Session musicians spend most of their time in recording studios. They may appear on multitude of album credits, even successful and best-selling albums, and still remain unknown to the public at large. Ralph MacDonald is one of these session men, with credits galore that most aspiring musicians can only dream of. However unlike most of his colleagues, MacDonald also wrote very successful hit songs throughout his career. This not only brought him financial rewards, but it also enabled him to release records under his own name, produce and arrange for others. As he became well known in the music industry, popular artists wanted his services and he increasingly worked in the styles of pop, easy listening and light music in general. For me, though, his most enduring talent is the one he started with – playing percussion. “I’m not one of those people who plays on cue. I’ve got my own cue” he said about his style. Indeed, many artists and producers trusted him to apply that style to their recordings, usually with very little guidance. They just wanted Ralph MacDonald to come to the studio and sprinkle his percussion magic over their songs and make them sound better. In this article we will cover highlights from Ralph MacDonald’s impressive career and discover that magic.
Like Jay Berliner, the topic of the previous article on this blog, Ralph MacDonald started his professional career with Harry Belafonte. His website bio page tells the story: “At 17, Ralph helped a friend carry his steel drums into an audition for legendary performer Harry Belafonte. The friend got the gig, and MacDonald became a regular at rehearsals. When one of the players in Belafonte’s Steel Band was late for a rehearsal, Ralph brashly declared his ability to play, and wound up getting the job. Thus began a 10 year stint with Belafonte that schooled MacDonald in the music business. It also introduced him to songwriter Bill Salter, and the two began writing together to fill time on the road. At one point, young MacDonald had the nerve to tell Harry Belafonte that despite all the gold records on the wall, Belafonte didn’t really know what Calypso was. Belafonte said ‘Fine kid – if you know so much because your father was a Calypso singer, then you write me a song.’ MacDonald delivered an album of songs”. Indeed the album Calypso Carnival, released in 1971, is full of rhythms executed much more authentically than previous Belafonte albums. The melodies and arrangements on some of the tunes are questionable, as they had to accommodate the singer’s easy-listening audience, but on some songs you get the real thing, for example Chinita, a bona fide Afro Latin ditty.
Also in 1971 MacDonald participated in flutist Herbie Mann’s album Push Push. In an impossible attempt to make a man with a flute look sexy, Mann is photographed on the front cover with no cover, at least from the waist up, and a flute on his shoulder. The album definitely tried to capture the minds of youth of the day, featuring a version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, released the same year. Guitarist on the album is none other than Duane Allman. The two met when Mann was recording at Muscle Shoals the previous year. It would be one of the gifted guitarist’s last recording sessions before dying tragically in a motorcycle crash later that year. Here is the track Push Push, demonstrating both Ralph MacDonald’s signature conga drum rhythms and a fine solo by Allman at 3:18.
1972 was a milestone year for MacDonald and a financially rewarding one, yielding his first big hit Where Is the Love, sang as a duet by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. In 1971 MacDonald did a few sessions for Roberta Flack and played her some of his tunes. One of the songs was intended for the vocal group the Fifth Dimension but Flack had an eye on it and quickly recorded it with Donny Hathaway. The single shot to number 1 on the Billboard chart. Not my cup of tea, but it gave MacDonald a Grammy as the writer of the song, and more importantly secured him financially for years to come. MacDonald continued to work with Roberta Flack on all her most enduring songs such as The Closer I Get to You, The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face and Killing Me Softly.
The 1970s was a great time for studio musicians in New York. Every year during that decade Ralph MacDonald appeared on a score of albums, many of them selling well for their respective artists. In 1972 he also worked with Bette Midler on her debut album The Divine Miss M. The up tempo song Do You Want to Dance?, previously covered by the Beach Boys and Cliff Richard, gets Miss M.’s sultry treatment with a fine conga accompaniment. Congas never sounded as alluring as this.
1973 brought a recording with the Night Tripper, aka Dr. John, who was working on the album that would make him a star. In the Right Place produced not only the track Such a Night, but also his biggest hit Right Place, Wrong Time. Ralph MacDonald did not play on these tracks, but he does a fine job on I Been Hoodood, a song that sounds more like the psychedelic New Orleans concoction that Dr. John brewed in the late 1960s.
A totally different session a year later highlights again Ralph MacDonald’s sensitive ears when working with a singer songwriter. In 1974 Phoebe Snow released her first album, a wonderful collection of songs that included the single Poetry Man, reaching number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Such were the times when a song like that could climb the charts. MacDonald plays small percussion instruments, adding color to Phoebe Snow’s beautiful vocals and guitar. Assistant sound engineer on that session was Glenn Berger, who years later wrote the excellent book Never Say No to A Rock Star, full of stories about working at the legendary A&R Studios in New York City. One of these stories covered a session with Ralph MacDonald on Poetry Man: “He put together a small wooden table with a wooden bar hanging across the top. Next he laid a few small percussion instruments on the table, two woodblocks, a string of bells, and two film cans with beads in them. On the bar he hung some chimes and a finger cymbal. Phoebe’s guitar picked the intro. Ralph hit the chimes: sparkle. Then the finger cymbal: ting. Then he tapped the bells: chik, chik. In the second verse he added the woodblocks: tick, tock. Ralph finished the first take and asked to put on another layer. This time he shook the film can with beads. He interweaved this rhythmically with his first track. Shak, shak. Then on the chorus, he added a third layer: shaka, shaka, shaka, shaka. By the second chorus, all these accents played off one another, in shimmering play of colorful sound. His playing was spare, tasteful, brilliant. I knew I had just witnessed a simple moment of sublime creation.”
1975 brings us to more work with New York City’s finest studio musicians on Paul Simon’s album Still Crazy After All These Years. MacDonald continues to demonstrate his sensibility in adding sounds and textures to enhance the songs. On I Do It For Your Love, just a few notes on wood blocks add so much. He later said of Paul Simon, with whom he continued to work on albums such as One Trick Pony and Graceland: “He sings such pretty songs, it’s a challenge to enhance that without overdoing it.”
In 1976 George Benson hit the jackpot after signing with Warner Bros. Records and releasing the album Breezin’. Now a smooth jazz standard, it topped the Pop, Jazz and R&B album charts and became a certified triple Platinum record. Ralph MacDonald played an important part in it and his conga drums groove in the title song gave it that laid back feeling that made it so successful. Benson was full of praise for the percussionist: “Ralph is one of the greatest percussionists in the world. He’s delicate with the feel of music and not just someone banging out the rhythm.”
The second part of the 1970s was the most successful for Ralph MacDonald. Disco was at its peak in 1977 when the movie Saturday Night Fever came out. Three songs by The Bee Gees spent a total of 15 weeks at the top of the Hot 100 Billboard chart, with younger sibling Andy adding 9 more weeks at the top. Ralph MacDonald found his way into that smash hit with his own tune Calypso Breakdown, a marriage between his calypso grooves and disco. When an album sells 45 million copies with one of your songs on it you are doing alright.
In addition to caching in on the disco craze, MacDonald did not lose his tasteful touch in 1977. He played on Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are from his album The Stranger. The hit ballad was the singer’s first US Top 10 and UK Top 20 single. The song is famous for the saxophone solo by alto great Phil Woods, but pay attention to Ralph MacDonald. The tasty hits on triangle, wood block, shaker. Those little things escape the ears of most radio listeners, but they contribute greatly to the feel of the song. In an interview to Modern Drummer magazine in July 2004, Macdonald talked about the art of working on a song: “I approach music and percussion playing as a songwriter. There’s a form to any song – you have an introduction, a verse, a chorus, there might be a bridge, then you go back to the verse, then back to the chorus, then fade. The introduction doesn’t sound like the verse. The verse doesn’t sound like the chorus. And the chorus doesn’t sound like the bridge. They’re all different moods. I would never play something in the introduction and continue playing it throughout the whole song, which a lot of guys do. I approach each section differently.”
Time for the oddity in this collection of highlights from Ralph MacDonald’s career. Lots of different styles have been covered here, but progressive rock was not one of them. A completely separate scene altogether from the one happening in the New York Studios in the 1970s, the mostly English and European genre was at its peak in the early 1970s and certainly in sharp decline towards the end of the decade. One of the groups familiar to European audiences was the Dutch band Focus, who in 1971 had an unlikely hit with the song Hocus Pocus, an energetic tour de force of guitars, drums and yodeling. Yes, yodeling. The brain behind this small masterpiece was flutist, keyboardist and yodeler Thijs van Leer, who in 1978 came to New York to record his solo album Nice to Have Met You. The album includes great musicians such as Michael and Randy Brecker, Harvey Mason, Anthony Jackson, Richard Tee and many others. Here is their take on Hocus Pocus, as energetic as the original, this time with Ralph MacDonald on his percussion toys and that indispensable yodel solo.
Ralph MacDonald co-produced that album with Tom Scott. The gifted saxophonist, composer, arranger and conductor who formed the LA Express in the early 1970s released the album Blow It Out the previous year, featuring Ralph MacDonald. The percussionist expressed his admiration for Tom Scott, mentioning the demands placed on Scott at the Grammy Awards years later, when he was conducting the orchestra. The winners are announced to the band at the same time as the rest of the audience, forcing the conductor and the musicians to play the correct tune at the drop of a hat. Skill is paramount in these situations.
In 1978 Ralph MacDonald released a second album under his own name, The Path. Full of rhythms from around the world, the first side is one lengthy piece of music divided into three parts. Drummer Idris Muhammad is here as well, playing log drums. The two collaborated earlier in the 1970s on Muhammad’s album Power of Soul. An interesting quote from the drummer: “I don’t like percussion players. They get in the way. It seems like every time I get ready to playing something good, they get to banging some shit. I can’t play good with percussion players. The only guy I can play with who always comes in and does his stuff right is Ralph MacDonald. Ralph MacDonald is the only percussionist I know that I really enjoy playing with.”
And we close the lid on the 1970s with another big hit that benefited from the services of Ralph MacDonald. That was the time when jazz, soul and pop converged to create what later became known as smooth jazz. One of the most successful artists in that genre was sax player Grover Washington Jr. The genre is hardly a favorite of mine, but I can listen to Washington’s more groovy pieces of music during a lapse. 1980 was his breakthrough year with the release of the album Winelight, including the smash hit Just the Two of Us, sang by Bill Withers who co-wrote the song with the winning team of William Salter and Ralph MacDonald. Withers’ velvety voice works well here, and Macdonald starts with congas, but later adds more layers with cowbells and other instruments. Three weeks at number 2 on Billboard’s Top 100. Not bad for a song with almost two minutes of sax solo.
Before I end this article, I want to leave you with a video clip of a live performance by Ralph MacDonald. Unlike many studio musicians who spent most of their time away from the limelight and camera lens, MacDonald can be found on a number of live performances from that period, so I have the opportunity to share his mastery with video footage. Here is a show recorded on June 27, 1981 in Philadelphia from a Grover Washington Jr. concert, with a stellar band including Eric Gale on guitar, Richard Tee on fender Rhodes, Anthony Jackson on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. In the liner notes to his 1978 album Sounds…and Stuff Like That!! Quincy Jones thanks “THE BEST RHYTHM SECTION IN THE ENTIRE WORLD: Ralph MacDonald, Steve Gadd, Eric Gale, Richard Tee, Anthony Jackson” (capitalization as in the original). I can’t argue with this praise. Here is Mister Magic, written by Ralph MacDonald for the 1975 album of the same name by Grover Washington. MacDonald takes a solo that starts at 5:24, followed by a Steve Gadd solo. Amazing how much groove he could generate with just a cowbell.
And one last clip, this time the man himself summarizing his career at NAMM in 2008:
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