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50 years ago, Stevie Wonder was smack in the middle of his most critically acclaimed series of albums. Starting with 1972’s Music of My Mind and ending with Songs in the Key of Life in 1976, this “classic period”—as it has come to be known—produced many of Stevie’s biggest hits, including “Superstition,” “Higher Ground,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Sir Duke,” and “As.”
Released on August 3rd, 1973, Innervisions was the third in this flawless five-album run and represents the artist at the height of his collaboration with synthesizer pioneers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. Although Songs in the Key of Life is probably Stevie’s most celebrated album, Innervisions is a creative gem with a brilliant mix of poetic lyricism, social critique, anger, joy, and spirituality, all wrapped up in a progressive-synth-funk sound.
But how did it all come together? Read on and dive into the making of this landmark work, including the context and conditions that led to its creation, the sonic elements that make up the classic Stevie sound, and the tragedy that left the artist’s future uncertain just days after the album’s release.
The catalyst that kicked off Stevie’s classic period was the expiration of his contract with Motown Records, which had previously ceded most of the creative decisions to the company’s staff producers (a pretty standard deal for Motown artists, unfortunately). Under Michigan law, the contract expired on Stevie’s 21st birthday in 1971, and he immediately began recording his next two albums independently, creating new material he would eventually use as leverage for better terms in his next contract.
Meanwhile, Motown itself was in a state of flux. In 1972, Berry Gordy moved the company headquarters from Detroit to Los Angeles, shutting down the famous Hitsville studio and leaving behind some of its top talent (including many of the Funk Brothers session musicians who played on the vast majority of the label’s hits).
Pivoting to adapt to a changing industry, Berry Gordy Jr. dipped a toe into the film industry with Motown Productions, opened a new L.A. recording studio, and started loosening the strings for his top acts, resulting in era-defining new releases like Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On. The classic “Motown Sound” was gone, but something new was taking shape in its place.
Stevie’s new contract gave him the creative freedom and financial backing to develop some of his grandest ideas. Finally, he could diverge from the iconic but formulaic sound of classic Motown and experiment with new sounds, new production techniques, and high-concept albums that dealt with heavier themes than his previous records. It was also around this time that Stevie met two other musical visionaries who would soon have a massive influence on his sound.
British bassist/engineer Malcolm Cecil and American music and film producer Robert Margouleff first met in the late ‘60s at Media Sound Studios in New York City. Malcolm was working as a maintenance engineer and Bob (a friend of Robert Moog) was the resident owner/operator of a Moog Series IIIc. After just a few weeks of bonding over their shared interest in synthesis and its musical applications, the two formed a vision for a multi-timbral orchestra of synthesizers that could produce any sound imaginable.
Malcolm and Bob began adding additional synthesizer modules to supplement the Moog, and the contraption rapidly expanded to fill a wrap-around assembly of racks loaded with oscillators, filters, modulators, sequencers, and other electronic bits and bobs. They called the machine The Original New Timbral Orchestra, or T.O.N.T.O. for short. Soon after, they formed Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, and released the album Zero Time, an experimental foray fusing otherworldly textures, eerie melodies, and vocoded vocals.
Upon hearing Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Stevie immediately became intrigued by the new sonic dimensions that synthesis could add to his music. With his star power on the rise, it wasn’t hard to obtain a meeting with Cecil and Margouleff, and the three soon began experimenting together at Media Sound Studio. Before long, they’d established a workflow together and in just a few weeks, they had laid down basic tracks for 40 to 50 songs, many of which would appear on later albums.
With only a handshake deal and the noncommittal promise of royalties from Stevie, the trio set about recording heaps of material that would eventually materialize into Music of My Mind and Talking Book, kicking off Stevie’s classic period. From funky Moog basslines to synth-laden compositions like “Evil,” T.O.N.T.O. and its operators helped Stevie reinvent his sound, taking his peerless songwriting to new heights.
In late 1972, riding high on the success of Talking Book; Stevie, Malcolm, and Robert hit the studio once again to start work on the next album. By this point, the trio had a well-established workflow. Malcolm and Robert would arrive at the studio early, warm up T.O.N.T.O., and set up the various mics and instruments needed for the day. When Stevie arrived (on his own schedule and usually late), they would queue up whichever tracks he wanted to work on next and get to work. Much of the recording was done piecemeal—a vocal here, a drum track there—until the songs came together.
Sessions for Innervisions took place at two New York studios: Media Sound and The Record Plant. Housed in a converted Baptist Church, Media Sound was a workhorse studio which produced everything from advertising jingles to albums by The Velvet Underground, T. Rex, and Todd Rundgren albums. Malcolm lived above the studio and helped build its 16-track room, which served as T.O.N.T.O.’s home base. The Record Plant was equally well-equipped, having upgraded to 16-track during the making of Electric Ladyland.
Working under Stevie in his capacity as Producer, Malcolm and Robert are credited as “Associate producers” as well as “programming of T.O.N.T.O. system” and “engineering of electronic music.” Additional personnel included Recordists Dan Barbiero and Austin Godsey, Tape Operator Gary Olazabal, Recording Coordinators John Harris and Ira Tucker Jr., and Mastering Engineer George Marino.
T.O.N.T.O. revolutionized synthesis as the first truly polyphonic and multitimbral synthesizer. Combining modules from Moog, Oberheim, ARP, and EMS, the instrument truly offered an orchestra’s worth of tonal possibilities. Malcolm designed a custom “central brain” using a patchbay-style interface to connect and route signals from the various keyboards, oscillators, sequencers, and effects, making it possible to layer multiple completely different synth sounds and play them on one keyboard.
However, because each synthesizer brand had its own electronic architecture, tonality, technical specifications, and other quirks, getting multiple units to play in tune with each other presented a major challenge. To remedy this, Malcolm built a custom voltage control interface that allowed the user to make fine adjustments to the tuning of each synth module, making it possible to play the entire “orchestra” in near-perfect harmony. A custom mixer panel allowed the operators to seamlessly blend multiple sound sources into complex timbres.
But Bob and Malcolm knew that T.O.N.T.O.’s sheer power and versatility weren’t enough—it had to be playable, too. As the machine grew and grew, the duo had a custom wrap-around enclosure built, featuring ergonomically designed arched racks that put all of the modules within reach for (relatively) easy tweakability. Malcolm even modified a helicopter joystick to control pitch and filter modulation for expressive playing. Needless to say, the massive rig required sight to operate, so Cecil and Margouleff helped Stevie dial in sounds with his direction.
Resisting the urge to go full prog with T.O.N.T.O., Stevie showed true artistry and restraint, using it on just three or four tracks per album during his classic period. On Innervisions, TONTO contributed the high-pitched leads in “Living for the City,” the smooth portamento ad-libs on “Golden Lady,” and ghostly, reverbed swells in the background of “He’s Misstra Know-It-All.” Each usage is exactly what the song needs, and nothing more.
Although the liner notes for Innervisions only list T.O.N.T.O. on three tracks, most of the other songs feature “Moog Bass” derived from T.O.N.T.O.’s Moog modules. According to Malcolm, the origin of this classic Stevie Wonder sound went something like this: “[Stevie] said, ‘Put a bassline on that.’ I started to play. Then I said to him, ‘You know, this is going to take this song to a different place. The acoustic bass is going to take it to a jazz place and that’s not what this song sounds like to me. I tell you what, why don’t I get the sound up on TONTO, and we’ll play the sound on TONTO.’”
…And the rest is history. Thick, punchy Moog bass tracks appear all over Stevie’s catalog, giving him the ability to play the basslines in his head with a more exciting sound than the piano or clavinet offered. In fact, on “Golden Lady,” Stevie and company somehow got the Moog to sound almost exactly like Motown bassist James Jamerson’s signature Fender Precision Bass, complete with a wandering, melodic progression that sounds straight out of a classic Motown tune.
You can’t talk about Stevie Wonder records without mentioning the plethora of awesome keyboard sounds, and Innervisions is no exception. One of the most recognizable is the Hohner clavinet, heard most prominently on “Higher Ground” and “Jesus Children of America,” two of the album’s funkiest numbers. In both cases, Stevie and co. ran the clav through a Mu-Tron III filter effect for an extra dose of swagger.
The Fender Rhodes electric piano, another staple of Stevie’s classic period (and ‘70s music in general), also sees plenty of use across the album. A surprisingly versatile instrument, the Rhodes provides the gritty, slightly overdriven rhythm of “Too High,” the moody, undulating stereo tremolo in “Living for the City,” and the gentle background chords of “Jesus Children of America.”
Juxtaposed with the assortment of synths and keyboards on the record, the good old-fashioned grand piano gives a more grounded sound to some of the more laid-back tracks. On “All in Love is Fair,” Stevie opens with the grand piano before adding a Rhodes track for a complex, layered tone that helps keep the slow-burning ballad interesting.
But Stevie’s keyboard sounds come from more than just the instruments themselves—the way he physically interacted with the keyboard is responsible for a large part of his style. According to Malcolm, playing by touch made Stevie favor the raised black keys, which helped him navigate the keyboard intuitively. This also caused him to play with hands flat (as opposed to arched fingers), using a funky “patting” motion which is perhaps most evident on “Higher Ground.”
Just as Stevie loved to explore the sonic range of synths and keyboards, he did the same with his voice. Usually captured through an Electro-Voice RE-20, Stevie’s incredible vocal range spans the gamut from delicate and soulful to raw and throaty—often within the same song. Ballads like “Visions” and “All in Love is Fair” showcase his smooth vibrato and excellent pitch on longer notes, while higher-energy tunes like “Higher Ground” prioritize soulfulness over technique. There’s even a bilingual spoken-word skit at the top of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.”
On the rougher end of the spectrum, the last quarter of “Living for the City” shows Stevie really digging into the bottom of his range, singing from the back of his throat to achieve a gritty quality that compliments the song perfectly. Cecil and Margouleff have publicly taken credit for the “raspy” sound of Stevie’s voice on this track, purposefully stopping the tape mid-take and berating Stevie’s performance in an attempt to elicit an “angrier” sound. But while this questionable approach achieved the sound they wanted, Stevie was not happy.
As Margouleff told The Atlantic, “We didn't give him tea—because he likes this tea with no milk in it, with lemon to clear the throat—we wouldn't give him the tea. He was getting really upset with us… I think he's still upset with me about that, but we got a great track!" However, despite these rather manipulative production techniques, there’s no doubt Stevie was always in control of his delivery, as evidenced by songs like “As,” where he brought back the same throaty quality after parting ways with the duo.
When it comes to background vocals, many solo artists tend to stack harmonies with meticulous intonation, but Stevie delighted in stretching his vocal range to create a chorus of wildly different-sounding voices. By singing in different registers and recording at different speeds, Stevie was able to bend his voice in almost unrecognizable ways. To the casual listener, it must have been hard to believe one person provided all of the background vocals on “Living for the City” and “Jesus Children of America.”
Although he’s known primarily as a songwriter, singer, and keyboard wizard, Stevie Wonder has been playing drums his entire career. Although he had access to some of the best session drummers in his Motown days, Stevie’s rhythmic chops came in handy when he struck out on his own. In fact, he recorded all of the drums on his five “classic period” albums, with the exception of four tracks on the double album Songs in the Key of Life.
But it didn’t start that way. Early in the process of making Music of My Mind, Malcolm recalled bringing influential funk and R&B drummer Bernard Purdie into the studio to accompany Stevie on drums, but it didn’t work out. Because Stevie often preferred to start a track by laying down keys and vocals first, many songs have a slight rubato feel as the tempo follows the dynamics of his playing. According to Malcolm, even the legendary Purdie had a hard time following Stevie’s groove, and the tracks were scrapped.
When Stevie sat down to record drums, setting up the kit was a team effort. Malcolm would ask Stevie where to put the hi-hat, Stevie would swing the stick where it felt natural to him, and Malcolm would move it to that location. They’d repeat the process with the rest of the cymbals and drums until they were all in the right places for him to play naturally. As Malcolm recalls, “It looked a bit peculiar, but he knew where everything was.”
Stevie’s drumming style is tight and highly syncopated, with a mix of driving grooves and imaginative fills that always keep the song moving. Cecil and Margouleff’s engineering helped translate that feel to tape, typically using a limited number of mics positioned nice and close to keep the sound dry and up-front. The video below, one of the few available documents of the Innervisions sessions, shows what appear to be a pair of Neumann U 87s positioned over the toms at head level, facing slightly outward to pick up the cymbals on either side. While the kick and snare mics are not visible, it’s easy to tell from the sound that they were close-mic’d and dampened for a snappy sound.
Only a few days after the release of Innervisions, Stevie Wonder was in a nearly fatal car accident. Driven by his cousin John, Stevie was asleep in the passenger’s seat on the way from Greenville to Durham, North Carolina, when the car collided with a lumber truck. Accounts of the incident differ: some claim that a log fell off the truck and flew through the windshield, while others say the bed of the truck itself hit Stevie in the forehead.
Whatever actually transpired, the impact caused a brain contusion and Stevie was rushed to a Winston-Salem hospital, where fell into a coma. After ten precarious days, Stevie finally responded by tapping his fingers to the beat when his tour director Ira Tucker leaned over and sang “Higher Ground” directly into his ear. Innervisions could have been his final album, but by chance or fate, Stevie eventually regained his full faculties and returned to making music. The next year, Innervisions won Grammys for Album of the Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording, while “Living for the City” took home Best R&B Song.
As for Bob and Malcolm, Stevie would continue to work with the pair on his next album, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, until tensions began to form as Stevie’s growing entourage began crowding the studio. After enduring the ceaseless chatter and clouds of weed smoke, Malcolm finally walked out of a session after an argument with Stevie over the distractions. Bob stuck around for two more weeks to help finish the work, but that was the end of the Wonder-Cecil-Margouleff relationship. The duo were not invited back to finish the final album in Stevie’s classic period, Songs in the Key of Life.
After Malcolm died in 2021, Stevie remembered his friend in a Rolling Stone interview. “As real as you know his death is, you go through those unforgettable moments,” he said. “Even those moments when we agreed to disagree, there’s an endless love and respect for Malcolm’s genius, for Bob’s genius, for us being able to come together.” Robert Margouleff is still actively involved in music production.
So, what should we take away from this landmark album on its 50th anniversary? It certainly shows what can be accomplished when an artist finds the right collaborators whose skills and abilities complement their own. But it’s also a healthy reminder for producers, co-producers, and even engineers not to let ego get in the way.
No matter how much creative mojo you bring to a project, remember that you’re there to follow someone else’s vision. Treat your collaborators with respect and give 110 percent in your musical relationships, but don’t lose sight of the goal. And most importantly, treat every project as if it could be your last.