A room-sized sonic box of tricks caught the young star’s ear in 1971 and it would become a vital ingredient in a run of legendary albums. But first he would have to throw off the shackles of his record company
Zero Time is an experimental album from the summer of 1971 that few people heard on release. Even today, it is a curio that is likely to draw baffled expressions from all but the most trainspotterish of music history devotees.
The album was made by a British-American electronic music duo known as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. It was in effect a showcase for Tonto, a room-sized multitimbral, polyphonic synthesiser built by the two members of the band, Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margouleff.
Synthesisers were very much in their infancy in the early ’70s, but Cecil and Margouleff were keen to demonstrate the extraordinary sounds they could deliver with their creation, The Original New Timbral Orchestra (to give it its full title). With the pair working, mainly, on music for TV commercials, they wanted a sonic box of tricks that would put them well ahead of the competition.
Shortly after Zero Time’s release, an unexpected visitor arrived at their Manhattan studio, a former church. It was Stevie Wonder, clutching a copy of the album. The blind Motown star was already a big deal in 1971 and he was keen to hear just what Tonto was capable of.
He was brought to the studio basement where the monstrous synthesiser was installed and his hands were guided on to all its switches and keyboards and joysticks so he could ‘see’ the sheer scale of the device.
“This is the instrument that made all the sounds on your record?” he asked his hosts. “All of them?”
Wonder was told that every note, mysterious and otherwise, had been created in this very room. When learning that a Steinway piano and a full drum-kit were also in the studio, he decided he wanted to record his new album there — and so enthused was he at the prospect of transforming his sound that he set to work straight away.
In Seventies, Howard Sounes’ absorbing book on the rich culture of a daring decade, he writes about the homemade synthesiser’s transformative effect on Wonder. “Stevie marvelled at the way Tonto’s keyboards seemed to change under his fingertips,” he writes. “The mechanism was absolutely standard; nothing magical about it; the usual number of black and white keys. But by Bob and Malcolm programming Tonto, the sounds that emerged in response to the pressure Stevie exerted on those keys were so varied in timbre and pitch, it was as if he was playing an endlessly changeable instrument.”
Cecil and Margouleff were involved in Wonder’s new music from the off, happy to work through the night as was his wont at the time. Years later, Margouleff recalled what it was that made the musician so special. “First of all, you immediately recognised his genius. All you have to do is be in the studio with him for 30 minutes to understand his total genius. God just came down and put his thumbprint right on his forehead.”
Stevland Hardaway Morris was a child prodigy. Having signalled an extraordinary ability from his earliest years, he signed — with his mother’s blessing — a deal with the Motown label when he was just 11. It wasn’t yet the hugely influential record label it would become, but it was still an eye-catching deal. His disability didn’t seem to have any impact on his music and his new stage name, Stevie Wonder, could hardly have been more apt.
By the age of 14, in 1964, Little Stevie Wonder (as he was initially billed) was such a big deal that the fledgling Rolling Stones supported him on tour. But as the 1960s wore on, he felt increasingly ill-treated by Motown, believing that the contract he had signed as a child was not a fair reflection of his talents.
As he approached his 21st birthday in 1971, he began to plan for when he would be free of the creatively stifling deal. Now he would be able to get to make the music he truly wanted to make.
On May 13, Motown supremo Berry Gordy threw a birthday party for Wonder in Motown’s home city of Detroit. The next day, Gordy received a letter from the artist’s attorney informing Motown that the contract was now null and void. With his trust fund secured, Wonder relocated to New York for the next stage of his career — and immediately set out to find the guys behind Zero Time.
Towards the latter stages of his time with Motown, he had deliberately kept back his best songs. Now, with Cecil and Margouleff, he was unleashing them in the basement of a Manhattan church-turned-studio.
Tonto was helping to ensure that the Wonder’s sound would be like nothing else. “One of us would work on the knobs,” Cecil recalled. “One of us — Stevie — would play the actual notes and one of us would work on the keyboards.”
His first Tonto-assisted album was Music of My Mind, which came out in March 1972. When one of its defining singles, Keep on Running, was released, the music press was baffled — they had nothing to compare it too. Even today, it sounds like something Prince might have concocted a decade or two later.
The album, incidentally, was released by Motown. After getting over his initial shock, Gordy was determined not to lose Wonder and gave him a highly favourable contract which guaranteed him complete creative control. Wonder and Motown would stick together for the remainder of his recording career.
Wonder was in his creative zenith in 1972. He brought out even better album, Talking Book, that October. It features some of his most emblematic songs, including Superstition. And — in a straight reversal of eight years before — he supported the Rolling Stones on their gargantuan American tour of that summer.
The Stones were the world’s biggest band by far by the early ’70s and Wonder recognised the opportunity to reach a huge, largely white audience. He had been determined that this music not be stuck in the sort of R&B ghetto that affected most black artists at the time.
“That was something we discussed a great deal,” Cecil recalled later. “‘This isn’t black music [Wonder would say]. This is music for everybody. This is crossover music.’ We were very conscious of that and we pushed that the whole time.”
In order for Wonder to deliver a close approximation of the sort of sounds he had created in studio, the synthesisers on stage were specially programmed and Margouleff manned the sound desk every night. Any scepticism that a crowd of white American rock fans would not be enthralled by Wonder were quashed from the off. Sunshine of My Life and Superstition went down especially well night after night.
“It was stunning… very visceral and very compelling,” Margouleff recalled. “He had a big standard Motown backline, but a lot of the show centred around electronic sounds, and people were immediately taken by its newness and freshness.”
The tour is both legendary and infamous thanks to the Bacchanalian exploits of the Stones and their entourage.
For the final show, in New York’s Madison Square Garden, Wonder joined the Stones on stage for rambunctious renditions of one of his great early songs, Uptight (Everything’s Alright), and the Jagger-Richards classic (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. The performance ended, much to the crowd’s delight, with an on-stage custard pie fight.
Wonder would make two more Tonto-heavy albums with Cecil and Margouleff — 1973’s Innervisions and 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale — and by the middle part of the decade, his status as an innovator was assured.
Like all great artists, he felt the time was ripe to move on to something new and after signing a new Motown deal — then the most lucrative in music industry history — he set to work on his magnum opus, the double album Songs in the Key of Life, which came out in 1976.
But it was a huge makeshift synthesiser and an album called Zero Time that had sent him on his way at the start of the decade.