Malcolm Cecil, the Grammy Award-winning musician, record producer, audio engineer and synthesizer trailblazer who worked closely with Stevie Wonder and many other soul greats, died Sunday (March 28) after a long illness. He was 84.
Born in London, Cecil cut his musical teeth as a jazz artist, playing bass with a string of bands in the ‘50s and ‘60s and with Blues Incorporated, which he co-founded with Alexis Korner.
Always keen to push musical boundaries, Cecil would settle on the synth as his weapon of choice.
Cecil designed and built the TONTO — The Original New Timbral Orchestra — an instrument that’s acknowledged as the world’s first and largest multi-timbral, polyphonic analog audio synth. The TONTO appears as otherworldly today as when it was first unveiled, an instrumental that could easily pass as a time-travel machine.
He teamed up with Robert Margouleff to form TONTO’s Expanding Head Band, a genre-bending project that influenced generations of music-makers and led to some surprise collaborations.
Cecil and Margouleff’s sonic mastery caught the attention of Stevie Wonder, who tapped the pair to co-produce a string of classic albums, including Music Of My Mind through Fulfillingness’ First Finale.
“Music of My Mind was made with the best hearts in the world. Everything we did was done in that three-point of view aspect,” he told OkayPlayer’s Chris Williams for an interview published in 2019, “and we were trading hats during the process of making this album.” He continued, “There were three of us. We could fill each of the spots, without any breaching, and we could switch hats instantaneously.”
Cecil would work with a who’s who of the music community in the ‘60s and beyond, including The Isley Brothers, Little Feat, Richie Havens, Gil Scott-Heron, Quincy Jones, James Taylor and Randy Newman.
Cecil won the only Grammy Award he was nominated for, taking out the best engineered recording-non-classical category at the 1973 ceremony for Wonder’s Innervisions.
In 1997, the U.K.’s Q Magazine honored Cecil with the Unsung Hero award for lifetime achievement.
Friends from the creative community paid tribute to the innovator. The Bob Moog Foundation, established by the late synth pioneer Robert Moog, remembered Ceil as a “legendary creative genius.”
It is with the heaviest of hearts that we share the passing of the legendary creative genius, musician, engineer, producer, & synthesizer pioneer, Malcolm Cecil, show here w his creation TONTO. He passed away today at 1:17am after a long illness. #malcolmcecil #TONTO #moog pic.twitter.com/yYqcmuf5AV
— Bob Moog Foundation (@MoogFoundation) March 28, 2021
It is with the heaviest of hearts that we share the passing of the legendary creative genius, musician, engineer, producer, & synthesizer pioneer, Malcolm Cecil, shown here w/ his creation TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra, created in 1968). #malcolmcecil #TONTO #moog pic.twitter.com/Qy0GJCoqS3
— Moogseum (@Moogseum) March 28, 2021
Malcolm Cecil, electronic music pioneer, co-creator of the revolutionary TONTO synth and dear friend to NMC, has passed away. Malcolm’s contribution to electronic instrument design and popular music is immeasurable. Our full statement: https://t.co/z6voowsyIc #RIPMalcolmCecil pic.twitter.com/766Ihp9AwK
— National Music Centre | Centre National de Musique (@nmc_canada) March 28, 2021
Rest in power Malcolm Cecil ….. TONTO system forever. 🙏🏽🌟🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/ENSvfrVXvm
— KingBritt (@kingbritt) March 28, 2021
RIP Malcolm Cecil – here’s a snap of TONTO from my visit to the NMC a couple years back… what a machine. pic.twitter.com/Dg3lFrAp5y
— loscil (@_loscil_) March 28, 2021
wow RIP to Malcolm Cecil, whose synth innovations helped give us Stevie Wonder's untouchable 70s run https://t.co/j3dLFdaOqE
— Jay Smooth (@jsmooth995) March 28, 2021