Malcolm Cecil obituary | Electronic music

When Stevie Wonder met Malcolm Cecil at a New York recording studio one May weekend in 1971, he was holding a copy of Zero Time, the album of electronic music that Cecil and Bob Margouleff had just released under the name of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. A couple of weeks away from his 21st birthday, Wonder was looking for a way to establish his musical independence. Cecil invited him in, demonstrated the newly developed Moog synthesisers with which they were working, and began a relationship that would help transform Wonder, already a successful soul singer, into an international superstar.

Cecil, who has died aged 84, was an English musician who had once been the double bassist in the house band at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. But it was his other vocation, as a recording-studio technician, that took him to New York and a partnership with Margouleff, a sound-effects expert.

The pair were thrust into prominence by their role in the sequence of albums with which Wonder freed himself from the artistic restrictions imposed by executives at Motown, his record label. Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, released in the period 1972-74, yielded such hit singles as Superstition, You Are the Sunshine of My Life and Living for the City, all of them enriched by the use of synthesised sounds. As a result, other leading artists came to them for a sonic update. Cecil and Margouleff worked on the Isley Brothers’ hit single That Lady (1973), and on recordings by Gil Scott-Heron, Syreeta Wright, Quincy Jones, Bobby Womack, Minnie Riperton, Weather Report and many others.

Stevie Wonder’s Sunshine of My Life, showing the influence of Malcolm Cecil’s synthesised sounds

Born in London to parents who were divorced when he was two years old, Cecil had a mother, Edna Cecil, who was a successful professional accordionist, and a father who gave up a musical career to manage artists. Malcolm studied piano as a child, switched to drums at 13 and took up the double bass at 15. Soon he was playing in the bands of the saxophonist Don Rendell, the pianist Dill Jones and the drummer Tony Crombie, while studying physics at the London Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster) in the daytime. At 20 he was a founder member of the Jazz Couriers, a quintet jointly led by Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott.

National service as an RAF radar technician took him first to Somerset and then to the north-east of England, where he started a club in Newcastle upon Tyne, the Downbeat, with a local promoter, Mike Jeffrey, who later became Jimi Hendrix’s manager. He also joined a local group, the EmCee Five, featuring the Carr brothers, pianist Mike and trumpeter Ian. Back in London after being demobbed in 1961, he became a member of the Peter King Quartet, the Harry KleinVic Ash Jazz Five (who toured the UK with Miles Davis), Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, and the band in the London production of The Connection, Jack Gelber’s play about junkies. With the Stan Tracey Trio, he backed many visiting American stars at Ronnie Scott’s, including Stan Getz and Roland Kirk. He was also appointed principal bass with the BBC Radio Orchestra.

Once serious lung problems had restricted his playing engagements, he began to concentrate on electronics, installing sound systems in clubs. In 1967, having been told he had only three years to live, he and his wife, Poli, moved briefly to South Africa for the clean air and warm climate, but the problematic experience of trying to set up mixed-race concerts induced them to move on.

A year in Los Angeles, setting up a studio for the singer Pat Boone, was followed by a move to New York. There Cecil played gigs with the guitarist Jim Hall while working as a technician at the Record Plant studio. He also met Margouleff, who was looking for someone who knew how to programme the Moog III analog synthesiser installed in a basement studio called Media Sound. After installing a 16-track system there, on which Cecil engineered T Rex’s Electric Warrior album (1971), they transferred the equipment to Hendrix’s Electric Lady studios, now managed, after the guitarist’s death, by Jeffrey.

Malcolm Cecil, right, and Robert Margouleff performing live as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band in 1974.
Malcolm Cecil, right, and Robert Margouleff performing live as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band in 1974. Photograph: Michael Ochs/Getty Images

Tonto, standing for The Original New Timbral Orchestra, was given its name after a second Moog and various other synthesisers, sequencers and keyboards had been added to make music resembling a psychedelically reimagined version of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Doctor Who theme. In the hands of Cecil and Margouleff, both of whom looked like hippies, electronic sounds became more than the kitsch novelty they had seemed a couple of years earlier when Wendy (then Walter) Carlos used an early Moog on a bestselling album called Switched On Bach. On one piece from the Zero Time album, called Riversong, Cecil tuned the instrument to a 17-tone octave.

The duo’s collaboration with Wonder was close and creatively intimate. “To work together the way the three of us did, we had to live inside his mind, and he in ours, too,” Cecil told Mark Ribowsky, Wonder’s biographer. “And Stevie really did depend on us to make it right. We weren’t just the guys who ran the synthesiser.” In 1973 they moved the Tonto equipment to Los Angeles and were so obsessive about sound that they recorded the string arrangements for Wonder’s tracks in London because, as Cecil explained to the singer, the violin players all had instruments that were more than 100 years old.

The duo’s work with Wonder ended in 1975 after a dispute over whether they should be paid royalties they believed they had been promised. That year Cecil and Margouleff also split up, the Englishman buying out his partner’s share in the project and moving it to Santa Monica. He remained involved in developing technology and in later years taught music at a community college near his home in Malden-on-Hudson in upstate New York.

His work was done, in the sense that the perception of synthesisers had been transformed, and eventually he supervised the reinstallation of Tonto in Canada’s National Music Centre in Calgary, where it is housed as a working exhibit alongside the equipment from the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio and one of Elton John’s pianos.

He is survived by Poli and their son, Milton.

Malcolm Ian Cecil, musician, born 9 January 1937; died 28 March 2021

Updated: April 3, 2021 — 5:01 am

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