'I Thought He Was a Messenger': Making Stevie Wonder's 'Talking Book'

Producer Robert Margouleff talks about his memories in the studio recording the classic album that turned 40 this week—and the frustrations that came later.

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Tamla / Robert Margouleff

By the start of the 1970s, Little Stevie Wonder had grown up to become one of the most popular acts in music. After releasing 12 albums for Motown, he let his original contract expire on his 21st birthday in 1971. As a result, he recorded two independent albums and used them as a negotiating tool when Motown was trying to get him to sign a new contract. Wonder succeeded in gaining more creative control over his music, and his "classic period" of artistic genius began with the release of Music of My Mind (1972).

Later on in the same year, Wonder would catapult himself into another realm of superstardom with the legendary album , Talking Book. It showcased Wonder's brilliance and the talent of two producing architects, Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. Their revolutionary work with synthesizers helped in shaping Wonder's groundbreaking sounds. On the occasion of Talking Book's 40th anniversary this week, I spoke with Margouleff about recording one of the greatest albums ever.

Coming into the making of Talking Book, what kind of transition were you trying to make with Stevie from Music of My Mind and some of his earlier work?

We took it one day at a time. Sometimes when you make music and stuff, you don't listen to the sound of your own wheels. We didn't have a conscious thing saying that we were going to do something different with Stevie. We did what we thought served the songs and we incorporated some of things we've done from our past experiences. It was interesting with Talking Book. Music of My Mind was released on March 3, 1972. Talking Book came out on the 28th of October during the same year. This is how busy Malcolm and I were with Steve. We had organization and a structure.

In terms of the direction for the sound of the album, what was the process like working with your partner (Malcolm Cecil) and Stevie Wonder in the studio?

Originally, it was just the three of us in the studio. We did what came naturally to us. We would bounce ideas off of each other. There were no real boundaries. We all had our job descriptions and we did what we could. We were very open with each other. Stevie would ask how something would sound and if I didn't like it I would say, "It sounds like a doorbell." It was just a natural time. There wasn't a lot of preconceived energy. It was very impulsive.

Were the bulk of the songs completed in the studio?

Yes. Steve would come in with a line or something sometimes because he had a clavinet at his house. Recording equipment at that time wasn't really portable. Most of the time Steve would come in around 6:30 or 7 o'clock at night and we would work until 5 in the morning. That would generally be the pattern. Malcolm and I would come in around 4:30 and Stevie would come in and we would have things already prepared. We would keep a long list of projects and songs we were working on. We would keep them in a little loose-leaf binder and we would keep track of where we were with specific songs.

We really never cut songs for an album. We started recording material and at the end of five years we stopped recording. It was more like cutting material for a library than an album. When it came time to put an album together, we would sit on the floor in his office in New York and we would say, "Oh, let's do this one." Then we would say, "No. Steve. This one needs background vocals and more orchestration."

We did 160 songs together. It was an ongoing process of picking songs. Some of those songs have never seen the light of day that I know of. Steve was the final judge. He is the artist. There is no finer singer, performer, and songwriter than Stevie Wonder. He might not have given us the recognition that we thought we deserved, but that in no way diminishes his talent.

What was it like working with a young genius during his prime?

It was a joy in the beginning. I would say Music of My Mind, Talking Book, and Innervisions were great, then it got to be laborious for a variety of reasons. One, we weren't getting paid properly. Two, the studio started filling up with people who were to just there to fan the air and suddenly become official people. It became less and less pleasant to work with him.

The music was always good. We tried to preserve the music, but the vibes got to be really heavy because we weren't being taking care of correctly. The more famous he got, the less recognition we got. It really became a trial. At that point, we decided it was time to move on.

But during the making of Talking Book, it was a joy to work with him. It was at the height of everything. There was total loyalty and total belief. There's a time that you think it was going to go on for forever and that you can never make any mistakes. Every record we touched turned to gold, whether it was for Stevie or for other artists. All we had to do was walk into the studio and do what we did best.

We needed Stevie because Stevie really reflected the times. He had an important message. I felt like his music making superseded the entertainment business. His music reflected the cry for civil rights, the urban black experience, and about who he was. I felt like his music was very political and I came from a political background. He didn't just write love songs, but he related to the world's reality at that time. I thought he was a messenger. What he had to say was really important, and it's proven to be that way. Here we are 40 years later, and we can remember the songs. We might have had our business differences, but we didn't have any differences in our philosophy and the music.

After the fourth album, we started repeating ourselves and, I have to say, not in a low way, but I think Steve has concentrated the next 40 years of his album-making experience of trying to repeat the experiences of those albums we made together including the sound. We used to turn out a record every 18 months. Why did that stop? He surrounded himself with people he was more comfortable with. Malcolm and I were kind of prickly and white [laughing]. He felt a little out of his element, maybe. I don't know honestly.

I don't feel badly towards Steve. I wouldn't mind a $100,000 check for me and Malcolm. I'm 71 years old. I don't have that much mileage left. I mean—that would be nice in our retirement and golden years for him to remember what we did for him, but I think that's highly unlikely. I don't see any reason to not state what really happened at this point. I thought we were treated badly in the end. As the albums went on, our credits got smaller and smaller. It was an amazing experience. We know what we did. Steve knows what we did. I don't know what happened, but we really lost touch with each other. Towards the end, Malcolm wouldn't even come in the studio, which was sad.

It was like this, there were three points of light and they all came together, and there was this bright flash for five years. During those five years, it was a magical time. It was beautiful. We made some really great records and we felt we were going in the same direction. I regret that it ended the way it did. The music making during Talking Book was at our best. The best vibe, the best emotional time and the most complete expression of what we were doing. We weren't repeating ourselves in any way. We were there for all the right reasons. There were no extraneous players in the game.

Stevie, me, and Malcolm had a beautiful routine. I would keep a record log of all the songs and where we were periodically to see what we needed to do. When he would come into the studio, there would be something up on the board for him to work on. The studio was always ready. We used to put all the instruments that he would play for a session in a big circle in the studio. They were always all up. The drums were always tuned up and ready to go. The piano, clavinet, the Rhodes, the synthesizers and all the things we had were pretty much in a big circle so Steve could overdub and walk from one instrument to the other. If he needed, we would tune up the drums a little bit or adjust something. We would experiment with the microphones to make sure it was the right microphone for the song. We generally operated autonomously. Most of the time recording studios had staff engineers. Well, with Stevie we were employees of Stevie's and not employees of the studio or the record company. We really hit our stride in two places.

Electric Lady Studios was an interesting experience. Some of the material for Talking Book was recorded there. The studio was built by my dear friend, John Storyk. He built the studio originally for Jimi Hendrix. It was built by an artist for his own work, which was one of the first in the world. Most studios were very big, clumsy, and industrial, and had staff engineers, and were maintained and operated by the record companies. There was a certain sprinkling of independent studios in New York such as Bell, Media, etc. There were about six of them there. We were working at Media for the start of the album and we couldn't stay there. Media was basically was built for commercial recordings like Ford Motor Company. I was the resident synthesist there and Malcolm was the night maintenance man though he was playing jazz bass with a bunch of major players at that time like Jim Hall. We had the studio at night. Steve wanted to be working all the time and we would have to keep breaking down our setups because during the day it was for commercials.

So—we found Electric Lady. Jimi was in the process of going to England and within that eight-week time span he was gone. And here's a studio built completely for an artist. It was the shoe that we put our foot in. Steve kind of replaced Jimi in a strange kind of way. The room was so conducive to creativity. It had mood lighting, which I know Steve didn't respond to it, but it made everyone else kind of mellow around the place. It was the kind of place that he could move around in and go to the bathroom without having someone take him to the bathroom. With him being blind, he learned the place and the pattern of the studio so he could move around freely. It gave him a tremendous sense of freedom. We worked hard there, and then we started making little journeys to the West.

Berry [Gordy] and Ewart [Abner] decided to move Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles. Steve still felt very close to those guys although his contract was in the air at that time. He finally decided to be his own person in every way, and we were the tools of that in many ways. We gave him his independence in the studio. We worked for him and not for Motown. We didn't get checks from Motown. We came west and we all stayed at the Hallmark Motor Hotel on Sunset Blvd. He had a room, I had a room and Malcolm had a room. We had our little Arp synthesizers all interconnected and they would be playing each other from room to room. You would hear all the electronica out in the swimming pool area. It was like a courtyard motel. Then we started working at a place called Crystal Studios. And again we got crowded out because Crystal Studios was the home of Joni Mitchell. It was a beautiful place.

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Chris Williams has written for EBONY, PopMatters, and The Huffington Post.

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