In the following article, Jon Newey pays tribute to now-deceased Ralph MacDonald.
The great percussionist and composer, Ralph MacDonald, who was one of the most recorded percussionists in jazz, soul and funk as well as a Grammy Award winning songwriter, died on Sunday 18 December in Stamford, Connecticut after suffering from lung cancer in recent years.
Born in Harlem in 1944, MacDonald was the son of the well-known Trinidadian calypso musician Macbeth the Great and started playing drums and percussion as a small boy. At 17 he got a job in Harry Belafonte’s steel band playing pans and percussion and stayed with him for ten years, composing Belafonte’s Calypso Carnival album in 1966. While increasingly called on for conga and percussion sessions MacDonald also becoming a prolific composer and formed a publishing company, Antisia, with songwriters Bill Salter and William Eaton. Their composition ‘Where Is The Love’ became a multi-million seller for Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway and won two Grammy Awards, while other notable tracks by MacDonald include the Grover Washington Jr song ‘Just The Two of Us’ which also became a huge seller, ‘Mr Magic’, ‘Winelight’ and ‘Calypso Breakdown’ for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack which also earned him a Grammy.
It was however through MacDonald’s prodigious work as a conguero, steel pan player and percussionist that he became most widely known, recording sessions for over 400 albums, including major jazz names such as Roland Kirk, Gato Barbieri, Ron Carter, George Benson, David Sanborn, Max Roach, Milt Jackson, Joe Henderson, Maynard Ferguson and Paul Desmond as well as many leading funk and soul artists, including Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin, the Brecker Brothers, Steely Dan, The Crusaders, Grover Washington Jr, Bob James and many others. He also recorded eight solo albums starting in 1976 with the acclaimed Sound of a Drum and 1977’s The Path, that traced his own musical and family roots. His most recent solo album, Mixty Motions, was released in 2007 and as ever revealed his deep and long standing interest in the roots and sound of percussion.
For many years during the 1970s and 1980s the Steve Gadd/Ralph MacDonald combination was the most sought after drum and percussion section on the planet and they also played a number of special drum clinics for drum and percussion manufacturers, Yamaha, LP and Zildjian, with whom both worked on product development and education. MacDonald was always very encouraging towards other percussionists, as this writer found when he first met him in the early 1980s. In July of this year he was honoured with a Ralph MacDonald Day in Stamford.
This youtube video features composer Ralph MacDonald on percussion during the performance of his immortal Just the Two of Us by Grover Washington.