Standing in front of his Saugerties home in a pair of pristine white overalls and waving frantically at your lost music editor, Malcolm Cecil looks like some kind of mad lab technician. In fact, with his thick, curly hair—also a pure shade of white—he looks like an older version of another Englishman with a cult following: TV’s Doctor Who.
Cecil (“In England it’s pronounced ‘Sess-il,’ but I’m an American now so I’ll also answer to ‘See-sil’”) leads the way inside and through the red shag-carpeted living room, a sunny space lined with bulging bookcases and populated with statuettes of Buddah and Hindu deities, Tibetan bells and singing bowls, and a formidable, wall-hanging collection of ceremonial swords and daggers. Then it’s out the back door and past the shed that houses his artist-wife Poli Cecil’s workspace, which is filled with her brightly hued paintings and sculptures. Finally, the spry 70-year-old is standing at the door of his personal studio, a converted barn with a newly sided exterior and a tall-pitched roof. He turns the key, enters, and flicks a light switch.
In one corner of the enormous room is a dark overstuffed sofa, the walls behind it dotted with framed gold records and certificates; a lone shelf holds a Grammy Award. Bookending the couch are two of the musician-producer’s upright basses and taking up the remainder of this half of the chamber are some older tape decks and the usual modern, computer-assisted gear. But dominating the far end of the sanctum is something else—a series of large, gracefully curving wooden cabinets linked closely to form a semicircle. Cecil steps behind the edifice, the clicking of another switch is heard, and the massive machine comes to life. With its loosely hanging patch cords and dozens of randomly blinking lights, the futuristic structure looks like something Lt. Uhuru, rather than Cecil, should be sitting in front of. With his fingers on one of the contraption’s several keyboard units, he starts to play, and a deeply funky, soul-saturated motif fills the room and rattles the floor. The sound is unmistakable, and it should be: This is TONTO (an acronym for The Original New Timbral Orchestra), which, at a height of five feet and occupying 300 square feet, is the world’s largest analog synthesizer and the very one played by Stevie Wonder on such hits as “Living for the City,” “Higher Ground,” and “Superstition.” Cecil began its ongoing construction in 1968 with fellow engineer-producer Bob Margouleff.
“TONTO will always be a work in progress,” Cecil explains. “It was designed to be able to incorporate whatever new technology came down the line.” In actuality, the machine is comprised of several standard-sized Moog, ARP, and Oberheim synthesizers and various sequencers and other units, all connected so as to be played from a single keyboard; hence the “Orchestra” part of its name. (For a great vintage clip of Wonder playing “Living for the City” on TONTO with technical assistance from Cecil and Margouleff, visit YouTube and search for “TONTO & Stevie Wonder.”)
Ask Cecil about his long and fascinating life and be prepared for an answer to match it. He was born into a musical family in northwest London’s Cricklewood district. “My grandfather was an American from the Bronx, and he played the organ for silent films in a Times Square cinema. He was wounded in World War I and ended up in London, where he met my grandmother,” Cecil recounts. “My mother was the musical director of a gypsy band and she played violin, piano, and accordion. My father managed the band.” He found his own release in music early on. Sort of.
“I had a piano teacher when I was very young, but she was very mean and I hated her,” Cecil chuckles. “So I never bothered to practice playing or reading music. Later on, of course, I saw that the girls would really gather ’round if you played music. I decided to give it a go on the bass.”
Around the time Cecil took up the bass, he joined the Royal Air Force and found himself stationed near Newcastle as a radar operator, a position that fueled his growing interest in electronics. (“Throughout my career, I’ve always tried to balance the technical stuff with the musical stuff,” he explains.) During his time off base, Cecil began performing and ran the nearby Downbeat Club with future Jimi Hendrix co-manager Mike Jeffries. (In one of the many other Forest Gump-like moments to come, Cecil made a live recording of Monday-night filler act The Animals, which the band used to get its first record deal; later on, he would also make live test recordings of The Who during that band’s teeth-cutting residency at London’s Marquee.) After leaving the RAF in 1960, Cecil moved back to London, where he became the house bassist at jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. At the legendary venue, he started to make his name as a first-call UK jazz musician, backing up visiting US greats like J.J. Johnson, Stan Getz, Roland Kirk, Sonny Stitt, and others.