Not many people knew that the world's largest analog synthesizer—TONTO, the very one that gave Stevie Wonder's 1970s hits "Higher Ground," "Superstition," and "Living for the City" their futuristic funk sound—was once hidden away in a barn-cum-studio in Malden-on-Hudson. But the Saugerties hamlet was where its creator, Malcolm Cecil, who died last month after a long illness, resided, and, for decades, where the 300-square-foot, sci-fi-set-looking instrument resided as well. An acronym for The Original New Timbral Orchestra, TONTO was constructed at the end of the 1960s by Cecil and his fellow musician-producer Bob Margouleff and used by their Tonto's Expanding Head Band duo, as well as on Wonder's 1971-1974 albums Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fulfillingness' First Finale and recordings by others.
Born in London, England, Cecil began his musical career as a bassist, working with the BBC Radio Orchestra; UK blues pioneers Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner; and in the house band at jazz club Ronnie Scott's, where he performed with visiting American jazz artists. The interest in electronics he'd cultivated during his stint as an RAF radar operator led to his making recordings of rising acts like the Animals and the Who.
In 1968 he immigrated to America, where he took a job in New York at Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios and began developing TONTO before going on to work with the likes of the Isley Brothers, Steven Stills, Billy Preston, the Jackson Five, Little Feat, Bobby Womack, T. Rex, Jeff Beck, the Doobie Brothers, Weather Report, and Gil-Scot Heron and make soundtracks. He and his surviving wife, artist Poli Cecil, began living full time in Malden in 2002, and Malcolm became an adjunct teacher at Columbia Green Community College. Although he sold TONTO to the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta, in 2013, Cecil had by then returned with gusto to his first instrument and, not long before last year's COVID closures, was still frequently performing on bass at local jazz nights.
"Throughout my career, I've always tried to balance the technical stuff with the musical stuff," he told your arts editor when profiled for the August 2007 issue of Chronogram. After a life well balanced, the influential and genial Cecil passed away on March 28.