Ralph MacDonald: Grammy-winning writer and percussionist


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The Independent Online

The American percussionist and songwriter Ralph MacDonald enjoyed a lengthy career that encompassed stints as an accompanist with Harry Belafonte and Jimmy Buffett and hundreds of recording sessions with some of jazz and pop's biggest names, including George Benson, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, Paul Simon, Steely Dan and James Taylor.

However, he was best known to soul aficionados for co-writing "Where Is the Love", the sublime ballad which won Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway the Grammy award for best pop performance by a duo or group in 1973, and "Just the Two of Us", the sophisticated composition which won Grover Washington Jr and Bill Withers the Grammy award for best r'n'b song in 1982. MacDonald also issued several jazz-funk albums under his own name, including 1976's Sound of a Drum which featured the infectious instrumental "Calypso Breakdown", later included on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which itself won the Grammy award for album of the year in 1979.

The last of eight children, MacDonald was born in Harlem, New York in 1944, and owed much of his percussive prowess to his background. His childhood was steeped in the calypso music played by his bandleader father, Patrick MacDonald, with whom he occasionally sat in on congas and steel drums, and his extended Trinidadian immigrant family. He later described tips he picked up from Urias Fritz, one of five uncles who showed him the tricks of the trade: "He didn't just hit the top of the drum. He'd hit it all over for all types of sounds," said the percussionist.

By 1961, MacDonald was proficient and confident enough to replace a member of Belafonte's Steel Band on the spot. He spent a decade working with the singer, recording such bestselling albums as The Many Moods of Belafonte, Streets I Have Walked and Belafonte at the Greek Theatre and eventually became his musical director. When he disputed his employer's King of Calypso credentials, the good-natured Belafonte put him on the spot. "Fine kid – if you know so much because your father was a calypso singer, then you write me a song," he quipped. MacDonald took the bait and, with his friend and bandmate William Salter, penned, arranged and conducted much of Calypso Carnival, one of Belafonte's finest albums.

In the early Seventies, MacDonald became a New York session regular and contributed to recordings by both Flack and Hathaway, as well as their joint album for Atlantic which was one track short. He put forward "Where Is the Love", a composition he and Salter had originally intended to pitch to the Los Angeles vocal group The 5th Dimension. Flack and Hathaway's soulful interplay and Arif Mardin's deft production transformed the song into an easy listening and r'n'b standard. "When Donny and Roberta started to sing, it really began to take shape. From the time that we heard them, we knew it was something special," MacDonald recalled of the session. "The two of them together is one of the most fantastic experiences I have had in the music business."

"Where Is the Love" has become a staple of oldies stations, and has been covered by over 100 acts including Sergio Mendes, Liza Minnelli in 1973 and Robert Brookins featuring Stephanie Mills in 1989; it was also sampled by Nate Dogg for "Never Leave Me Alone" in 1996. MacDonald included his own version on Sound of a Drum in 1976. By then, he had placed further material with Flack and started a long association with Washington Jr. With Salter, he provided the title tracks of both the Mister Magic and Feels So Good crossover albums by the jazz-fusion saxophonist, though these were soon eclipsed by the two contributions they made to his 1980 album Winelight, "In the Name of Love" and most famously "Just the Two of Us", co-written with and featuring Withers on lead vocals.

Inspired by a brochure MacDonald picked up at the Trinidad and Tobago tourist board's New York office, "Just the Two of Us" remains a favourite of radio programmers and artists in need of repertoire. It also provided the basis for the Will Smith hit of the same name in 1998.

Until diagnosed with lung cancer 18 months ago, MacDonald toured with Buffett's Coral Reefer Band. He always considered he was "a musician first".

Pierre Perrone

Ralph Anthony MacDonald, percussionist, songwriter, producer: born New York 15 March 1944; twice married (two daughters, two sons); died Stamford, Connecticut 18 December 2011.