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Ralph MacDonald

I first met Ralph MacDonald at the recording session of Les McCann's album Layers in 1973. I heard about him from others who said he was the "cat." At this time I was very focused on the Latin scene and I was not aware of percussionists who played other music.

Ralph had the leadership and authority in the studio that enabled him to make significant contribute to Les's recording. As I understand it, the Layers recording eventually used 48 tracks of analog sound, much of it Ralph's percussive creations. In Ralph I saw the self-confidence that impressed me. In addition to his self-confidence, Ralph had leadership. Soon after this first meeting, Ralph created Rosebud Recording Studio from scratch. Many hit albums were created. including Grover Washington, Jr.'s Winelight. Ralph already had established the Antisia publishing office in 1969 where, along with co-writers Bill Salter and Bill Eaton, he composed a couple hundred songs.

Ralph tells a story of how he essentially invented the use of incidental percussion accessories "toys" when he was working with Harry Belefonte. With Harry, he used conga for the Caribbean section of the show. Rather than sit around doing nothing during Harry's folk music section, Ralph began decorating the music with cowbells, tambourines, and triangles -- musical colors that would fit the mood of the song. For example, he would give a harsh percussive sound to Vietnam War protest songs which were popular then. For the ballads, he would have a warmer, sweeter sound. Until this time, no one was doing this in pop music. If you could hit it and it made a sound, Ralph would usually find something to use it for. I once had a barrel of percussion items from Ghana, Africa. One consisted of two parts, both made from heavy iron. I called them African Castanets. One half was a ring and the other was a hollow form, almost the shape of an acorn. I couldn't give them away. Nobody knew what to do with them. I even had them nickel plated hoping it would add to their appeal. Nothing helped. Then one day Ralph was walking around my warehouse in Palisades Park, NJ. When he spotted the African Castanets, he saw the value in them and immediately used them on his recordings. The barrel was soon empty. Unfortunately, I have not been able to get a reliable source since.

When it comes to tambourine playing, Ralph is number one. His style is copied by every percussionist in the world. He got this particular style by watching an opening gospel act for Belefonte. A woman singer played a very unique tambourine pattern on her butt. Ralph liked it so much, he developed the technique to play on his hand. In a similar way, Ralph created a beat on the congas that so many people attach to his name. As he pointed out to me when I met with him in his expansive home in Stamford, CT, the Cuban patterns didn't really fit with the fat back rhythms which he was playing with the "A" team of studio guys His pattern fit better and it is part of significant recording from the early 1970's until the present. Ralph didn't get much respect from the Latin percussionists like Ray Barretto and Tito Puente.That changed when one of Antisia's tunes, "Calypso Breakdown" composed by Bill Eaton was placed on the hugely successful Saturday Night Fever album. This album sold approximately 47 million copies. The rhythm for it was provided by LP Fiberglass Congas. As a matter of fact, Ralph has used LP Fiberglass Congas for the better part of his career as did his recently departed Uncle Boogs who played a Heineken Beer bottle on this highly successful tune. At 5 cents a copy, the office made millions of dollars. One day walking down Broadway in New York Ralph encountered the same Latin percussionists who snubbed him in earlier years. They were suddenly willing to recognize the "Brother" who made all that money.

This "A" team consisted of a rhythm section of Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Eric Gale, and Chuck Rainey. They worked everywhere. They played any kind of music and could play it the first time through as if they played this music all their lives. Ralph taught himself to read music from books he bought on the road while touring with Belefonte. Richard and Eric died of cancer and by the time the 1980's came along, the era of busy studio work had ended. This is largely due to the ability for one to make high quality recordings in home studios. While Ralph acknowledges that the sounds from these studios are good, he defies any keyboard player to play a percussion part better than he could. Without doubt this is true because so much demo work that Ralph used to be a part of, now one musician can do using the latest technology. Unfortunately the feel isn't there so when the project does come to the final stages of production, a live percussionist is called in. Nevertheless, a substantial amount of work has been lost to technology.

Ralph's father was a band leader who's band was called The Great MacBeth.This band's style of music was derived from his father's birthplace of Trinidad. These performances were so often opposite Latin bands such as Tito Puente, Machito, Arsenio Rodriguez. When Ralph was just a kid he saw all the great conga drummers but there was one that he most admired. This is LP endorser Armando Peraza. One day while Ralph was working in Japan, the Santana Band was working there as well and as Ralph was about to go on stage, he learned that Armando was in the audience. For the first time, Ralph felt a moment of self doubt which he expressed to fellow band member Steve Gadd. With words of encouragement from Steve, Ralph went out and gave it his all. After the show Armando congratulated him for his fine playing. Ralph will never forget this moment.

Fortunately for Ralph he is a writer of enduring songs -- love songs, Songs which will last for ever such as "Where Is The Love," "Just The Two of Us," and "Mr. Magic." These songs continue to provide him with a good living while he produces albums that he likes and albums that the Japanese like. Two of these albums have been released in Japan, a third on the way. Perhaps, the people in the United States will be able to hear the beautiful recordings of Ralph and understand you cannot replace the groove of Mr. Ralph MacDonald. He has been my close friend for nearly 25 years.

To learn more about Ralph MacDonald, CLICK HERE.


Grace MacDonald, Matthew Cohen and Ralph in the LP® photo studio.

One of the musicians that Ralph MacDonald has the most admiration for is Tom Scott. Tom's instrument is reeds but it is the overall musicianship that really impresses Ralph. He likes to talk about the demands placed on Tom when he conducts the orchestra for the Grammy Awards. Until the winner of the tune is announced, none of the orchestra members knows what tune to play so it is an instant that the band must play the correct tune. Tom in someone who can do this.
Tom's father was a renowned composer of TV music and did the music for the show Lassie. Since dialogue was little, the demands on the music was great. No doubt growing up in a musical household.