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
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.
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
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.
"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.
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
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
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.
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