Tribute to Ralph Mac Donald

MacDonald’s music played throughout the night at the home of councillor Cleveland Garcia, while guests paid their respects in words, emotionally at times. Those guests included Raf Robertson, Dennis “Sprangalang” Hall, Holly Thomas, Carl “Beaver” Henderson, Victor Griffith, Witco Desperadoes’ Manager, Finbar Fletcher and other members of the band, and Mrs Greenidge, mother of TT pan ambassador Robbie, on whose request the event was held.

Both Greenidge and MacDonald shared years of musical history playing with the Jimmy Buffest Band, the New York All Stars, the Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, and on each other’s recordings.

At one point in the night, guests took anything to make music and jammed one for Ralph to the sound of his famous “Calypso Vibrations”.

Born March 15, 1944 to Trinidadian Patrick MacDonald, the internationally acclaimed musician had been suffering from the effects of a stroke and lung cancer in recent years. He was one of the most significant contributors to the jazz music explosion of our time.

It has been said that the mentorship of his father, a calypsonian who went by the stage name “Macbeth the Great”, influenced the younger MacDonald’s musical talent, particularly with the steelpan, and when he was 17 he landed a job playing pan for the Harry Belafonte’s steel band show for the next decade. After telling Belafonte that the singer needed more authentic calypso music, he wrote an album of songs that Belafonte recorded as Calypso Carnival in 1966.

He remained with the Belafonte outfit for a decade before deciding to strike out on his own, though the following year (1967), together with Bill Eaton and William Salter, he formed the Antisia Music Incorporated in Stamford, Connecticut.

MacDonald inked his way in the annals of international stardom in 1971, when he wrote with Salter, “Where Is the Love”, recorded by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. The duo won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. The single was awarded gold status and sold more than one million copies. MacDonald played on the session for the song.

Perhaps his best known compositions were “Just the Two of Us” a mega-hit sung by Bill Withers and “Mr Magic”, performed by saxophonist, Grover Washington, Jr, but it was his “Calypso Breakdown” on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album which got locals to pay closer attention to MacDonald’s music.

The pulsating rhythms on that track reflected all that is TT and the Caribbean, and it was indeed a breakthrough of our music in that international market. MacDonald won Grammy Awards as a performer and producer for that Saturday Night Fever sound track.

However the story behind “Just the Two of Us” is also most interesting. The inspiration for the song came to MacDonald after a glossy brochure in the showcase of a Trinidad and Tobago Tourist Board New York office caught his eye.

On the cover of the brochure was a picture of a girl on a warm sunny Tobago beach inviting the US tourist to come to the twin-isle tropical state to “discover the both of us”. It must have at once brought back a yearning for home, as MacDonald immediately began humming a melody built upon lyrics centred around the catchy phrase:

“I see the crystal raindrops fall

And the beauty of it all

Is when the sun comes shining through

To make those rainbows in my mind

And I think of you sometime

And I want to spend sometime with you.

Just the two of us...”

The song has since been covered by many artistes, including Will Smith, but the American artist suffered for it, claiming that he’d composed the song. After reaching number one on the Billboard chart, MacDonald sued and the song was shot down while he was paid all the royalties.

MacDonald also recorded with the likes of Burt Bacharach, George Benson on his 1976 album, Breezin,’ David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Art Garfunkel, Billy Joel, Quincy Jones, Miriam Makeba, David Sanborn, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, James Taylor, Luther Vandross, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Bob James, Ashford and Simpson, Nana Mouskouri, The Average White Band, Hall and Oates, The Brothers Johnson, and Jimmy Buffett. He also played percussion on Carole King’s 1975 album, Thoroughbred, saxophonist Amy Lee’s CD Use Me and worked on Looking Glass’ 1973 album Subway Serenade.

Although a man in heavy demand and moving amongst the stars of show business, MacDonald never abandoned his roots, for he regularly made the pilgrimage with his friend Greenidge, back to his ancestral home, if only to renew his creative genius by re-immersion in the steelpan crucible, particularly on the hills of Laventille, with ten-time National Steelband Panorama champions Deperadoes Steel Band, with whom he played whenever he got the opportunity, “beating iron” in “The Engine Room”.

The TT launch of his Trippin CD has been regarded by many as the best international concert on local soil to date. It was sheer perfection and magnificence.

MacDonald was a working musician as well as a writer and producer until health problems sidelined him a year and a half ago. MacDonald is survived by his wife, Grace, and four children. His funeral will take place today in the US.


"Tribute to Ralph Mac Donald"

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