Grammy Award winning master percussionist, producer, and songwriter Ralph MacDonald passed away on December 18th at his home in Stamford, Connecticut at age 67, succumbing to complications from a stroke and lung cancer. MacDonald was a member of Jimmy Buffet's Coral Reefer band from 1986 until health problems forced him to stop touring about 18 months ago.
Ralph MacDonald, advocate of the steel pan and calypso music, died December 18 (Photo: Gary Cardinez)
MacDonald's expressive, textured percussive accents induce an array of moods on numerous hit songs recorded over the past four decades ranging from Roberta Flack's haunting "Killing Me Softly" to the dance funk of David Bowie's "Young Americans" to the laid back island cool of Buffett's "Margaritaville." His brilliant intonations also suffused albums by jazz giants Rashaan Roland Kirk and Ron Carter; veteran pop stars Bette Midler and Paul Simon and R&B icons Aretha Franklin and the late Teddy Pendergrass among others. As a soloist MacDonald released nine albums and was working towards completing another, "We Are A Family-Generations," at the time of his passing.
Ralph MacDonald performs at the Trinidad and Tobago Steel Pan and Jazz Festival (Photo: Gary Cardinez)
MacDonald co-wrote the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway hit "Where is the Love" with William Salter, which peaked at no. 5 on the Hot 100 in 1972. Collaborating with Salter and Bill Withers MacDonald also composed saxophonist Grover Washington's 1981 Grammy Award winning tune "Just The Two of Us" featuring Withers on vocals and renowned Trinidadian steel pan virtuoso Robert Greenidge. The song reached no. 2 on the Hot 100. Ostensibly a romantic declaration "Just the Two of Us" is actually MacDonald's ode to his parents' birthplace, Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) whose indigenous calypso and steel pan music provided a source of profound inspiration throughout his illustrious career.
Born in Harlem on March 15, 1944, MacDonald's enthusiastic promotion of T&T's native sounds is evidenced on several of his most lauded songs. His epic 17-minute track "The Path" traces the evolution of drumming styles from the African homeland through various destinations with a Trinidadian sojourn signified through a prominent steel pan solo.
Calypso was a central influence upon several of MacDonald's hits including "Calypso Breakdown" from his 1976 debut solo album "Sound of a Drum" (Marlin Records). Summoning the raucous rhythms heard at Trinidad carnival's jouvert morning, "Calypso Breakdown" was an audacious inclusion on the 1977 Bee Gees dominated soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, which reached no. 1 on the Top 200 and was certified 15 times platinum; the song earned MacDonald two Grammys as a performer and a producer.
"Ralph's love of calypso influenced his compositions and arrangements; his incorporation of the steel pan in his monumental single "The Path" and the exposure he brought the pan on "Just The Two of Us" makes him one of the most important persons in the instrument's continuing journey towards international mainstream acceptance," explained Mortimer Baptiste, Coordinator of the Youth Jazz Workshops at the Trinidad and Tobago Steel Pan and Jazz Festival, held annually in Port of Spain.
MacDonald's father, Patrick, known professionally as Macbeth the Great was one of the first calypsonians to find an audience in the United States. Based in Harlem where he led a 12-piece band called the Creole Rhythm Boys, Macbeth became extremely popular in New York City, recording for the Monogram and Time labels throughout the 1950s, at the height of the calypso boom in America. MacDonald's musical career began as a child performing alongside his father who would oftentimes have him dance on top of a drum set.
At just 17 years old, MacDonald was hired as a percussionist and steel pan player in Harry Belafonte's band. He remained with Belafonte for the next decade and eventually became his musical director. The New York born, Jamaica-raised Belafonte built his reputation singing sanitized versions of calypso, devoid of the topical issues and biting commentary synonymous with the Trinidadian brand.
MacDonald told Belafonte that the singer needed authentic calypso in his repertoire. He wrote several songs celebrating Trinidad's elaborate, multifaceted Carnival season which birthed calypso, the steel pan and other genres native to the twin island republic, which Belafonte recorded for the album "Calypso Carnival" (RCA Records), released in 1971. MacDonald's tracks "Don't Stop the Carnival" and "Out de Fire" quickly became popular additions to the singer's live act. MacDonald was a frequent visitor to Trinidad and a regular carnival participant often providing percussion for his favorite steel (pan) orchestra Desperadoes.
As a guest on New York based Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles' album "Kaiso" (Culture Shock Music) released earlier this year, featuring graceful jazz arrangements of classic calypso, MacDonald's awe-inspising contributions on the iconic Lord Kitchener's "Sugar Bum Bum" or king Sparrow's "Rose" represent his lifelong passion for music overall and T&T's music in particular. "Ralph loved T&T and took calypso and steel pan infused sounds worldwide with his music and classic songs," Etienne Charles commented. "From start to finish, he paid homage to his heritage."