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

We worked there for awhile, and the guys from the Record Plant Studios came to me and Malcolm and we went to Gary Kellgren's old house up on Camino Palmero St. We struck up a deal with them. They said, "If you want to buy studio time for Steve, we'll build the studio for you, if you guarantee to book studio time for him." So we were buying studio time for Stevie by the year. And we built a beautiful room. John Storyk came out from New York and we brought TONTO out there.

When we were negotiating for the studio, I'll never forget what happened. Gary Kellgren bought down a bottle of Courvoisier and we touched our glasses to make a toast and then there was an earthquake. It started off like that. At Record Plant, it was like jet propulsion from there. The studio itself contributed to the whole thing of it. It was just an amazing time. We couldn't do anything wrong. It's all I can tell you. We just made music, music, music. We were really able to exercise our liberties. We had our own tape library there. Across the hall we had a Jacuzzi so if we wanted to take a little break we could jump in the Jacuzzi. People were crazy. I used to smoke pot. I got high until I couldn't see my own feet. It was good times. I will never be sorry that I did it. I don't have any regrets. If Stevie had shown a little more generosity and a little more sense of equality towards us outside of the studio, we would've stuck around a lot longer.

Can you discuss the making of some songs from Talking Book?

"You're the Sunshine of My Life" was such an up tune. People would call it the "Stevie Wonder song." He ended up being on top of the world. We started with the Fender Rhodes part and then the Moog part. But the earlier records were more overdub parts with Stevie playing everything. The more we got into the records, the more the band started playing on the records. It wasn't a hard record to make because everything just fell together.

The thing about Stevie and us and about our recording technique in general is you will know the records are very dry. There isn't a lot of echo and reverb on it. The reason is because we always felt that echo and reverb commentate distance—something being farther away, and therefore, you could add more instruments the further away it was you could make the orchestra bigger and bigger. What we wanted to do was to have a more intimate experience. For example, if you listen to the drum tracks, you can see all of the hi-hats come up on the left. The reason for that is that the only person who can hear the drum kit in surround-sound stereo is the drummer. The further away you get from the drum kit, the more mono it becomes, so if you listen to our records with Stevie the hi-hats are on the left because we recorded the drums from the point of view of the drummer and not of the listener.

We also did all of our monitoring in quad. We had a beautiful API console in studio B at the Record Plant, which also enabled me to bring some of the instruments into the control room so Steve could sit in the middle and have the clavinet in the back and the Rhodes in the front and the background vocals coming from the back of the room. By spreading all of the instruments out, we were able to really equalize correctly and to get stuff to sound really good. By the time we got to the mixing, there was very little EQing done. We would monitor in quad for the recordings, which was also inspirational to Stevie. Then, we would do what we called in the early days 'Armstrong automation.' Me, Malcolm, and Stevie would be at the console rehearsing our moves and we would mix the thing all in one pass. We had all of our moves marked on the faders and so on and so forth.

This is how all of our records were made together. He was just a great songwriter. He wasn't the Justin Bieber of his time. He wasn't some kind of chemical person. Justin Bieber is corporate music. Stevie's music came right out of his head.

"You and I (We Can Conquer The World)" was done with Stevie and his girlfriend sitting on the piano bench next to him. He played the piano first.

"Superstition" was originally written for Jeff Beck. He decided it was too good to give away so he kept it for himself. He started out playing the drums. The first track down was the drums. The whole song was in his head. Stevie is a genius. He is one of the greatest living songwriters of our generation, no question. He may be the greatest ever. God might have taken his sight, but he put his thumb on his forehead because Stevie is full of music.

"Blame it on the Sun" was Stevie's song about heartbreak. We recorded it in the same classical way. I don't remember how we pulled it all together. The lyrics were very heavy. He was saying you have to blame yourself and not others for loves lost. He had heavy things going on. Again, it was small instruments, not lots of layers. If you listen to any of those records, you will see there are only a small group of instruments. The Moog synthesizer was a monophonic instrument. You could play one sound or event at one time. We could do two or three because TONTO was a multiple of monophonic synthesizers with a common tuning bust so we could tune them all and transpose them all simultaneously. But they were each individual instrument so Steve could only play one or two lines at a time. We played with chamber-size music with a quartet basically. We were very, very spare.

"Maybe Your Baby" had a great bass line. Again, the songs were done in all the same manner. We would lay down the keyboards and what not.

What are your feelings 40 years later on making one of greatest albums in the history of music?

For me, Talking Book is the greatest record I made in my life, period. It never got better than that. It was the most heartfelt, most emotional, and most inventive. We were all equals. There were two other people besides Stevie who genuinely cared about the music, and I think it showed. Malcolm and I were right by his side for the three or four best albums of his career. We made some of the greatest music ever.

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

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