Stevie Wonder Logo

Interview With Gordon Bahary - Electric Kingdom Studios, New York

Gordon Bahary has worked as a recording engineer and synthesizer programmer since the 1970's, working with such artists as Stevie, Herbie Hancock and Ramsey Lewis. He was also part of the group Twilight 22, with the 1983 Electric Kingdom dance hit.

Gordon is credited on Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants album as: Special Programming of Synthesizers and Sequencers

As a multi-instrumentalist, arranger, writer, producer, and vocal consultant, he now runs his own studio in Westchester, New York providing not only engineering and production services, but also artist development.

I had the opportunity to chat with Bahary about his early days working with Stevie and also about his new studio, Electric Kingdom, in New York and the facilities it offers.

As his Studio is called Electric Kingdom I started by asking about the origins of the name.

Gordon Bahary: I was signed as an artist to the independent jazz and classical label, Vanguard, who allowed me to produce myself. Not being an experienced singer and knowing I would need guest vocalists on what would be an experimental project, suggested group names such as Twilight Zone and Catch 22 morphed into Twilight 22. Together with drummer Joe Salter and Jamaican singer Errol Moore they wrote the song Electric Kingdom which has since been voted the 8th best rap song of the era by Rolling Stone magazine.

After the pandemic, and with many artists now kitted out with gear in their garage or bedroom, how has take up on recording time at the studio been?

GB: Of course it's competition for me as a commercial studio but on the other hand I'm happy for the musicians that are independent. But there will always be people that want to come to a first class place that has the audio gear, the ears, the grand piano, drum room, etc. I think its good for three kinds of artists, ones that are starting out and want to hear themselves in this context, the medium level artist who has done basic recording at home but need the live room and engineering to enhance their music and then some well known artists that might want to make it a home because its a homey suburban almost country kind of atmosphere. I'll also be composing film and TV music and doing post production work.

As most visitors to our website would be Stevie fans I'm sure they will be interested in your work and exploits with the great man along with Herbie Hancock and Ramsey Lewis.

GB: I called the local record store, I was just 15 years old and asked if they had the number for Stevie Wonder and they were laughing, but one guy said call Motown and I had not heard of Motown. I called numbers in Detroit and LA and asked for him and they laughed and asked if I wanted the fan club. It was tougher than I thought being a naive kid but I persisted for 4-5 months everyday and finally located a hotel in Detroit where he was staying. So I called the room and his manager answered and said "Oh you're the kid who has been terrorising Motown?". He put me on to Stevie, my heart was pounding and Stevie was like "Is everythings okay, what's the problem?" So we spoke and he was very gracious and he asked to hear my music over the phone. He listened and said "I think you are the Burt Bacharach of the 80's". The problem was I did not know who Bacharach was and Stevie said "You don't know who Burt Bacharach is? Then forget it." Later on I told my mother and she said 'You dummy, you don't know Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head?" Anyway it was a big compliment and he heard about my synthesizer work, so asked me to fly out, "I want to meet you", he said. Thing is, I was still in school. So what you're gonna say, my son has a bad cold for a year? I left 10th and 11th grade to be with him on and off. I showed him some sounds I was exploring when he was doing Songs in the Key of Life and then we did the Secret Life of Plants album together from the beginning. The sounds I did for him were orchestral and also I unintentionally invented the drum machine, because nobody had synthesized drums in 1977. I made a kick and a snare and a high-hat and Stevie used it on one of the songs and then five years later the drum machine came out.

So was all that digitally recorded?

GB: Actually it was analog recorded but digitally mixed on a 24 track recorder. But that helps because when you mix you're making a copy and the copy would be as clean as the original.

And what was it like working with his engineer at the time, Gary Olazabal?

GB: He was great to work with and was really into the synthesizer sounds. He'd perfect them on the console which was great

How did you feel about the relatively poor reception of the Secret Life of Plants album?

GB: It did go platinum, but it did ship platinum anyway. But it's regarded in terms of quality as one of his best works. He had just come off Songs in the Key of Life and as he wrote in the liner notes “My goal is not to beat or compete with the last album...". He was just trying to say that this was just a work of art. Songs in the Key of Life was a concept album like the Beatles' Sargent Pepper or Elton John's Yellow Brick Road, but it was special because he tackled all these personal issues that were important to him and that was groundbreaking. Secret Life of Plants was groundbreaking again because he could do anything he wanted after Songs in the Key of Life which was a hard earned life achievement. And now with Secret Life of Plants you can hear that there are no boundaries, and that influenced a lot of musicians to take chances. But you know he came out with Hotter Than July after that to show he could do it again. I think he heard some slack from Motown. I heard! But he knew what he was doing.

Stevie has been quiet over the last few years and we're not sure why he's not in the studio making music anymore

GB: I saw him just before Covid happened, and he was about to go for his kidney transplant. We had a good time in the studio. He was gracious as always and hospitable and he was making music. So I'm sure there's many works in progress. I know he put out a couple singles on Spotify that were politically relevant. We're so greedy and hungry for his music as everything he does is just so wonderful (no pun intended).

You did some work with Wondirection, his label he formed in the early 80's?

GB: Yes he asked me to be his staff producer for Wondirection. It was hard to get that off the ground. He got some amazing talent but you know the Beatles had that problem I think with Apple records. It's hard to be an artist and a businessman, when Stevie was on tour and we need you to go over this contract or we need money or we need you to listen to this. It's hard, but I think it was very ambitious and his ambition was the same as what John Lennon said, to give artists a chance without corporate pressures. The Crown by Gary Byrd was a hit but there was work I produced for a couple artists but we never really finished it. And then I asked him a few years later if this was still an aspiration? He said "Spiritually".

What was it like working with a multi-instrumentalist like him?

GB: It was incredible. Watching him do the vocals and keyboards for Songs in the Key of Life was the most indelible for me. I mean working with Herbie Hancock and Ramsey Lewis was fantastic as well, but Stevie, you know the word genius is used so lightly. Our former president called himself a genius, but maybe strike that. Stevie really is because he can't even help it. You know you're sitting there and the music and ideas are flowing through him. I didn't know that this was going to be a landmark album while it was being made, because you're busy making it. But watching Isn't She Lovely and I Wish and all these songs get done, it was amazing, his intuition, his talent and energy. I mean he didn't sleep for a while and he was strong. I was falling apart, we were standing up falling asleep against the wall, holding fish and chips. Or we get woken up at two in the morning and called to the studio. There are some amazing stories of his sensitivity to vibration and hearing. He asked a doctor to bring some recordings of babies that were just born in the delivery room to use on Isn't She Lovely. So the doctor came with a chart of all the names of the mothers and he played each of them for us. The engineer said I really like that one and Stevie said yeah but that's a boy and the doctor interrupted and said excuse me Stevie I've been a doctor for however many years there is no difference at that early age to the voice structure for people to tell the difference, and when he looked it was a boy on the chart. Finally when Stevie picked the one and said that's it, the doctor looked and surprised and said it's a girl.

So tell us a bit about your new studio which caters to a more acoustic recording environment.

GB: Jazz is one of my favourite genres. I like the complex harmonies and I love brass, piano and Stevie always has elements of jazz beautifully interwoven into his music. Duke Ellington influences and so on. Actually my introduction to Herbie was because he played a solo on Stevie's As. That's where I heard Herbie for the first time. I reached out to Herbie after Secret Life of plants and he and we did the album Feets Don't Fail Me Now. The label was pressuring me to make everything danceable and then after rap came around it made everything street credible! But when Herbie would play a Fender Rhodes solo it was 100% Herbie and I love it. He was such a gem to work with and very spiritual and he would do his Buddhist chant at every session before we started and it was a very beautiful atmosphere.

How do you feel about today's music and the current use of synthesizers?

GB: I don't mean to put down the creativity of what people are trying to do, but there is something shallow going on. Whether it's melodically, with the chords or with the choice of sounds it's almost as if it's an instant gratification effect where the attention span becomes so narrow you know its like let's just add some sugar to the coffee and there you go. Where we would do things more organically, harmonically, warmer. Moog synthesizers that are analog, really made a difference. I wonder if the record companies challenge artists enough to be more inventive and creative. I am pushing against that cookie cutter, sensationalism music. I recorded many of the players who played with Frank Sinatra here a couple days ago. The producer is 95 years old and the group were all virtuosos and it was great to have all eight of them recording in this octet. I used the old ribbon microphones with the technology from the fifties and analog Neve recording console and the sound was just so warm but with the fidelity of today.

How do you feel about contemporary jazz artists such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke?

GB: The progresive or modern jazz artists were important, they introduced jazz to the masses so people knew where it all came from. You know it took me a few year but finally those lyrics of Sir Duke led me to jazz. Also black musicians were not really credited enough. Even at the time of The Beatles who knew where they derived it from and they gave credit where it was due, but in general it wasn't and was needed. At 18 I produced some work for Idris Muhammad at my home and along with the drums he brought along a log drum he got from Africa which we also used on Ralph McDonald's The Path album. My parents were originally from Iran and hence could relate to Idris' lifestyle as he would break from sessions five times a day to pray. Actually the song Electric Kingdom is a Middle Eastern melody that was inspired by listening to my dad's cassette tapes back in the day.

So what is the environment like for artists coming to your studio to record?

GB: Its located at the end of a cul-de-sac adjoining about 100 acres of preserved land, so you'd be in the studio, we have a thick glass, two pane, and you'll see the deer, you know baby doe and its so quiet you wouldn't think there is a town just five or ten minutes away. Its lovely out here though just 30 minutes from Manhattan.

As we wrap up, are there any final thoughts on your work with Stevie?

GB: One thing with Stevie and Herbie actually, they are great human beings first and foremost. Very down to earth and always there for their friends and fellow musicians and very generous manner and I just have to say that I was so very lucky as these were ‌kinda father figures to me in music. It's indelible when you're young, those are examples, it wasn't crazy rock and roll, it was more intellectual music and probably a safer environment for my parents as far as their young son was concerned.

And information about the recording facilities at Electric Kingdom Studios?

GB: The studio is very analogue based. Analogue is very expensive. The gear here is all 50's, 60's, 70's technology but with today's components. We have a tape machine here too. Alan Parsons has the a similar Neve console and he said it best, "There are frequencies in this board that are way above human hearing, it's actually 100,000 cycles and you cannot hear above 15,000 but that doesn't mean that you cannot perceive them." So although an MP3 cannot reproduce such frequencies it can affect the harmonic integrity throughout the audible part of the spectrum. Its actually critical to the emotional impact of the music, I believe. So that's what I'm after here, the warmth and harmonics of the music and that gets down to the humanity of it. Digital has gotten to a point now where it is exceptional, but that said, if it is not used properly digital can mess around with the natural organic harmonics. That was really the inspiration for this place, to make sure the entire studio was discrete class A, which means tubes or transistors but not chips. You know the chips will not have the headroom or dynamic range and the tonal integrity. So when you put it all together, as with the jazz band I just finished recording, the harmonics are so beautiful you feel the music more. That's very different to digital mixing and loops and mixing on a computer, its a step way back in time.

For more information on the studio visit: Electric Kingdom Studios
I would like to thank Gordon Bahary for his time recollecting his work with Stevie and his insightful take on music over the last five decades.