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Back to the Future

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Last Updated: 08/07/2013 6:01 pm
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In 1964, Cecil got a gig as principal bassist for the BBC Radio Orchestra, working for the venerable broadcaster during the day and in the clubs at night. Unfortunately, in 1967 his relentless schedule and hard-partying lifestyle led to a collapsed lung, which made playing his unwieldy instrument too difficult and forced him to give up his Ronnie Scott’s slot to, coincidentally, another future Saugerties resident: Dave Holland.

Thankfully, Cecil’s RAF experience protected him from being let go by the government-run BBC, which simply reassigned him to its engineering department. In 1968, after undergoing a lung operation and playing in South Africa, Cecil immigrated to the US, where he toured as the bassist for torch singer Laine Kazan. But it would be some time before he could become a citizen, and the country’s then-strict musician’s union laws limiting the work of foreign players had him continuously looking over his shoulder. He took a job maintaining the equipment at busy New York studio Media Sound. It was there that he met Margouleff.

“Bob had one of the early Moog synthesizers and had it set up in the studio,” Cecil recalls. “We started working together and hit on the idea of hooking a couple of Moogs and some other things together, and trying it all out with some original compositions. One day, Herbie Mann was recording downstairs. He’d just been given some money by Atlantic Records to start his own label, Embryo, and since he knew me from my Ronnie Scott’s days, he stopped up to say hello. I played him some of what Bob and I had recorded and he just flipped out. He asked if we wanted to be one of Embryo’s first acts.”

Christening their “group” Tonto’s Expanding Head Band (“The name was Bob’s idea—this was the psychedelic period, and he was always quite the businessman”), Cecil and Margouleff released the LP Zero Time in 1971. To call the record groundbreaking would be a woeful understatement. Comprised of six lengthy, infinitely trippy tracks (sample titles: “Aurora,” “Jetsex,” “Cybernaut”) that arc between lulling ambience and percolating motion, Zero Time sounds like nothing else from its day—or any day, for that matter. (The band released a second LP, It’s About Time, in 1975. Used copies of TONTO Rides Again, a 1996 CD reissue of both albums, have commanded as much as $800 online; Cecil recently rereleased TONTO Rides Again himself, remastered and with extra material, as simply Tonto’s Expanding Head Band.)

“The sounds [Cecil and Margouleff] made were neither kitschy, funny, nor imitative,” writes Cornell professor Trevor Pinch in Analog Days (Harvard University Press, 2002), a book on synthesizer pioneers he co-authored with Frank Trocco. “The soundscape they built pushed the machine and their consciousness to the maximum limits. As they migrated inward, the machine helped them move outward. Musicians came to the instrument and found a willing partner.”

One of these musicians was Wonder, who had been turned on to Zero Time by mutual friend Ronnie Blanco, yet another bass-playing future Saugerties resident. “One afternoon in 1971, there was a knock on my door,” Cecil says. “I opened it and it was Ronnie and Stevie Wonder, who had a copy of my album under his arm. He asked if he could check out TONTO, so we went down to the studio and played a bit. Pretty soon after that we started recording—and didn’t stop for four years.”

And over those years, 1971 to 1974, the partnership, now ensconced in New York’s Electric Lady Studios, produced the landmark, million-selling albums Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, records that dramatically and indelibly reshaped pop and soul music through their blending of Wonder’s gospel roots and au courant psychedelic obsessions with the TONTO team’s electronic innovations. “It was just one flowing trip,” Cecil recalls in Analog Days, “with just the three of us [Wonder, Cecil, and Margouleff] in the studio.” While this trip netted Cecil and Margouleff a Grammy Award for their engineering of Innervisions as well as two other Grammy nominations, diminishing production credits eventually saw their association with Wonder come to a close.

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