Ralph MacDonald: Grammy-winning writer and percussionist

 

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003