ensuing decades, he had some very special help.

According to Wikipedia: By helping Stevie Wonder develop many new textures and sounds never heard before, Margouleff and Cecil played a major role in bringing synthesizers to the forefront of popular music. As an influential electronic music duo called Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, they recorded the 1971 album Zero Time, attracting attention from many other leading artists of that era to the newly emerging music technology. Among the heads that record turned was Wonder’s. After hearing it at a time when he was really looking to establish himself as a solo artist out from under Motown’s shadow, Wonder sought the duo out. Together they then collaborated using the Tonto apparatus.

TONTO was an acronym for “The Original New Timbral Orchestra,” the first, and still the largest, multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer in the world, designed and constructed over several years by Cecil. TONTO started as a Moog modular synthesizer Series III owned by Margouleff. Later a second Moog III was added, then four Oberheim SEMs, two ARP 2600s, modules from Serge with Moog-like panels, EMS, Roland, Yamaha, etc. plus several custom modules. Later, digital sound-generation circuitry and a collection of sequencers were added, along with MIDI control.

All of that was housed in an instantly recognizable semi-circle of huge curving wooden cabinets, 20 feet in diameter and 6 feet tall. It can be seen on the cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s album called 1980. Margouleff also worked with and produced music with Billy Preston, Devo, Jeff Beck, Robin Trower, David Sanborn, Depeche Mode, Oingo Boingo, The Doobie Brothers, Quincy Jones, Bobby Womack, The Isley Brothers, Weather Report, Stephen Stills, Dave Mason, Little Feat, Joan Baez, Paul Rodgers and many others.

Here, Margouleff reveals how he gravitated toward a career in music production and engineering; the magical and mystical time working with Wonder; subsequent disappointment at not receiving due recognition, not to mention compensation; some of the other artists he has worked with; his perspectives on music technology and its effect on human beings; how he continues to push the ambient music and audio engineering envelope; and why he wishes Wonder would return to making socially charged music again to help us through today’s challenging times.

Recorded July 2018

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